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    Energy storage from a chemistry perspective

    The transition toward a more sustainable, environmentally sound electrical grid has driven an upsurge in renewables like solar and wind. But something as simple as cloud cover can cause grid instability, and wind power is inherently unpredictable. This intermittent nature of renewables has invigorated the competitive landscape for energy storage companies looking to enhance power system flexibility while enabling the integration of renewables.

    “Impact is what drives PolyJoule more than anything else,” says CEO Eli Paster. “We see impact from a renewable integration standpoint, from a curtailment standpoint, and also from the standpoint of transitioning from a centralized to a decentralized model of energy-power delivery.”

    PolyJoule is a Billerica, Massachusetts-based startup that’s looking to reinvent energy storage from a chemistry perspective. Co-founders Ian Hunter of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Tim Swager of the Department of Chemistry are longstanding MIT professors considered luminaries in their respective fields. Meanwhile, the core team is a small but highly skilled collection of chemists, manufacturing specialists, supply chain optimizers, and entrepreneurs, many of whom have called MIT home at one point or another.

    “The ideas that we work on in the lab, you’ll see turned into products three to four years from now, and they will still be innovative and well ahead of the curve when they get to market,” Paster says. “But the concepts come from the foresight of thinking five to 10 years in advance. That’s what we have in our back pocket, thanks to great minds like Ian and Tim.”

    PolyJoule takes a systems-level approach married to high-throughput, analytical electrochemistry that has allowed the company to pinpoint a chemical cell design based on 10,000 trials. The result is a battery that is low-cost, safe, and has a long lifetime. It’s capable of responding to base loads and peak loads in microseconds, allowing the same battery to participate in multiple power markets and deployment use cases.

    In the energy storage sphere, interesting technologies abound, but workable solutions are few and far between. But Paster says PolyJoule has managed to bridge the gap between the lab and the real world by taking industry concerns into account from the beginning. “We’ve taken a slightly contrarian view to all of the other energy storage companies that have come before us that have said, ‘If we build it, they will come.’ Instead, we’ve gone directly to the customer and asked, ‘If you could have a better battery storage platform, what would it look like?’”

    With commercial input feeding into the thought processes behind their technological and commercial deployment, PolyJoule says they’ve designed a battery that is less expensive to make, less expensive to operate, safer, and easier to deploy.

    Traditionally, lithium-ion batteries have been the go-to energy storage solution. But lithium has its drawbacks, including cost, safety issues, and detrimental effects on the environment. But PolyJoule isn’t interested in lithium — or metals of any kind, in fact. “We start with the periodic table of organic elements,” says Paster, “and from there, we derive what works at economies of scale, what is easy to converge and convert chemically.”

    Having an inherently safer chemistry allows PolyJoule to save on system integration costs, among other things. PolyJoule batteries don’t contain flammable solvents, which means no added expenses related to fire mitigation. Safer chemistry also means ease of storage, and PolyJoule batteries are currently undergoing global safety certification (UL approval) to be allowed indoors and on airplanes. Finally, with high power built into the chemistry, PolyJoule’s cells can be charged and discharged to extremes, without the need for heating or cooling systems.

    “From raw material to product delivery, we examine each step in the value chain with an eye towards reducing costs,” says Paster. It all starts with designing the chemistry around earth-abundant elements, which allows the small startup to compete with larger suppliers, even at smaller scales. Consider the fact that PolyJoule’s differentiating material cost is less than $1 per kilogram, whereas lithium carbonate sells for $20 per kilogram.

    On the manufacturing side, Paster explains that PolyJoule cuts costs by making their cells in old paper mills and warehouses, employing off-the-shelf equipment previously used for tissue paper or newspaper printing. “We use equipment that has been around for decades because we don’t want to create a cutting-edge technology that requires cutting-edge manufacturing,” he says. “We want to create a cutting-edge technology that can be deployed in industrialized nations and in other nations that can benefit the most from energy storage.”

    PolyJoule’s first customer is an industrial distributed energy consumer with baseline energy consumption that increases by a factor of 10 when the heavy machinery kicks on twice a day. In the early morning and late afternoon, it consumes about 50 kilowatts for 20 minutes to an hour, compared to a baseline rate of 5  kilowatts. It’s an application model that is translatable to a variety of industries. Think wastewater treatment, food processing, and server farms — anything with a fluctuation in power consumption over a 24-hour period.

