The Energy Behind Innovation - Better Batteries Fueling Jobs, Economy

February 27, 2014

The need for job creation and economic growth dominates nearly every aspect of the current public debate, from STEM education to immigration reform to government programs. For many, whatever does not contribute to improving the job market and the national economy is a low priority, relegated to the sidelines until the country is back on its feet. 

Some might argue that America’s work in outer space should take a backseat to the challenges Americans face every day. Yet, as counterintuitive as it may seem, reaching for the stars has big benefits for employment and the economy. It may even cost less than you think. 

Space exploration has been a major driver of innovation and technological progress since the beginning of America’s space age. The memory foam in mattress pads was originally invented to soften the impact on returning Apollo spacecraft; the cordless drill in the toolbox was developed decades ago for work in a weightless, power-socketless environment; and the insulation used in many homes was first used to create an airtight seal in orbiting spacecraft. Today, innovations for energy storage in space are driving opportunity and profit in earthly applications. 

The development of longer-lasting, safer batteries may not sound like a sexy topic. After all, batteries are just what you stick in the back of the remote control, not a catalyst for economic growth, right? Quite the opposite. Improving batteries for space exploration is arguably one of the most exciting endeavors fueling innovation, job creation and economic success. 

In space, power is what allows you to maneuver, adjust orbits, and do things that have never been done before. Without power, you’re just another piece of space junk hurtling towards oblivion or crashing back to Earth. In the past (and the present too), we’ve had space-based batteries powered by the sun, as well as nuclear power. You might think efforts like these are just another NASA-led endeavor, but they’re not. At the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), it is their job to design, foster, and support “high-potential, high-impact energy technologies” that are not quite ready for market or private-sector investment. This is a difficult, cost-intensive period in the innovation lifecycle, when an inventor has zeroed-in on a groundbreaking technology but needs time and funding to turn it into a useful, marketable product. 

Currently, ARPA-E is dedicating $36 million to fund 22 projects in 15 states to create better power sources for electric vehicles. This funding falls under the Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy (RANGE) Storage Systems Program, a collaborative effort between ARPA-E, NASA, industry, and academia. The goal is to improve the range and reliability of electric vehicles. NASA is invested in this effort because it has the potential to yield better technology for driving around on other planets, such as Mars. (As an aside, the lunar rover used by Apollo astronauts ran on two 36-volt silver-zinc non-rechargeable batteries, together weighing nearly 120 pounds and with a maximum range of 57 miles.) 

For as much fun as it might be to churn some Martian dust by putting the pedal to the metal on a human-driven rover, battery breakthroughs could also deliver innovative technologies that will propel the growing electric car market on Earth. In turn, that would require more employees to build, test, market, and improve new vehicles. That means more jobs and, potentially, business profitability. 

One reason innovating for space makes sense for the consumer market is that the environment outside the atmosphere is an unforgiving place. Space technologies must endure temperature extremes, withstand solar radiation, operate without much need for maintenance or replacement, and be as light as possible (since every ounce launched into space demands a corresponding increase in the amount of rocket fuel used during takeoff). When a product is designed to operate perfectly in the most severe environments, it is that much more effective and reliable on Earth. 

It is not just research for operating in space that is driving better technologies; sometimes the innovation and application process begins on Earth before rocketing beyond the atmosphere. For the lithium-ion batteries in use today, there is one major drawback: they can be highly flammable, even explosive. A battery fire on Earth can be dangerous; a flammable battery in space can be devastating. Recognizing the danger, scientists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill developed a nonflammable replacement for the flammable organic solvent in current batteries. This improvement will have ramifications for safety and application wherever lithium-ion batteries are used, and it shows how space and earthly demands can align to drive better technology. 

Battery weight and size are also critical factors in how successful lithium-ion batteries will be in the future. Understanding this, another team of scientists set about developing the smallest lithium-ion batteries ever seen. Using 3-D printing (itself a groundbreaking innovation), scientists from Harvard and the University of Illinois stacked electrodes thinner than a human hair into a near-microscopic lithium-ion battery that functions just like its much larger predecessors. While the scientists are excited about the prospect of using these batteries in healthcare, there is clear potential for use in space. It’s worth noting that this improvement rests on the shoulders of engineers and scientists who brought lithium-ion batteries to where they are today, which owes in part to the investments made by NASA and businesses with their eyes on the stars. 

With so much focus on developing safer, cheaper energy sources, these kinds of improvements in battery power have the potential to upend the entire energy market. Better batteries and energy systems will drive untold innovations in the years ahead, all of which will bring new jobs, new industries, and new economic growth. Indeed, America’s future rests in part on our ability to succeed in a place where only the bravest venture and only the strongest survive. Fortunately, that’s what this country does best.