Uncle Sam's boffins stumble upon battery storage holy grail

Eat it, Musk, Gates and Khosla

Electric cars

It's not just big, fixed storage either. ARPA-E is working on energy storage solution for electric cars. One project called BEEST – Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation – is focused on providing equivalent energy for electric vehicles as gasoline-run cars.

To do that, the project notes, "would require batteries with double the energy density and one-third the cost of today's state-of-the-art lithium-ion battery packs." Which in real terms would mean cars travelling 300-500 miles on one charge for less than $10 – a fifth of the price of gasoline.

The impact of that technology would also be revolutionary: the US spends $1bn per day on foreign oil to fuel transportation, and transportation contributes to 28 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr Musk

Dr Williams attracted some controversy when she noted that ARPA-E's projects were creating new innovative battery technologies but everyone's darling battery entrepreneur Elon Musk was just scaling up existing technology.

She said: "What Musk has done that is creative and important is drive the learning curve. He's decided to take an existing, pretty powerful battery technology and start producing it on a very large scale. But it's not technology innovation in the sense of creating new ways of doing it. We are pretty well convinced that some of our technologies have the potential to be significantly better."

She is right in that Musk's Tesla developers have not invented any new battery technology per se, but the company has rightly won plaudits for the innovative ways it has put that technology together and made it more efficient.

That said, the batteries Tesla uses have significant drawbacks – they are expensive, they supply power for relatively short periods of time (a few hours) and they have a limited lifespan, so they need to be replaced relatively frequently.

And as we have repeatedly pointed out, Musk's much-vaunted Powerwall battery packs for houses suffer from those same current battery technology constraints, resulting in a product that will struggle to boil a kettle and take 25 years to pay back its high cost.

Musk isn't the only big name attached to battery projects that ARPA-E is claiming to have leapfrogged. Bill Gates and beach-blocking VC Vinod Khosla have invested heavily in Ambri, a company that uses proprietary materials to produce what it claims is a better battery for things like phones. ®


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