On the eve of their annual Energy Innovation Summit, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has announced funding for a new program focused on improving electric vehicle (EV) battery technologies. The new Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems (RANGE) program “seeks to improve EV range and reduce vehicle costs by re-envisioning the total EV battery system, rather than working to increase the energy density of individual battery cells,” as stated in the agency’s press release. The program’s establishment represents just the latest positive sign of the Energy Department’s commitment to foster battery innovation.
As MIT Technology Review reported last year, a $2.4 billion grant program under the 2009 Stimulus resulted in a substantial gap between domestic EV battery production capacity and actual battery demand. To be sure, while manufacturing capability is essential, demand for EVs and EV batteries by extension will only grow when battery technology can exceed expectations. And to accomplish that goal, ITIF has argued, policymakers need to emphasize battery innovation and “put the battery before the electric vehicle” – a need that has been underlined by the recent Broder-Tesla spat. Fortunately, the Energy Department appears to have taken this advice to heart and renewed focus its in recent years on supporting battery technology development. Late last year, for example, the Department announced the creation of a new batteries and storage Energy Innovation Hub at Argonne National Laboratory. Furthermore, the creation of the RANGE program comes on the heels of the establishment of ARPA-E’s original program for EV battery innovation, BEEST, in 2010.
Nevertheless, RANGE differs somewhat from previous government initiatives. Specifically, while traditional battery innovation efforts have tended to look to increase the energy density of individual battery cells, the new program “aims to maximize specific energy and minimize cost of energy storage systems at the vehicle level,” as noted in the funding opportunity description. “RANGE projects,” the ARPA-E press release elaborates, “will focus on developing robust battery chemistries and architectures that would improve vehicle driving range and overall battery robustness. RANGE projects will also focus on multifunctional energy storage designs that use these robust storage systems to simultaneously serve other functions on a vehicle, thus further reducing an energy storage system’s effective weight and overall electric vehicle weight.”
Although innovation takes time, several recipients of public investment in battery innovation have already enjoyed notable, early successes and been profiled by ITIF. ARPA-E awardees Envia and Polyplus, for example, are working to commercialize their breakthrough lithium-based battery designs. CalBattery, which announced the development of a potential battery breakthrough late last year that could significantly increase energy density and reduce costs, has benefited from a variety of entities in the national innovation ecosystem. And utility-scale storage company Ambri, an ARPA-E grant recipient, is receiving renewed attention after being named one of MIT Technology Review’s 50 Disruptive Companies 2013. Hopefully, ARPA-E’s RANGE program will help foster similar success.