The $1 Billion Prize to Build a Better Battery

The U.S. government and the X-Prize Foundation should offer a $1 billion prize to the first person who develops an energy storage unit ...

by Curt S. Clifton and Larry F. Eisenstat, Dickstein Shapiro LLP

The U.S. government and the X-Prize Foundation should offer a $1 billion prize to the first person who develops an energy storage unit that can compete with gasoline in power density.

A gallon of gasoline weighs 6.07 pounds, has a volume of 230.99 cubic inches and contains 36.6 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy. In many respects, this is the base unit of energy production upon which the U.S. economy is built. There isn’t much sense in developing and deploying any technology that would avoid our having to pay for gasoline unless and until this technology can compete on a kilowatt-hour basis.

The past two administrations have spent billions of dollars on alternative fuel vehicles. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush focused on hydrogen.

“With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free,” he said.

By the time President Barack Obama gave his 2011 State of the Union address, hydrogen cars had fallen by the wayside. But Obama is equally committed. He said that the U.S. could “become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”

Plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) have enjoyed greater success—albeit attributed largely to heavy subsidies—than hydrogen fuel cell predecessors. Nevertheless, with sales of some 20,000 PEVs since late 2010, the PEV market already is experiencing a slowdown vs. expectations. General Motors Co., for example, temporarily laid off 1,300 employees and halted its Chevrolet Volt production because of worse than anticipated sales. And nearly everyone expects the U.S. will fall far short of Obama’s million-PEV goal.

Primarily it’s because batteries can’t store nearly as much energy as fossil fuels. Many policymakers hoped that, given the right amount of information and incentives, this physical limitation wouldn’t matter much to most potential car buyers. Rather, they assumed people would change their driving habits. Using the “Field of Dreams” model, policymakers figured if they built the market for EVs, the American public would change its gasoline-dependent culture.

Our addiction to fossil fuels, however, isn’t simply preference; it is an integral part of our economy. The power of gasoline has shaped the relative location of everything we do, including the distance from work and home, home and school, and the placement of retailers. It has taken more than 100 years to develop our gasoline-dependent infrastructure. The only way to create a gasoline alternative is to create a power source that can compete inside this infrastructure.

Lithium-ion batteries are not that power source. Most EV batteries carry between 16 to 24 kWh of energy in a single charge. The Tesla Roadster battery—the biggest, baddest and priciest PEV battery available—carries 53 kWh. Remember, a gallon of regular gasoline contains 36.6 kWh of energy. That means the 10-gallon gas tank of a Honda Civic VX stores as much energy as seven Teslas, 15 Nissan Leafs or 23 Volts.

When compared with gasoline-fueled cars, even the most efficient PEVs with the best batteries can’t take you very far. According to Motor Trend, a Chevy Volt can transport you about 35 miles on its 16-kWh battery. A Leaf can go about 75 miles on its 24-kWh model. Tesla says its $109,000 Roadster can go 245 miles between charges. But a 1993 Civic VX will take you more than 500 miles, and when you need to refuel, you can do so in minutes.

Not so with a PEV. Motor Trend reported that, leashed to a 208-volt charger, the Volt takes about four hours to fill its 16-kWh battery and the Leaf takes about seven and a half hours to fill its 24-kWh model. At a typical household current, those times are closer to 10 and 20 hours, respectively. Thinking about charging your Tesla from the wall? At Tesla’s advertised 5-miles-of-range-per-hour charge rate, that’ll take closer to 48 hours. The value of a breakthrough in battery technology will mean billions of dollars to the economy and will revolutionize the auto industry and every economic sector that uses electric power.

Current PEV batteries are chemical batteries, but while they offer the best long-term means for competing with gasoline today, they appear to have reached the upper limits of chemical battery capacity. Most money being spent is to close that final delta and maximize this capacity. Even if those goals are achieved, the battery’s power density will not be close to gasoline’s power density. We must redirect a larger effort to finding a new construct that does not already have a physical limit beneath our functional necessity.

The X-Prize Foundation would be the perfect partner in this effort. The foundation has created and managed large-scale, high-profile, incentivized prize competitions to solve problems deemed impossible. It also has worked with the public and private energy and automotive industries to develop production-capable vehicles that compete on a gasoline-equivalent basis. PEVs will continue to fill a niche market, but we must invest in technology that can compete strongly and at least on equal footing with gasoline.

Authors

Curt S. Clifton joined Dickstein Shapiro in 2008 as a senior legislative advisor to the public policy and law practice. Reach him at cliftonc@dicksteinshapiro.com or 202-420-3366.

Larry F. Eisenstat is the head of Dickstein Shapiro LLP’s energy practice. Reach him at eisenstat@dicksteinshapiro.com or 202-420-2244.

More in Home