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Over the past decade plenty of investors have been burnt trying to pick the battery technology that will power the era of electric cars. Jeff Chamberlain reckons the stakes are even higher.
For a decade, the 52-year-old played a pivotal role managing battery research at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, the US government’s top laboratory for the technology. Now, Mr Chamberlain has swapped public service for the private sector in an effort to ensure the US stays competitive in the fast-changing field of energy storage and battery technologies that China is pouring resources into.
Mr Chamberlain is now running Volta Energy Technologies. Backed by Albemarle, one of the world’s largest lithium producers, and US utility Exelon, the fund’s ambition is to invest in those companies whose battery technologies will triumph in the global battle to dominate electric cars and energy storage. The global supply of batteries for electric cars and energy storage is expected to more than double by 2020, according to analysts at Bernstein.
“We have to compete with that [China] as an American society, with that different culture of government money,” Mr Chamberlain said. “I’m not saying we need to do that, but we need to compete. We believe we’ve found the model to do that.”
Chicago-based Volta, which was launched last month, enters a market that over the past 12 months has seen a surge in the price of those metals considered key to the future of electric car batteries. The price for cobalt, for example, which is used in most lithium-ion batteries and is mainly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has risen by more than 100 per cent over the past year.
Today’s lithium-ion batteries have barely changed since being introduced by Sony more than a quarter of a century ago. For Mr Chamberlain, the frenzied price rises in certain metals add urgency to the quest to find new technologies.
“We have already found innovations that can help industry move away from those metals,” he explains. “The market is growing so quickly there’s enormous opportunity. The innovation pipeline is so full right now that it’s actually chaotic.”
Lithium-ion batteries will “remain king” in electric cars for the foreseeable future, he argues, but a host of innovations and promising new materials can be used to improve that technology.
Most electric car batteries use an oxide of lithium nickel manganese and cobalt at the cathode and graphite at the anode. The “end-game” for lithium-ion batteries is likely to be a battery that uses a lithium metal at the anode and sulphur at the cathode, Mr Chamberlain argues.
“Sulphur is a very earth-abundant material, to say the least. The good news is it also holds a lot of lithium. It’s a very energy-dense material,” he says.
The use of larger batteries for storage of power from the sun and the wind also opens up opportunities for different technologies relying on different materials, such as vanadium, a metal that is currently used to strengthen steel, and sodium, he adds.
The challenge for Mr Chamberlain, who studied physical chemistry at Georgia Tech, is finding those companies that have the alchemy to turn a promising technology into something that is commercially competitive.
“What they do not teach you when you’re getting your PhD is how difficult it is to commercialise something,” says Mr Chamberlain. “Innovation itself is difficult. But on top of that, translating that innovation into a reliable, cost-effective commercial product is truly both an art and a science.”
In a sign of the global competition in the field, the UK has launched the Faraday Challenge, which has allocated almost £250m of taxpayers’ money over the next four years for battery development.
Mr Chamberlain likens the changes under way in energy technology to the information revolution. Just as information became widely available over the last two decades thanks to the internet, communities will soon be able to store renewable power locally in batteries, situated either in their homes or electric cars.
“The tipping point has occurred both in the form of technology, businesses and government policy,” Mr Chamberlain says. “We are definitely headed like a freight train to having energy storage . . . and consumers will gain access to that much like we gain access to information technology.”
But that will only happen if the right technology becomes commercially viable. Mr Chamberlain admits that venture capitalists have so far been wary that technologies developed in academic labs can make the jump to the commercial world. Volta aims to bridge that gap, and has a partnership with Mr Chamberlain’s former employer.
While at Argonne Mr Chamberlain helped generate revenue for the lab by licensing its lithium-ion battery technology to companies including General Motors, BASF and LG Chem.
“The government funds research for good, “ says Mr Chamberlain. “It’s up to the private sector in our culture to take that research and turn it into wealth generation and job creation.”