    By the end of the year, PolyJoule will have delivered its first 10 kilowatt-hour system, exiting stealth mode and adding commercial viability to demonstrated technological superiority. “What we’re seeing, now is massive amounts of energy storage being added to renewables and grid-edge applications,” says Paster. “We anticipated that by 12-18 months, and now we’re ramping up to catch up with some of the bigger players.” More

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    Designing better batteries for electric vehicles

    The urgent need to cut carbon emissions is prompting a rapid move toward electrified mobility and expanded deployment of solar and wind on the electric grid. If those trends escalate as expected, the need for better methods of storing electrical energy will intensify.

    “We need all the strategies we can get to address the threat of climate change,” says Elsa Olivetti PhD ’07, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. “Obviously, developing technologies for grid-based storage at a large scale is critical. But for mobile applications — in particular, transportation — much research is focusing on adapting today’s lithium-ion battery to make versions that are safer, smaller, and can store more energy for their size and weight.”

    Traditional lithium-ion batteries continue to improve, but they have limitations that persist, in part because of their structure. A lithium-ion battery consists of two electrodes — one positive and one negative — sandwiched around an organic (carbon-containing) liquid. As the battery is charged and discharged, electrically charged particles (or ions) of lithium pass from one electrode to the other through the liquid electrolyte.

    One problem with that design is that at certain voltages and temperatures, the liquid electrolyte can become volatile and catch fire. “Batteries are generally safe under normal usage, but the risk is still there,” says Kevin Huang PhD ’15, a research scientist in Olivetti’s group.

    Another problem is that lithium-ion batteries are not well-suited for use in vehicles. Large, heavy battery packs take up space and increase a vehicle’s overall weight, reducing fuel efficiency. But it’s proving difficult to make today’s lithium-ion batteries smaller and lighter while maintaining their energy density — that is, the amount of energy they store per gram of weight.

    To solve those problems, researchers are changing key features of the lithium-ion battery to make an all-solid, or “solid-state,” version. They replace the liquid electrolyte in the middle with a thin, solid electrolyte that’s stable at a wide range of voltages and temperatures. With that solid electrolyte, they use a high-capacity positive electrode and a high-capacity, lithium metal negative electrode that’s far thinner than the usual layer of porous carbon. Those changes make it possible to shrink the overall battery considerably while maintaining its energy-storage capacity, thereby achieving a higher energy density.

    “Those features — enhanced safety and greater energy density — are probably the two most-often-touted advantages of a potential solid-state battery,” says Huang. He then quickly clarifies that “all of these things are prospective, hoped-for, and not necessarily realized.” Nevertheless, the possibility has many researchers scrambling to find materials and designs that can deliver on that promise.

    Thinking beyond the lab

    Researchers have come up with many intriguing options that look promising — in the lab. But Olivetti and Huang believe that additional practical considerations may be important, given the urgency of the climate change challenge. “There are always metrics that we researchers use in the lab to evaluate possible materials and processes,” says Olivetti. Examples might include energy-storage capacity and charge/discharge rate. When performing basic research — which she deems both necessary and important — those metrics are appropriate. “But if the aim is implementation, we suggest adding a few metrics that specifically address the potential for rapid scaling,” she says.

    Based on industry’s experience with current lithium-ion batteries, the MIT researchers and their colleague Gerbrand Ceder, the Daniel M. Tellep Distinguished Professor of Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, suggest three broad questions that can help identify potential constraints on future scale-up as a result of materials selection. First, with this battery design, could materials availability, supply chains, or price volatility become a problem as production scales up? (Note that the environmental and other concerns raised by expanded mining are outside the scope of this study.) Second, will fabricating batteries from these materials involve difficult manufacturing steps during which parts are likely to fail? And third, do manufacturing measures needed to ensure a high-performance product based on these materials ultimately lower or raise the cost of the batteries produced?

    To demonstrate their approach, Olivetti, Ceder, and Huang examined some of the electrolyte chemistries and battery structures now being investigated by researchers. To select their examples, they turned to previous work in which they and their collaborators used text- and data-mining techniques to gather information on materials and processing details reported in the literature. From that database, they selected a few frequently reported options that represent a range of possibilities.

    Materials and availability

    In the world of solid inorganic electrolytes, there are two main classes of materials — the oxides, which contain oxygen, and the sulfides, which contain sulfur. Olivetti, Ceder, and Huang focused on one promising electrolyte option in each class and examined key elements of concern for each of them.

