Leading battery expert Shirley Meng dares to hope for a renewable energy future at TEDxChicago

Electric cars that drive for 500 miles on a six-minute charge. Neighborhoods where battery storage systems are as ubiquitous as refrigerators. A combination of lithium-metal, sodium, solid-state and flow batteries filling the massive energy storage gap in a way that promotes both the environment and human equity.

“It is not a dream,” Prof. Y. Shirley Meng told a packed house on Friday, Oct. 6, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in downtown Chicago. “It is a reality that we already are working on.”

Meng presented what she called “the case for hope” as part of the independently organized, local nonprofit lecture series TEDxChicago. This year’s theme was “We Dare.”

“Chicago has always been a daring city,” Attendee Experience Lead Kelly Fernandez told the assembled crowd. “We dare to dream. We dare to disrupt. We dare to defy the odds.”

Meng dares to hope. Facing the devastating realities of global climate change, Meng shared some of her impressive work at UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, at the Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion and as chief scientist for the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science to present a comprehensive and achievable pathway to a clean, sustainable energy future.

Sustainability in storage

Calm days and dark nights are two of the main obstacles in achieving the deep renewable energy penetration needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Wind and solar power provide a stream of virtually limitless energy that can be converted to electricity that can power our cars, homes and lives. But the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. If the energy isn’t used when it’s captured, it vanishes.

That’s why the massive, global decarbonization that the climate crisis demands must include more and better energy storage – batteries. Developments by Meng and others have created an era where lithium-ion batteries are increasingly efficient, reliable and environmentally friendly. However, lithium-ion batteries alone cannot close the gap between the amount of storage needed and the amount currently on hand.

The path won’t be easy. Humanity will need another 100 to 200 terawatt-hours (TWh) of battery storage in order to decarbonize. For context, 1 terawatt-hour is needed to power the entire United States for a single hour. Current global production of lithium-ion batteries is now just above 1 TWh per year. It’s a start, but more must be done. Humanity needs more batteries, a bigger variety of batteries and, with climate change effects ramping up, they are needed rapidly.

The case for hope

Meng estimates it will take $10 trillion dollars in manufacturing investments globally over the next decade to reach these goals. Investing $1 trillion a year for the next 10 years would invest 1% of the world economy to fill this gap – and it will save more money in the long run than it will cost.

Despite these challenges, Meng has not just hope, but confidence.

“It can be done,” she said to the rapt crowd. But it requires focus and investment.

Much of Meng’s research at UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and Argonne is showing results in improving the performance and lifespan of sodium batteries. Sodium, unlike lithium, is abundant in the United States, and a sodium battery is eminently recyclable.

Meng’s team is making those batteries last longer, charge faster and store far more energy, in part by taking a unique approach: From atom to system, they treat batteries like a complex living system.

“Doctors seek to prolong human life,” she said. “As a doctor for batteries, that’s what we do.”

Beyond her promising results, another of Meng’s causes for hope is the passion shown by her students.

“What I ask all my students at Pritzker Molecular Engineering to do is to keep innovating, keep collaborating and keep running a good race for better batteries,” Meng said. “Don’t pause until we reach the end of the destination, that is a world where renewable energy powers our lives, where sustainability is the foundation of our existence, and where we can pass on a healthier, more prosperous planet to future generations.”

A pioneer in discovering and designing better materials for energy storage, Meng’s research focuses primarily on energy storage materials and systems, specifically rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles and trucks, power sources for the Internet of Things and grid-scale storage to facilitate the widespread integration of renewable energy sources.