We Have Half the Technology We Need to Decarbonize, Scientist Says

The U.S. has half the technology it needs to decarbonize its power and transportation sectors by 2050, according to a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.

“We have about half the commercial technology that we need to decarbonize,” said George Crabtree, the leader of the national labs’ efforts to develop next-generation batteries for transportation and the grid.

When it comes to the grid, “we have solar panels, we have wind turbines, we have battery storage in the form of lithium-ion batteries, and we can roll these things out to clean up the grid,” he said.

“But we don’t have commercial technology for the other half, which, for the grid, is long-duration storage. So there are many consecutive cloudy or calm days, as many as 10 in a row historically. And a lithium-ion battery can discharge at full power for four hours. So we’re far from meeting that goal. We need the next generation.”

A passing cloud may reduce solar generation by 70 percent, Crabtree said.

“That’s something you have to make up for, and you need to do it right on the spot. Lithium-ion battery is perfect for that.”

But when the cloud doesn’t pass—when it sits over a location for days—lithium-ion batteries that discharge in four hours can’t make up the loss.

“When it comes to longer term storage, up to 10 consecutive days, we’re in trouble,” Crabtree said at a recent Argonne Outloud lecture. “And that’s where we need the next-generation battery, which has to be, by the way, a lot cheaper than lithium ion because it’s not used as often.”

Crabtree has directed the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), headquartered at Argonne, since 2012. One battery it developed took a run at that ten-day goal, and though it didn’t make it quite that far, it has spun off for commercialization.

When it comes to transportation, “we have EVs, that would be passenger cars, otherwise known as light-duty vehicles,” he said. “When it comes to cars, we can take care of passenger cars, light-duty transportation, but not rail, not long-haul trucks, not marine shipping and not aviation. So for those things, you need typically two to three or even more times the energy density of the battery.”

Passenger cars emit about 50 percent of greenhouse gases from transportation, Crabtree said, and lithium-ion can take care of those.

“So long-haul trucking, rail, shipping and aviation, that’s the other 50 percent,” and those uses present greater challenges. Much larger, much heavier vehicles need batteries with much greater energy density.

The most likely first step will be a solid-state variation on the lithium-ion battery.

“If we get a solid-state lithium-ion battery, which probably in the next five years is something that could happen—I might be a bit optimistic—it will raise the energy density for the light-duty vehicles. And that includes things like delivery trucks and even in some cases, urban buses need a little bit more energy density. But then it’s quite a climb to get all of heavy-duty transportation electrified.”

And that climb has to happen rapidly for the U.S.—and other countries—to achieve a net-zero goal by 2050.

“Putting a timeline on it, 2050, decarbonize by 2050,” said Crabtree, “makes it even more urgent.”

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