    The sulfide they considered was LGPS, which combines lithium, germanium, phosphorus, and sulfur. Based on availability considerations, they focused on the germanium, an element that raises concerns in part because it’s not generally mined on its own. Instead, it’s a byproduct produced during the mining of coal and zinc.

    To investigate its availability, the researchers looked at how much germanium was produced annually in the past six decades during coal and zinc mining and then at how much could have been produced. The outcome suggested that 100 times more germanium could have been produced, even in recent years. Given that supply potential, the availability of germanium is not likely to constrain the scale-up of a solid-state battery based on an LGPS electrolyte.

    The situation looked less promising with the researchers’ selected oxide, LLZO, which consists of lithium, lanthanum, zirconium, and oxygen. Extraction and processing of lanthanum are largely concentrated in China, and there’s limited data available, so the researchers didn’t try to analyze its availability. The other three elements are abundantly available. However, in practice, a small quantity of another element — called a dopant — must be added to make LLZO easy to process. So the team focused on tantalum, the most frequently used dopant, as the main element of concern for LLZO.

    Tantalum is produced as a byproduct of tin and niobium mining. Historical data show that the amount of tantalum produced during tin and niobium mining was much closer to the potential maximum than was the case with germanium. So the availability of tantalum is more of a concern for the possible scale-up of an LLZO-based battery.

    But knowing the availability of an element in the ground doesn’t address the steps required to get it to a manufacturer. So the researchers investigated a follow-on question concerning the supply chains for critical elements — mining, processing, refining, shipping, and so on. Assuming that abundant supplies are available, can the supply chains that deliver those materials expand quickly enough to meet the growing demand for batteries?

    In sample analyses, they looked at how much supply chains for germanium and tantalum would need to grow year to year to provide batteries for a projected fleet of electric vehicles in 2030. As an example, an electric vehicle fleet often cited as a goal for 2030 would require production of enough batteries to deliver a total of 100 gigawatt hours of energy. To meet that goal using just LGPS batteries, the supply chain for germanium would need to grow by 50 percent from year to year — a stretch, since the maximum growth rate in the past has been about 7 percent. Using just LLZO batteries, the supply chain for tantalum would need to grow by about 30 percent — a growth rate well above the historical high of about 10 percent.

    Those examples demonstrate the importance of considering both materials availability and supply chains when evaluating different solid electrolytes for their scale-up potential. “Even when the quantity of a material available isn’t a concern, as is the case with germanium, scaling all the steps in the supply chain to match the future production of electric vehicles may require a growth rate that’s literally unprecedented,” says Huang.

    Materials and processing

    In assessing the potential for scale-up of a battery design, another factor to consider is the difficulty of the manufacturing process and how it may impact cost. Fabricating a solid-state battery inevitably involves many steps, and a failure at any step raises the cost of each battery successfully produced. As Huang explains, “You’re not shipping those failed batteries; you’re throwing them away. But you’ve still spent money on the materials and time and processing.”

    As a proxy for manufacturing difficulty, Olivetti, Ceder, and Huang explored the impact of failure rate on overall cost for selected solid-state battery designs in their database. In one example, they focused on the oxide LLZO. LLZO is extremely brittle, and at the high temperatures involved in manufacturing, a large sheet that’s thin enough to use in a high-performance solid-state battery is likely to crack or warp.

    To determine the impact of such failures on cost, they modeled four key processing steps in assembling LLZO-based batteries. At each step, they calculated cost based on an assumed yield — that is, the fraction of total units that were successfully processed without failing. With the LLZO, the yield was far lower than with the other designs they examined; and, as the yield went down, the cost of each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of battery energy went up significantly. For example, when 5 percent more units failed during the final cathode heating step, cost increased by about $30/kWh — a nontrivial change considering that a commonly accepted target cost for such batteries is $100/kWh. Clearly, manufacturing difficulties can have a profound impact on the viability of a design for large-scale adoption.

    Materials and performance

    One of the main challenges in designing an all-solid battery comes from “interfaces” — that is, where one component meets another. During manufacturing or operation, materials at those interfaces can become unstable. “Atoms start going places that they shouldn’t, and battery performance declines,” says Huang.

    As a result, much research is devoted to coming up with methods of stabilizing interfaces in different battery designs. Many of the methods proposed do increase performance; and as a result, the cost of the battery in dollars per kWh goes down. But implementing such solutions generally involves added materials and time, increasing the cost per kWh during large-scale manufacturing.

