Researchers Win ARPA-E Grants for Disruptive “Green” Technologies

Dan Esposito and Dan Steingart each receive ARPA-E award to research lower cost green hydrogen generation and Li-ion batteries

Mar 08 2022 | By Jeffrey Fitts
Dan Esposito and Dan Steingart Headshots

Columbia Electrochemical Energy Center (CEEC) faculty won two awards from DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) OPEN 2021 program that prioritizes funding high-impact, high-risk technologies that support novel approaches to clean energy challenges. The OPEN 2021 program awarded $175M to 68 projects aimed at developing disruptive technologies to strengthen the nation’s advanced energy enterprise in a wide range of areas, from electric vehicles to offshore wind, storage, and nuclear recycling. The OPEN call, which occurs approximately every three years, is considered one of the most competitive funding opportunities in the country.

"We are very excited about these two grants because they support two applications that CEEC is pursuing: low-cost electrolyzers for ’green hydrogen’ generation, which is vital to decarbonize the production of chemicals, materials, and fuels, and low-cost batteries that will play a key role in decarbonizing the electric grid," said Alan West, co-director of CEEC, Samuel Ruben-Peter G. Viele Professor of Electrochemistry, and professor of earth and environmental engineering.

The project ($3.4 million) led by Dan Esposito, associate professor of chemical engineering, seeks to lower the production cost of carbon-free, “green hydrogen” through the development of a low-temperature electrolyzer that uses proton-conducting oxide membranes (POM). The disruptive nature of this technology relies on materials research to make these oxide membranes really thin–two to four orders of magnitude thinner than conventional membranes–and thereby reduce their resistance by roughly an order of magnitude. These advances would achieve step-change increases in current density and overall efficiency in hydrogen generation, compared to today’s commercial polymer electrolyte membrane electrolyzers.

Industry partners are positioned to ensure that Esposito’s project results get onto a pathway to commercialization. Esposito is joined by West on this project, as well as two industrial partners. Forge Nano (CO) will leverage its industry-leading atomic layer deposition methods to incorporate Esposito's material design advances into POM electrolyzers and enable their rapid commercial-scale production. Nel Hydrogen (CT) will play a key role in electrolyzer-component integration and demonstrate rapid-scale-up once the technology is proven at smaller scales in the Engineering School’s CEEC labs.

The project ($1.5 million) led by Dan Steingart Stanley-Thompson Associate Professor of Chemical Metallurgy in the departments of earth and environmental engineering and chemical engineering, aims to greatly simplify and lower the cost of manufacturing lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries by adopting a "bobbin cell" format. Nearly all of today's Li-ion batteries are composed of precision-manufactured thin layers of electrode materials--where the energy is stored--that are rolled up to create a 'jellyroll" prior to being packaged into a battery cell. In contrast, the bobbin-cell-format battery consists of one cylinder of cathode surrounded by one cylinder of anode material, which enables the electrodes to be manufactured within the battery cell.

The bobbin design requires thick electrode materials beyond the dimensions achievable today for Li-ion to reduce the overall cost per kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy stored. In collaboration with ICL Group (NY)–a CEEC charter corporate member–the team will explore the use of existing commodity Li-ion battery materials in cell packaging used by billions of alkaline cells. By combining existing materials with longer duration form factors, like the bobbin cell, Columbia Engineering will accelerate the cost curves for Li-ion grid scale storage cells by up to a decade, from Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s forecasted time of ~$50/kWh in 2030-2035, to 2025, just three years from now. These cells will be suitable for daily, long-duration grid-storage applications.

Stay up-to-date with the Columbia Engineering newsletter

* indicates required