Battery Technology Takes Flight


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As part of a new program, Argonne’s researchers are evaluating what it takes to power drones with batteries. Not all batteries are created equal. State-of-the-art battery technology for cell phones, for instance, looks a lot different from batteries for electric cars. Similarly, land-based electric vehicle battery technology differs in key respects from batteries that are beginning to be used in aerial vehicles.

Image Caption: Argonne is developing a center to evaluate potential drone design options, including battery-powered and hybrid architecture.

These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, make up an ever-expanding market that now includes military, commercial, consumer and law enforcement applications.

According to Shabbir Ahmed, a chemical engineer and group leader in the Chemical Sciences and Engineering division of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, moving from land-based to air-based vehicles creates very different battery and energy storage needs.

“The safety margins for something that flies versus something on the road are different,” Ahmed said. ​“To lift something in the air also has different power requirements than for something that rolls on the ground. The longer the range, the heavier the battery. All these things must be considered when the application changes.”

Energy storage requirements serve as a primary constraint for drones — both in the small- and medium-size categories, which use electric systems. This limitation also applies to larger systems that run on turbine or combustion engines. So the need for better batteries is acute, and finding new materials is still the name of the game.

Recently, Argonne has embarked on a new initiative, supported by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, which will establish a new ​“Mission-Driven Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Design Center.” This center addresses the various interconnected challenges and trade-offs of energy consumption, noise, flight time and payload. One of the goals of this effort is to develop a tool to evaluate potential drone design options, including battery-powered and hybrid architectures.

One intriguing potential customer base for UAV energy storage technology is the U.S. military, said Christopher Claxton, who oversees commercialization management of Argonne’s battery intellectual property portfolio. According to Claxton, the unique needs of the military are pushing researchers to look at materials in new ways for different applications.

Offering a full range of solutions to meet Department of Defense mission requirements is key, according to Claxton. Argonne must also leverage its demonstrated ability to collaborate and successfully engage across what Claxton called the ​“value chain” of government agencies and manufacturing partners.

“When you work with end users like the military on advanced battery systems they want solutions,” he said. ​“We have a demonstrated ability to work directly with people who have highly specific needs to create specialized materials that are matched to their exact mission requirements.” 

All the research on batteries for UAVs will connect to work currently underway in the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS), a powerful association of scientists and engineers from across Argonne that solves energy storage problems through multidisciplinary research. 

In the course of ongoing research, a new focus has emerged. ​“Right now the big thinking is about moving from land-based to the third dimension,” said ACCESS director Venkat Srinivasan. ​“We’re very interested in everything in the third dimension — which includes drones. It’s all part of a continuum.”

In addition to the all-encompassing battery and energy storage programs that span the continuum from basic materials research and diagnostics to scale-up processes and ultimate deployment, Srinivasan pointed to a critical core value at Argonne that makes it uniquely suited to this kind of problem-solving.

“The reason we’ve been so effective is because we are making a difference in the real world,” he said. ​“Our lab discoveries lead to market impact. We are always looking at what the world needs and where it’s going, and looking at what these questions mean for batteries.”

“Because we ask these questions, it gives us the ability to be very sharp in the research and development we do. That’s the beauty of the Argonne program — we go from science to application.”

About Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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