Q&A with RANGE Program Director, Dr. Ping Liu

Q&A with RANGE Program Director, Dr. Ping Liu

Dr. Ping Liu of ARPA-E discusses the RANGE program and its innovative approach to energy storage for electric vehicles.

Please tell us about your background and experience before coming to ARPA-E.

I was trained as an electrochemist and have being doing battery research for many years. Before coming to ARPA-E last year, I was involved in energy storage work for HRL in Malibu, CA – a lab that performs research and development for organizations like General Motors, Boeing, and the federal government. At HRL I was involved with energy storage for electric vehicles and hybrids, as well as some space applications for Boeing. Before that, I was a member of the technical staff at NREL, working with microbatteries, electrochromics, hydrogen sensors, and more.

Can you describe you experience so far as a Program Director?

Serving at ARPA-E is an enriching “once in a lifetime opportunity” for leading scientists who want to make a big difference beyond their own research efforts. In this role, I have the opportunity to see the entire energy landscape within my technical area and also beyond what I would normally be exposed to. It’s especially enjoyable to participate in workshops, learn from the community, and visit new areas of the country for program management and program development. What’s more, the quality of all of the program directors at ARPA-E is terrific. They’re all distinguished leaders in their respective fields.

RANGE stands for Robust, Affordable, Next Generation EV-Storage. As director of the RANGE program, what else can you tell us about its importance?

Right now, the biggest challenge facing the electric vehicle (EV) industry is attaining the same performance standards as gasoline-powered vehicles at a comparable price point. The generally-accepted approach to improve EV range has been to keep packing more energy into a smaller volume for greater energy density. The result of this approach is a vehicle configuration comparable to internal-combustion engines. However, this is where I see opportunities for innovation—batteries and other electrochemical storage systems are not physically equivalent to internal-combustion engine systems. They aren’t cast out of a single block of metal and don’t operate at the same temperatures. So, instead of merely trying to reduce weight and volume to “replace” the internal-combustion engine system, we are asking the community to think more broadly about the form and function of the batteries themselves. We can take an entirely new strategy, dividing batteries up and packing them into different form factors. Using this new approach, we hope to find new trade offs in terms of weight, volume, and cost with the same ultimate goal of delivering more favorable cost and range.

How is RANGE different from some of the earlier battery and EV-related programs?

Whereas previous EV-related programs were focused strictly on battery chemistry or battery management systems, RANGE examines EV design from a holistic system level. In other words, we’re looking at the entire car. RANGE considers the goal of trying to make EV cost and performance competitive with IC engines, but looks at how to incorporate a certain amount of energy in the form of electrical storage irrespective of how it is carried. This novel philosophy allows us to consider certain chemistries, materials, and form factors we would otherwise dismiss. In the most extreme cases, we think some parts of the vehicle can be replaced by the battery. That is, the battery may be multifunctional, serving as a structural component of the vehicle in addition to providing energy.

What gets you personally excited about RANGE and why should others be excited?

I firmly believe in EVs, both hybrid and pure electric vehicles, and recognize their potential to replace the current transportation infrastructure. I used to have an extremely long commute, driving up to 140 miles each day. Even though I was driving a hybrid car, I can testify that the substantial mileage made me very conscious of my gasoline consumption and personal environmental impact. As a scientist, I strongly believe that if we march down this path and if the vision of this program can be realized, one day we will have a $30,000 electric vehicle with competitive performance and range. Something like that will fundamentally change how the public views electric vehicles, and that’s the dream that this program wants to fulfill.