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We have half the technology needed to decarbonize, says scientist

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The US has half the technology needed to decarbonize its energy and transportation sectors by 2050, according to a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.

“We have about half the commercial technology we need to decarbonize,” said George Crabtree, leader of the national labs’ efforts to develop next-generation batteries for transport and 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 launch these things to clean up the grid,” he said.

“But we don’t have commercial technology for the other half, which for the network is long-term storage. Therefore, there are many cloudy or calm days in a row, up to 10 in a row historically. And a lithium-ion battery can discharge at full power for four hours. Therefore, we are far from achieving this goal. We need the next generation.”

A passing cloud can reduce solar generation by 70%, Crabtree said.

“That’s something you have to make up for, and you have to do it right away. The lithium-ion battery is perfect for that.”

But when the cloud doesn’t pass – when it stays over a place for days – lithium-ion batteries that discharge in four hours don’t make up for the loss.

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

Crabtree drove the Joint Energy Storage Research Center (JCESR), based in Argonne, since 2012. A battery it developed ran into that ten-day goal, and while it didn’t make it that far, it was scrapped for commercialization.

When it comes to transportation, “we have EVs, which would be passenger cars, also known as light vehicles,” he said. “When it comes to cars, we can look after passenger cars, light but non-rail transport, long-distance trucks, marine transport and aviation. So for these things you typically need two to three or even more times the energy density of the battery.”

Passenger cars emit about 50% of transport’s greenhouse gases, Crabtree said, and lithium ion can take care of that.

“So long-distance trucking, rail, shipping and aviation are the other 50%,” and these uses present the greatest challenges. Much larger and much heavier vehicles need batteries with much higher energy density.

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

“If we get a solid-state lithium-ion battery, which is likely to happen within the next five years – I can be a little optimistic – that will increase the energy density for light vehicles. And that includes things like delivery trucks and even, in some cases, city buses need a little more power density. But then it’s quite a climb to electrify all the heavy haul.”

And that escalation needs to happen quickly for the US – and other countries – to reach a goal of net zero by 2050.

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

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