Energy Storage Sector Gets Boost from Berkeley Lab

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that conducts a variety of research for DOE’s Office of Science, is a hotbed of energy storage and battery research and innovations. That’s according to panelists at San Francisco’s Cleantech Forum in March.

Doug Davenport, program manager at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said his lab has arguably the best concentration of battery scientists anywhere. Lithium ion technology started there, for example. And it is looking into myriad applications, including flow batteries for the grid, energy storage and buildings.

Only a daily basis, Berkeley scientists are looking at underlying gaps in performance, like how to make a battery in a car perform as well as a gas engine. Transportation is a big focus for the lab, including the Batteries for Alternative Transportation Technology program. But it is also looking at material applications and different configurations for more efficient charging, Davenport said. And the proliferation of mobile devices means a huge market for lithium ion batteries.

In addition to lithium-ion batteries, Berkeley is also working on grid-scale batteries, including a hydrogen bromine battery based on fuel cells.

“It’s pretty far out there, but if you can look at fuel cells as a grid resource, using various chemistries, there is going to be economic opportunity down the road,” Davenport says.

According to Davenport, the challenge is that these scientists are working in labs rather than within companies that have products to bring to market. Because of this gap, Berkeley formed a partnership with the California Clean Energy Fund to create a consortium that will allow companies better access to the lab to help accelerate their development efforts. The California Clean Energy Fund is an evergreen fund-of-funds structured as a nonprofit.

Dan Adler, president of the California Clean Energy Fund, or CalCEF, has been active in VC for seven years and said he has seen interest in battery storage from the beginning because of its classic venture profile and market applications in consumer electronics, transportation and grid assets.

Adler said VC isn’t the standalone solution for the storage industry – policy changes are needed for cleantech overall and for storage specifically.

When Berkeley called about working together, Adler said it wanted to provide technical development for the marketplace, as well as structured thinking about where the markets are going, what’s driving them to develop, what the connective tissue across the total economics of transportation and the grid storage market is, what’s beyond batteries and how to raise the profile of storage as a solution to reinforce policy strategies to get storage to the next level.

Adler said companies don’t know how to value storage, which impacts the financing of grid-level projects.

He also said the industry needs to be thinking forward about what a grid-scale asset looks like and to embrace more market segmentation to let different technologies through for various platforms including: consumer electronics, transportation and the grid.

A few years out, Davenport said lithium battery technology innovation will be about replacing carbon as the key material. There are many irons in the fire and one transition from carbon could be graphene, which has greater surface area to allow lithium ions to move back and forth which enhances performance. Davenport said he is starting to see startups look at these advanced batteries, but it takes years and a lot of money to get them from concept to applications stage.  When pressed to divulge specific lithium technology start-up companies he thought were interesting, he named PolyPlus as a company he thinks is at the cutting edge of innovation in the space.

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