Loyola University Chicago

Institute of Environmental Sustainability


Q & A with Keynote Speaker Dr. George Crabtree

In February, we sat down with Dr. George Crabtree to discuss his interests in energy research and his work as Director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). Dr. Crabtree will be delivering our Climate Change Conference’s Keynote Address on Thursday, March 19 at 7 p.m. in Mundelein Auditorium. He is a Distinguished Professor of Physics, Electrical, and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

Please note: this interview has been edited for length.

IES: They call you the Guru of Green at UIC. How did you get that reputation?

Dr. Crabtree:  It started in 2002, when I got a call from the Department of Energy. I was working full-time at Argonne and the DOE asked me to help organize a conference on energy. I said to myself, you know, I don’t have time for this. I’m fully occupied with other things. But, I got hooked. I began to understand how big the problem [of finding a sustainable solution to energy] is, and how important it is for all of us to solve it. One thing I realized is that as a technical person, you miss 60 percent of the challenge. The challenge is to make things happen in the world. To deploy technology to change people’s culture and habits and the way they think about energy. That’s Policy. That’s Sociology. It’s so much more than science.

IES:  Can you talk about the big picture in terms of energy? Where is our energy coming from now?

Dr. Crabtree:  Before the fracking boom, oil was a challenge because most of our oil came from foreign countries. In 2008, the US imported 60 percent of its oil—that’s dangerous because some of this oil came from places that weren’t stable. Then fracking happened.  Nobody expected it. And now, the last number I looked at was that 25 percent of our oil is imported. Suddenly, it’s very different.  Seven years later. That’s an example of something that’s going to happen regardless [of our personal energy consumption]. I think the net impact of fracking is that it gave us more time.

We are moving away from coal. People realize coal is a much bigger CO2emitter than any other fossil fuel. The EPA and the present administration are encouraging us to move away from the big carbon emitters. Now, it looks like we have lots of natural gas. That’s everybody’s favorite for producing power right now. That’s only half the battle. You have to go to wind and solar to really make up the difference. That’s happening too. Wind and solar [energy] make up four percent of the electricity we use. Even that’s changing fast—though the numbers are small the growth rate is phenomenal. Many states have laws on their books that say you must have a renewable portfolio standard in place by 2020. That’s twenty percent of electricity coming from wind and solar.

IES:  At the conference, you’ll talk about energy storage technology and batteries. What’s the current state of batteries? How will finding new batteries change our energy use?

Dr. Crabtree: Twenty percent of our energy flows through a gas tank of a car. And, about thirty nine percent flows as electrons through the electricity grid. These two things together make up two thirds of all the energy we use. You can expect that if you can impact these two items in a positive way, you are going to have a big impact.

And, it’s obvious what the impact is for cars. It’s electric cars. So what does that mean? In Illinois, we get a lot of power from nuclear energy (45-50 percent) and that doesn’t emit any C02. So, if you’re driving around Chicago in your electric car, it really makes sense in terms of climate change. But, how do you get more people to buy electric cars? The challenge is the battery. If you buy a Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf or a Tesla, you can only go about forty miles on a charge.

IES: And how long does it take to charge?

Dr. Crabtree: It takes 10 hours to charge. It’s ridiculous. The Volt does have a gasoline engine on it. When the battery is done, the gasoline engine kicks in and you aren’t stranded. But that’s not the point. I often use this little calculation. It takes 10 hours to go about 40 miles in an electric car. That means it takes about sixteen minutes of charging for you to drive a mile. And if you are a fast walker…

IES: You can walk faster than that.

Dr. Crabtree:  You can walk to your destination faster than you can charge your car and drive there. That isn’t going to work. Nobody has time for these things anymore. You can’t charge Lithium Ion batteries any faster. You damage the battery. The trick is to make a next generation battery that charges faster and won’t be damaged by charging, and goes further. That’s the challenge. We’ve done the studies. You need about five times the performance. A technical term here is energy density. You need the same size battery to hold five times the energy. Which means you would go five times as far on the same size battery.

IES:  Close to 200 miles?

Dr. Crabtree:  Exactly, you can see where that number comes from. Now it’s starting to compete with a gasoline car, which typically goes for 300 miles on a tank of gas. You need to up the charge-life to a couple of hundred of miles. You also need to get the cost down. We want to cut that down by a factor of five—two factors of five actually a factor of five lower cost and factor of five higher performance. That’s the goal, if you can get those transformative numbers than you’ve changed transportation forever.

IES:  This is the type of work you’re doing at JCESR.

Dr. Crabtree: Yes. JCESR is two years old and we’ve got 150 research scientists working on the next generation battery. We go exclusively after beyond Lithium Ion batteries. We’ve decided simply to work on the transformative opportunity. Our researchers are working to find three new materials for the battery components (anode, cathode and electrolyte). Once we find those three materials, they’ll have to perform five times better than the Lithium Ion battery, and they’ll have to be compatible with each other. That’s just beyond what most organizations can do.

We bring a lot of new tools to the table too. We use computers. We simulate materials that you might use for the anode, the cathode and the electrolyte. We simulate battery systems on the computer before we make them. We ask two questions. What would the performance of this battery system be if you could make it? What would the manufacturing cost be? Is it worth going after? Would it hit our goals?

IES: It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.