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Manufacturing R&D facility accelerates battery technology

Competitive advantage


“Our facility allows (manufacturers) to keep control of their intellectual property, demonstrate their technology in a complete battery, and benchmark its performance against other commercially available materials. It’s all about growing the domestic supply chain for energy storage devices.”

We live in a battery-powered world, and the competition to produce reliable, longer lasting batteries for phones, computers and electric vehicles is fierce. Fortunately, US manufacturers are getting a boost from ORNL in the form of the country’s largest open-access battery manufacturing research and development facility. The Battery Manufacturing Facility is strategically collocated with both the lab’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and National Transportation Research Center. The MDF is a state-of-the-art research and development center designed to advance manufacturing technology and give American business a competitive edge in the global market. The NTRC houses much of ORNL’s transportation research, from engine development and power electronics to fuel cells and other alternative fuel technologies.

The BMF adds tremendously to ORNL’s existing energy storage material processing capabilities, providing scientists with the ability to analyze every aspect of battery production, from raw materials to finished product.

The facility is available to any US battery manufacturer, material supplier or battery user. “The advantage we offer,” says Claus Daniel, deputy director of ORNL’s Sustainable Transportation Program and scientific head of the facility, “is the ability to integrate any component into a complete battery, analyze the results, and determine how the components can be further improved.” The battery manufacturing equipment is modular, so users can “plug-and-play” individual processes, and BMF staff can provide help and guidance every step of the way. “The idea,” he says, “is to showcase the user’s material or process improvements and to quantify the advantage they provide.”

Through the battery facility, Daniel and his colleagues are involved in collaborative R&D with a number of companies, including efforts with battery manufacturer Dow Kokam to develop next-generation materials manufacturing and processing technologies as well as a project with A123 Systems to save energy by reducing heat treatment temperatures and times.
The manufacturing facility can produce batteries with capacities up to 7 ampere hours—about seven times that of a cell phone battery. Daniel explains that his group chose that size because it’s small enough that a company with limited amounts of material can demonstrate the impact of its innovations, yet large enough to make manufacturing decisions about making larger devices. “If a battery works at that size,” Daniel says, “it can be scaled up to whatever size you want—the physics of the battery will be more or less the same.”

Not surprisingly, there has been no shortage of interest in the new facility. Daniel explains that, normally, if materials suppliers want to test a new material in a battery, they either have to stand up their own manufacturing facilities—which is cost-prohibitive and takes years—or ally themselves with a specific battery manufacturer, which often means giving the manufacturer exclusive rights to use the material being tested. “This kind of arrangement limits the supplier’s ability to disseminate the innovation broadly in the marketplace,” Daniel says. “Our facility allows them to keep control of their intellectual property, demonstrate their technology in a complete battery, and benchmark its performance against other commercially available materials. It’s all about growing the domestic supply chain for energy storage devices.”

Several companies are working on projects at the facility, and procedures are in place to ensure that companies can work at the facility without running the risk of leaking proprietary information to a competitor.

From the ground up

ORNL researchers already had a detailed vision for how they could impact battery manufacturing when they began working with the Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Program and Advanced Manufacturing Office sponsors to establish the BMF. The new facility enables scientists and engineers to access every aspect of battery manufacturing with an eye toward improving performance and reducing cost. As a result, many of the facility’s projects involve analyzing each step in a battery’s production process, looking for the opportunities to boost efficiency.

For example, because certain battery components need to be moisture-free when they are assembled, they are dried once after they’re manufactured and again just before they’re assembled. Because drying is an expensive, energy-intensive process, researchers are studying alternative methods of removing moisture that could be implemented more quickly and cheaply. Daniel says the goal in all of these efforts is twofold: to improve the science behind the materials that go into the battery and to improve the battery production process.

The biggest challenge for battery researchers is that there is no single item or step in the process that has enough cost saving potential to meet the over arching goal of making battery-powered vehicles competitive with other vehicles in terms of cost. Despite this challenge, Daniel believes that, working in partnership with industry, the research being done at the battery facility can significantly influence three aspects of battery production: cost, energy density, and production yield. “These things combined will get us to the goal,” he says.

Part of the reason for Daniel’s optimism is that, currently, batteries are about four times bigger than they need to be. This supersizing helps to ensure that as a battery’s ability to store energy lessens over the predicted 15-year life of the vehicle, it will always be able to provide the necessary power. Daniel believes ORNL scientists working with industry will be able to produce a smaller, more cost-efficient battery with greater energy density that will allow vehicles to be driven farther between charges.

Daniel is also confident that production yield—a measure of the quality of the final product—can be significantly improved. He notes that manufacturers know how to judge the quality of the raw material used to produce the battery parts, but once a battery component is assembled, they don’t have effective ways to test it until the final product is produced. “If there is a problem with an early step in the production process,” Daniel says, “the manufacturer doesn’t know about it until the finished battery fails to work.”

To address this potentially costly problem, David Wood, a scientist in Daniel’s research group, is heading the development of in-line quality-control procedures to detect flaws as early as possible, quantify them, and even repair them—improving both the quality of the final product and the manufacturer’s bottom line.

The ultimate goal

The ultimate goal in the short term, Daniel expects that research and development collaborations at the battery center will help manufacturers reach DOE’s battery cost target of $250 per kilowatt-hour. That’s about a half to a third of the cost of producing batteries today. The DOE cost target reflects both the level at which the cost of electric vehicles becomes competitive with other modes of transportation and the price point where US battery manufacturers can compete in a global marketplace dominated by Korea, Japan and China.

In the longer term, Daniel expects that the research partnerships being developed at the battery facility will contribute to developing a viable alternative to internal combustion engines for light-duty vehicles. “Right now,” he says, “electric vehicles are not drop-in replacements for gasoline-powered cars. The problem is that our whole society runs on fossil fuel, and the volatility of the price of oil is crippling our economy. If we can provide the science and manufacturing technology needed to create a battery that allows us to drive 400 miles on a single charge, then electric vehicles will become a viable option.”“That is the ultimate goal.” —Jim Pearce

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