Looking Towards the Future of Innovation in the Energy Storage Space

12-04-2022 | By Liam Critchley

Innovation is fundamental if scientific areas are to advance society, and several industrial and market sectors continue to innovate in the modern-day technological society. At the heart of innovation is basic research. Without basic and fundamental research, there wouldn’t be any innovation; however, not all research is innovative and not all research doesn’t lead to new innovation on a commercial level.

This means that an idea (and the research itself) is not innovative until it has been demonstrated that there is a practical and beneficial effect on humans, society, or the environment. There are many instances of research out there that are novel, interesting, and good research from a scientific standpoint, but they are not necessarily innovative because they are unlikely to impact everyday life. There are also many instances where research does become innovative down the line, but the potential is not immediately recognised because there is often a lack of foresight when looking at the long term.

While there is a drive for fundamental scientific research, many scientists and engineers also look to be innovative as well. So, understanding how research could become innovative in the future is vital for ensuring that research and innovation are being tackled and challenged in the right areas. The closer that academia works alongside, and in conjunction with, industry, the more likely it is that the research will be directed towards end-uses that are commercially feasible and commercially needed.

These industry-academia collaborations can also help avoid the so-called ‘valley of death’ which exists in the research space between the initial basic research and commercial applications. This is an infamous area of research where the translation of basic research gets lost and never gets commercialised. It’s been a problem in many heavily scientific industries, but there is now a lot of focus on preventing the loss of innovation in the valley of death.

In recent years, one of the most innovative spaces has been the energy storage industry. We have seen advances in new electric vehicle (EV) batteries to the creation of new graphene batteries, supercapacitors and new hybrid energy storage devices that are a cross between supercapacitors and batteries. Given that there is still a lot of innovation currently taking place in this area (which is likely to continue for many years, given the technological demand for energy storage), we’re going to look at some of the ways that innovation and fundamental research can be better directed in the energy storage space beyond just working in closer conjunction with industry and end-users.

Focusing on Energy Density

One of the key ways—especially from a property and performance perspective—that will turn fundamental research into innovative research is through much-improved energy densities. Energy density is the core reason energy storage systems are so widely used nowadays, so bringing something to the table that far surpasses the status quo while remaining safe and stable for consumer use will be one of the quickest ways to create an innovative device.

Supercapacitors have been touted as one of the ways to achieve much higher energy densities, and there have been some significant advancements over the years in supercapacitor technologies. While industrial capacitors are already in use in many technologies, the so-called innovative developments in academia rarely get commercialised. So, while achieving that higher energy density is essential, researchers need to also consider the other factors that go into making a commercially feasible device, such as the cost, availability of materials, scalability of manufacturing, and whether the performance found in fundamental research can be achieved in different systems.

So, in the coming years, if researchers want to innovate in the energy storage space, there will be a need to look at why high energy density devices are not readily getting commercialised and what can be done to make these devices more commercially feasible. They’re going to have to look at why there is still a disconnect between fundamental research and commercial realisation and why there is still a slow adoption in this space despite significant increases in the performances obtained in fundamental research. One of the ways that have been explored in recent years is to create hybrid systems that are a cross between a battery and supercapacitor, and this way of thinking is showing promising results commercially. Still, more time is needed for the technology to mature.

Looking at Which Metrics are Important

One of the main reasons why there is a disconnect between what is possible in fundamental research and what is realised commercially is because there is a big information gap between industry and academia. This is why many innovations get lost in the valley of death. Understanding which metrics, factors and information is relevant and important from a commercial perspective will help to translate more fundamental research into commercial innovation.

One aspect to look at, and relating back to energy density, is that while the fundamental research could provide a significant increase in energy density, e.g., 50% over the status quo, it’s not going to be commercially feasible if the costs are many times more than other options and/or economically unfeasible for any end-users to consider using it in their products. Even when care is taken, the costs to produce something at a larger scale are not always as cheap as first thought, and the time and cost requirements to get a device and/or material to the point where it is commercially feasible sometimes means that other, lesser innovative options become more favourable.

Another area is that basic research tends to use electrodes, fabrication methods and evaluation tools that are not used in commercial systems, so it can give a false sense of reality to the ‘real world’ performance because the industrial systems are going to use different setups and not perform in the same way that the academic research does. So, suppose academic research was to use methods that are as close as possible to what is used in industry. In that case, the results are going to be more relevant to industrial systems and are more likely to be adopted commercially—as they will be more likely to behave the same in terms of performance regardless of whether they are being used in a commercial setup or in academic research, making them more reliable.

This is where collaborations and intermediary research organisations can become key as they can help the facilitation of this information. The bench-scale and larger-scale research can often be done in the same project, leading to better information sharing that can make the commercial realisation of an energy storage device more likely.

So, research is only likely to turn into innovation if the enhancements can be balanced with the other factors—many of which are not an issue in fundamental research, so they can often get overlooked. Turning research into innovation involves several factors (including many costs factors such as scale-up, process and material requirements). Ensuring that researchers understand what drives innovation and the industry’s metrics is the only way for any potential future innovations to become a success.

Overall Outlook

There is still a disconnect between academia and industry in the energy storage space—like there is in many advanced areas of applied science. Overcoming this innovation barrier is likely to be achieved through greater collaboration between academia and industry, especially in either joint projects or in research projects where a third-party research organisation (e.g., a government research organisation or an independent research organisation) can help to facilitate the concept from basic research to commercial reality.

Even in these cases, the transition from idea to product will have to be driven in the future by obtaining meaningful data from efficient design of experiment approaches and application-based measurements. The ability for researchers to understand the needs of the industry and end-user will become ever more important for further innovations to take place in an industry where a lot of innovation has already happened over the last few decades. Without this understanding, asking the right questions, and working directly with the industry about the performance, economic and safety needs of new devices, then many ideas that have the potential to be innovative are going to become lost, and other approaches to improve the status quo and meet application demands (most likely through incremental, less-innovative advances) are going to be sought instead.

Pohlmann S., Metrics and methods for moving from research to innovation in energy storage, Nature Communications, 13, (2022), 1538

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By Liam Critchley

Liam Critchley is a science writer who specialises in how chemistry, materials science and nanotechnology interplay with advanced electronic systems. Liam works with media sites, companies, and trade associations around the world and has produced over 900 articles to date, covering a wide range of content types and scientific areas. Beyond his writing, Liam's subject matter knowledge and expertise in the nanotechnology space has meant that he has sat on a number of different advisory boards over the years – with current appointments being on the Matter Inc. and Nanotechnology World Association advisory boards. Liam was also a longstanding member of the advisory board for the National Graphene Association before it folded during the pandemic.