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In the race for batteries, one researcher has seen it all




Much of the technology behind the batteries that power electric vehicles and smartphones came from the United States. Most batteries are made by Asian companies that use materials made in China.

Susan Babinec is trying to put the United States in front again on batteries. She has been one of the leading American battery researchers for more than 20 years and believes that pioneering science will make it happen.

“Everyone knows what the effort is,” Babinec said. As batteries become more sophisticated, “we play for the strength of the United States. We are bad scientists. “

Ms. Babinec has played key roles in the rise, fall and rise again of the US battery industry. She is currently the head of battery research and development at the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, and holds more than 50 patents. She has done stints with the federal government, the most famous failed battery startup and the chemical giant Dow Chemical.

The transition away from fossil fuels has triggered a global arms race to improve battery technology. Better batteries will extend the range and make charging electric cars faster. They would allow solar and wind power to power the electricity grid even after the wind stops and the sun goes down.

Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., Are developing prototype electrodes and cells in a dry room.

The United States has fallen far behind in batteries. China accounts for 79% of lithium-ion cell production, compared with 7% in the United States and 7% in Europe, according to Wood Mackenzie. China produces about 80% of the chemicals used in lithium-ion batteries, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which tracks the battery supply chain.

The Biden administration and private investors are trying to turn this around. They finance the start-up of batteries, develop lithium mines in the United States and aim to cut the cost of batteries for the electrical grid by 90% over the course of the decade.

Ms. Babinec’s first close encounter with electricity occurred when she stuck a pair of scissors in a light socket when she was a child. She was briefly knocked unconscious and woke up on the other side of the room. She darkened her house, but was unharmed.

She joined Dow Chemical in 1979 after obtaining a degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin and became the chemical giant’s first female business fellow, the highest level scientist at the company, in 1998. She also worked for Dow’s venture capital group, where she gained experience developing new businesses.

The Dow leadership asked her to put together an energy strategy. She quickly landed on batteries, which she thought suited well for a large manufacturer of chemicals and materials. “I saw it was going to be a big material game, and Dow was a material company,” she said.

Experiments with battery design at Argonne are done on a very small scale in controlled environments.

Demand increased from laptops and mobile phones. Shortly afterwards, researchers at Argonne applied for a patent for what would become one of the dominant types of lithium-ion batteries. Money began to flow to start up batteries.

Ms. Babinec wanted Dow to buy an alternative energy company called T / J Technologies, which specializes in nanomaterials. Dow passed on the deal and a hot battery boot called A123 Systems picked it up.

Frustrated by the slow pace of change at Dow, she joined the A123 in 2007. She worked at the company’s research institute in Ann Arbor, Mich., And looked forward to the freewheel culture for a start. Her second day on the job, a pipe broke and she helped fix it. “If I was at the Dow, I would have to call the union and it would take weeks to fix it,” she said.

“We play for the strength of the United States. We are bad scientists. “


– Susan Babinec, Argonne National Laboratory

The A123 suffered a series of setbacks. Electric vehicles failed to take off in the United States despite the rise of Tesla Inc.,

and battery technology advanced more slowly than expected. A defect was found in one of the company’s batteries, which led to a recall and millions of dollars in losses. Mrs Babinec’s group found out what the problem was. “I will never forget that day,” she said.

The company declared bankruptcy in 2012, and Babinec was briefly without a job. It marked the beginning of a years-long drought in the financing of clean energy projects in the United States. The high-profile collapse of solar power startup Solyndra in 2011 and dirt-cheap natural gas prices that undermined the need to move away from fossil fuels drained investor enthusiasm. for clean energy. The Chinese government, meanwhile, pushed in batteries and the materials that go into them, such as cobalt and lithium.

About a month after the A123 failed, Babinec joined the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E. Modeled on the Ministry of Defense’s research arm, ARPA-E funds early innovation projects. With tight private funding, Babinec helped direct $ 120 million to a number of battery companies over a six-year period.

Lithium prices rise as demand for the key ingredient in electric car batteries grows, amid a broader pressure to move away from oil and gas. But the extraction of the metal is time consuming and potentially harmful to the environment, and plans to produce more have created protests. Photo: STR / Getty Images, Oliver Bunic / AFP / Getty Images

Among the battery companies Babinec helped finance were: Natron Energy, which is developing a rechargeable battery that uses plenty of sodium instead of lithium, which is more difficult to obtain; Sila Nanotechnologies Inc., a Silicon Valley startup that raised $ 590 million in new funding in January 2021; and Ion Storage Systems, a developer of so-called solid-state batteries that can last longer than today’s standard technology.

Babinec’s business background proved to be valuable to researchers with little experience outside the laboratory. Eric Wachsman, a professor of chemistry at the University of Maryland and founder of Ion Storage Systems, said that when he performed an experiment on his battery materials, she made him do it twice more with increasing precision before she was satisfied. “She’s a foreman,” he said.

Ion Storage plans to produce more than one million mobile phone-sized batteries annually from the facility in Maryland as of 2023. The company has a contract to develop batteries for the U.S. Army and envisages producing a battery for electric vehicles in several years.

The outside of Argonne’s massive Advanced Photon Source, which houses X-rays that scan all points in a battery.

Ms. Babinec left ARPA-E in 2018 and started in Argonne, taking the lead in its stationary energy storage program, including a focus on long-lasting batteries. Argonne is a descendant of the Chicago laboratory where Enrico Fermi worked on nuclear reactions for the Manhattan project.

Long-lasting batteries, often massive in scale, capture the intermittent power generated by wind turbines and solar energy. They can distribute energy over longer periods, such as several days, as customers need it. Lithium-ion batteries, on the other hand, can only be charged for four or five hours. Much of the technology is still expensive and untested on a large scale, but an electrical network powered by renewable energy is impossible without it.

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A secret weapon for researchers at Argonne is the Advanced Photon Source, a massive high-energy X-ray machine that allows scientists to look inside the batteries while they work. The device can help detect new chemical combinations to maximize battery performance. An ongoing upgrade that will be completed over the next few years will make it 500 times brighter, Argonne researchers said.

Last summer, inside a hermetically sealed room deep inside Argonne’s vast laboratory complex, Babinec pointed to a machine that slowly covered a copper plate with a thin slurry of graphite, an important lithium-ion battery material.

When she thinks back to the error of the A123, Babinec said that the process had to be perfect. Otherwise, she said, “You can ruin a company.”

Write to Scott Patterson at scott.patterson@wsj.com

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