Though the obstacles to a clean energy economy are largely political, one particular technological challenge to this goal is the expense and capacity of storage batteries. The sun may shine strongly on a home rooftop, but if there is nowhere to store this energy until peak-demand in the evening, the system is not effective. However, technology may be catching up to demand. While the Tesla Powerwall hopes to be part of the solution, a new method of manufacturing lithium batteries, pioneered by MIT researchers and Cambridge-based company 24M, may cut production costs in half and open up enormous opportunities for renewable energy.
Yet-Ming Chiang, professor at MIT and co-founder of 24M, was inspired to pursue a new manufacturing method after noting inefficiencies in the status quo. “We’re reinventing the lithium ion battery,” says Chiang, “the cost of the product is too high, and the manufacturing process is too complex.” After decades of little change in how lithium batteries were produced, Chiang and his team have developed a new process that allows for a radical decrease in battery costs and increase in durability.
The new process uses fewer, thicker electrodes than in traditional lithium batteries, which allows for a simpler, more efficient battery structure. This method reduces the amount of non-functional material in the battery structure by 80% and produces lithium batteries that can be folded, bent, or punctured by bullets without failing. The capital investment for building and expanding a factory with 24M’s new process is also significantly less than traditional lithium battery manufacturing.
At least 10,000 prototype batteries have been produced at 24M’s facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Customers have been testing these new batteries since December 2014. In 2020, the company aims to begin high-volume production of grid-scale batteries for use by utilities. By that same year, Chiang estimates that 24M will be capable of producing batteries for less than $100 per kilowatt-hour of capacity, far less than the cost of contemporary batteries. Although the company is waiting to see how the electric vehicle market develops, its process may be utilized to make effective, lightweight batteries well suited for cars. Venkat Viswanathan, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, which is not involved with 24M, comments that this new process could “could do the same sort of disruption to [lithium ion] batteries manufacturing as what mini-mills did to the integrated steel mills.”