    To illustrate that trade-off, the researchers first examined their oxide, LLZO. Here, the goal is to stabilize the interface between the LLZO electrolyte and the negative electrode by inserting a thin layer of tin between the two. They analyzed the impacts — both positive and negative — on cost of implementing that solution. They found that adding the tin separator increases energy-storage capacity and improves performance, which reduces the unit cost in dollars/kWh. But the cost of including the tin layer exceeds the savings so that the final cost is higher than the original cost.

    In another analysis, they looked at a sulfide electrolyte called LPSCl, which consists of lithium, phosphorus, and sulfur with a bit of added chlorine. In this case, the positive electrode incorporates particles of the electrolyte material — a method of ensuring that the lithium ions can find a pathway through the electrolyte to the other electrode. However, the added electrolyte particles are not compatible with other particles in the positive electrode — another interface problem. In this case, a standard solution is to add a “binder,” another material that makes the particles stick together.

    Their analysis confirmed that without the binder, performance is poor, and the cost of the LPSCl-based battery is more than $500/kWh. Adding the binder improves performance significantly, and the cost drops by almost $300/kWh. In this case, the cost of adding the binder during manufacturing is so low that essentially all the of the cost decrease from adding the binder is realized. Here, the method implemented to solve the interface problem pays off in lower costs.

    The researchers performed similar studies of other promising solid-state batteries reported in the literature, and their results were consistent: The choice of battery materials and processes can affect not only near-term outcomes in the lab but also the feasibility and cost of manufacturing the proposed solid-state battery at the scale needed to meet future demand. The results also showed that considering all three factors together — availability, processing needs, and battery performance — is important because there may be collective effects and trade-offs involved.

    Olivetti is proud of the range of concerns the team’s approach can probe. But she stresses that it’s not meant to replace traditional metrics used to guide materials and processing choices in the lab. “Instead, it’s meant to complement those metrics by also looking broadly at the sorts of things that could get in the way of scaling” — an important consideration given what Huang calls “the urgent ticking clock” of clean energy and climate change.

    This research was supported by the Seed Fund Program of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) Low-Carbon Energy Center for Energy Storage; by Shell, a founding member of MITEI; and by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Vehicle Technologies Office, under the Advanced Battery Materials Research Program. The text mining work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and MITEI.

    This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Elsa Olivetti wins 2021 MIT Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching

    This year’s Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching has been presented to MIT Associate Professor Elsa Olivetti. Olivetti’s zest for enhancing the student experience is evident in the innovative and creative flare she brings to all aspects of her work.

    “Professor Olivetti’s dedication to teaching is truly inspiring,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “She has an extraordinary ability to engage her students, and has developed transformational approaches to curriculum and mentoring.”

    Olivetti is the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering, and co-director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium. Her passion for addressing issues related to climate change frames the focus of her research, which centers on improving the environmental and economic sustainability of materials in the context of growing global demand. Her work focuses on reducing the significant burden of materials production and consumption through increased use of recycled and waste materials; informing the early-stage design of new materials for effective scale-up; and understanding the implications of policy, new technology development, and manufacturing processes on materials supply chains. 

    Olivetti has made significant contributions on education within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering since she came on board in 2014, including designing and implementing a subject on industrial ecology and materials, co-design of the Advanced Materials Machines NEET program, and developing a new undergraduate curriculum. Underscoring the care she has for her students’ success and well-being, Olivetti also cultivated the Course 3 Industry Seminars, pairing undergraduates with individuals working in careers related to 3D printing, environmental consulting, and manufacturing, with the aim of assisting her students with employment opportunities.

    “Professor Olivetti is a brilliant teacher and a creative educator, who engages the classroom with an uncanny ability to keep students on the edge of their seats combined with a remarkable and signature style that creates learning moments they remember years later,” says Jeff Grossman, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “I am proud to have Elsa as a colleague, and I am delighted that her excellence has been recognized with the Bose Award.”

    Olivetti received her PhD in materials science and engineering from MIT in 2007; shortly after, she joined the department as a postdoc. She subsequently worked as a research scientist in the Materials Systems Lab from 2009 to 2013 and joined the DMSE faculty in 2014. She was recently named a 2021 MacVicar Faculty Fellow in recognition of her exceptional commitment to curricular innovation, scientific research, and improving the student experience through teaching, mentoring, and advising. Previously, she has received the Earll M. Murman Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Advising in 2017, the award for “best DMSE advisor” in 2019, and the Paul Gray Award for Public Service in 2020.

