Event Recap

In an EPIC Seminar on March 11th, UChicago Provost and former Argonne Director Eric Isaacs gave his insight into the challenges and future of energy storage.

By Vasiliki Mitrakos

The growing use of battery-powered cars and push for more alternative energy are spurring a revolutionary change in how we produce and store energy. University of Chicago Provost, Eric Isaacs discussed the latest research and developments in the field of material science and energy storage at an Energy and Policy Institute of Chicago Seminar Series on March 11th.

A professor in the department of physics at the College and former director of the Argonne National Lab, Isaacs explained the science behind future alternatives for more efficient battery storage and the implications of such technological advancements primarily in the auto industry. Some of the latest figures he shared regarding estimates of battery storage and per megawatt cost of production come from studies by the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), an association of several corporations and institutions that are creating new battery-powered energy storage technologies.

The collaborative spirit of JCESR, which began about three years ago, focuses on developing new energy storage mechanisms to deal with both the rise in electric vehicle usage and the challenges of adapting power grids to handle more intermittent alternative energy.

Transportation and electricity are inextricable, especially as we move toward electric vehicles, which will require a lot of powerful battery storage and adequate charging systems, Isaacs said. While current storage options are limited, new developments in energy storage research offer several alternatives that could reduce the cost of battery production while simultaneously increasing their storage capability.

Given the projected demand for batteries by 2030 is valued at $400 billion, one of JCESR’s main goals is to produce a battery that delivers five times the energy storage at one fifth of the cost within five years. To date, the most powerful batteries are lithium-ion batteries, which are used in many electric vehicles currently on the market. But some of the new battery forms in development, such as the non-aqueous redox flow mechanism, may allow manufacturers to put more fluid material in the battery that can offer a lower production cost combined with higher energy capacity and greater flexibility, Isaacs noted.

While the power storage of such batteries is still low when compared to traditional fuel sources like coal and gasoline, there is a significant potential for reducing environmental impact if we find the right balance between electric energy production and storage, said Isaacs.

“There is a real value to loading up a car with a battery,” Isaacs said. “Simulations show that if you take the whole life cycle of oil production from the ‘well to the wheel,’ and replace it with electricity you can actually reduce oil consumption by about a third.”

Aside from developing more efficient batteries for vehicles, researchers must also look for ways to improve the current electric grid, which has yet to effectively adapt to the rising but intermittent input of alternative energy.

“Some energy companies are actually ‘throwing away’ renewable energy because they don’t have a load match in order to deal with the variability of energy production and consumption throughout the day,” Isaacs said.

While researchers have scientifically identified more powerful alternatives to today’s energy storage options, there remain various safety and production cost challenges, which may delay the widespread use of battery-powered energy in the market. But in the long run, Isaacs said, moving toward battery-powered electricity and reducing our dependency on coal and oil will be influenced more so by the limitations of policy and regulation rather than those of science and technology.

Event Description

Cost: Free

Bethel Haile: bhaile@uchicago.edu