Why scientists are calling for a battery ‘genome’ project

Almost exactly 32 years ago, in October 1990, scientists embarked on an ambitious project to map the human genome—an ultimately successful endeavor that included sequencing the DNA that makes us who we are. It ended in 2003, but it wasn’t until last year that researchers announced updates to the map of our genome and its more than 3 billion base pairs, which are made of hydrogen-bonded molecules like adenine and thymine.

Unlike humans and other living things, batteries do not have DNA. There are no chromosomes in a lithium-ion battery cell. But their importance to society as the world looks for ways to decarbonise is hard to overstate – lithium-ion batteries power electric vehicles, can help with grid storage and can even be used to power new aircraft in many short flights.

In an article published earlier this month in the journal Joule, a group of 28 scientists are calling for a “battery data genome” project. Here’s why they offer it and what it means.

“The world needs this,” said Susan Babinets, one of the paper’s authors and head of the Stationary Energy Storage (think: grid battery storage) program at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. “The world needs renewable energy, and deep decarbonisation depends on multiple technologies.”

And one of the technologies, of course, is batteries, not only for electric cars, but also for key tasks like storing energy produced by renewable energy when the sun is shining and saving it for later. “Batteries are very difficult to design and similarly difficult to manufacture, so we have come a long way and now know for sure that energy storage can help deep decarbonization,” she adds.

[Related: How the massive ‘flow battery’ coming to an Army facility in Colorado will work]

So what kind of information will the project aim to collect? “The battery data genome is really about mastering all the knowledge,” said Eric Dufek, another co-author of the paper and a department head at the Idaho National Laboratory. That might sound like a lot of information, and the way the paper describes the project is a bit more specific, with the goal being “a global initiative to assemble a massive collection of battery databases,” the authors write.

The goal is to break data out of its silos and standardize formats; thus, machine learning can be used to search for patterns. It’s about “making sure people have the protocols and procedures in place so that sharing is easier, even if you don’t want all your data to be completely open,” Dufek says.

One key type of battery data the project will pursue is related to the question of “how it works,” Babinets says. “We all know that batteries will lose capacity over time, but how they lose capacity depends on about four or five different variables, so we call this path-dependent degradation. It’s really hard to know exactly how it will fail. This type of information is critical because an expensive grid battery storage installation should ideally be running for a long time in its intended location, doing the job it was designed to do.

The voltage and current information as the battery charges and discharges is “like the secret code, it’s like DNA for a life cycle,” she says.

This kind of information can help battery experts understand how long grid storage can last if used in different ways, such as storing four hours of energy produced by solar panels and releasing it at night, versus storing more energy that would be used during an emergency. Or consider taking an old battery from an electric car and then using it to store energy in a stationary way, Babinets wonders. How will this work out? This project aims to help unlock these questions.

Importantly, the initiative isn’t trying to get people to share private information, so battery performance is a major area of ​​focus. “People become more sensitive when you start talking about the fine details of everything,” Dufek says. Ideally, the information would be in different centers rather than in one central location.

In addition to Argonne National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory, the paper’s authors are from institutions such as the University of Oxford, Carnegie Mellon University, the Toyota Research Institute of California and the University of Hawaii.

Ultimately, the goal involves answering this question: “How do we design and find a way to make better batteries, faster, so that we can make an impact?” Dufek says.

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