    The Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching is given annually to a faculty member whose contributions to education have been characterized by dedication, care, and creativity. Established in 1990 by the School of Engineering, the award stands as a tribute to the late Amar Bose, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and the founder of the Bose Corporation, to recognize outstanding contributions to undergraduate education by members of its faculty. More

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    Push to make supply chains more sustainable continues to gain momentum

    Much of the effort to make businesses sustainable centers on their supply chains, which were severely disrupted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, according to new research from the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL), supply chain sustainability (SCS) investments hardly slowed, even as the pandemic raged.

    The finding, contained in the 2021 State of Supply Chain Sustainability report, puts companies on notice that they ignore the sustainability of their supply chains at their peril. This is particularly the case for enterprises with a low or moderate commitment to SCS, such as organizations classed as “Low Effort” and “Dreamer” in the new SCS Firm Typology that appears in the report for the first time. 

    The research also highlights the increasing pressure companies are under to devote resources to SCS. This pressure came from various stakeholders last year and suggests that sustainability in supply chains is a business trend, and not a fad.

    CTL publishes the 2021 State of Supply Chain Sustainability report in collaboration with the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP), a leading professional membership association. This year’s report is sponsored by BlueYonder, C.H. Robinson, KPMG, Intel, and Sam’s Club.

    Sustainability efforts undaunted by Covid-19

    “We believe cooperation between sectors is vital to thoroughly understand the complexity and evolution of sustainability efforts more broadly,” says David Correll, CTL research scientist. “Our work with CSCMP and our sponsors helps us to embed this essential research and its findings within the context of the real-life practice of supply chain management.”

    The research included a large-scale international survey of supply chain professionals with over 2,400 respondents — more than double the number received for the previous report. The survey was conducted in late 2020. In addition, 21 in-depth executive interviews were completed, and relevant news items, social media content, and reports were analyzed for the report.

    More than 80 percent of survey respondents claimed the pandemic had no impact or increased their firms’ commitments to SCS: Eighty-three percent of the executives interviewed said that Covid-19 had either accelerated SCS activity or, at the very least, increased awareness and brought urgency to this growing field.

    The pressure to support sustainability in supply chains came from multiple sources, both internal and external, but increased the most among investors and industry associations. Internally, company executives were standout champions of SCS.

    Although there are many approaches to investing in SCS, interest in human rights protection and worker welfare, along with energy savings and renewable energy, increased significantly last year. Supplier development was the most common mechanism used by firms to deliver on their SCS promises.

    Increasing investment, some speed bumps

    Given the momentum behind SCS, the future will likely bring more investment in this increasingly important area of supply chain management. And practitioners — who bring deep domain expertise and well-rounded views of enterprises to the table — will become more influential as sustainability advocates.

    But there are some formidable obstacles to overcome, too. For example, it is notable that most of the momentum behind SCS appeared to come from large (1,000-plus employees) and very large (10,000-plus employees) companies covered by the research. Small- to medium-sized enterprises were far less committed, and more work is needed to bring them into the fold through a better understanding of the barriers they face.

    A broader concern is that more attention from stakeholders — notably consumers, investors, and regulators — will bring more scrutiny of firms’ SCS track records, and less tolerance of token efforts to make supply chains sustainable. Improved supply chain transparency and disclosure are critical to firms’ responses, the report suggests.

    Some high-profile issues, such as combating social injustices and climate change mitigation, will continue to stoke the pressure on companies to invest in meaningful SCS initiatives. It follows that the connection between companies’ SCS performance and their profitability is likely to strengthen over the next few years.

    Will companies follow through?

    As companies grapple with these issues, they will face some difficult decisions. For example, the chief operating officer of a consumer goods company interviewed for the report described operating through pandemic constraints as a “moral calculus” where some sustainability commitments had to be temporarily sacrificed to achieve others. Such a calculus will likely challenge many companies as they juggle their responses to SCS demands. A key question is to ascertain the degree to which companies’ recent net-zero commitments will translate into effective SCS actions over the next few years.

    The CTL and CSCMP research teams are laying the groundwork for the 2022 State of Supply Chain Sustainability report. This annual status report aims to help practitioners and the industry to make more effective and informed sustainability decisions. The questionnaire for next year’s report will open in September. More