Barbara Lee takes alt-energy tour

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, was up in Berkeley this morning to visit PolyPlus Battery Company, which is developing lightweight, nontoxic lithium batteries that use seawater or air to produce clean energy.

PolyPlus batteryChief Technical Officer and Vice President Steven Visco demonstrated one by dropping a battery attached to an LED light bulb into a glass of water; that light would stay on for two and a half to three months, he said. A bundle of the batteries weighs only 24 grams, he noted, while the dozen or so standard AA batteries required to produce an equivalent amount of energy would weigh 340 grams and a standard lithium cell would weigh 240 grams.

These batteries are going to revolutionize marine energy needs including deep-sea exploration, Visco said; they’re getting close to commercial production techniques for another version of their battery that uses air rather than seawater.

PolyPlus just a few weeks ago landed a grant of almost $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to develop a rechargeable version of the lithium-air battery for use in electric vehicles.

“It will take time,” Visco cautioned. “Any new battery chemistry is going to take a while to get from small devices – laptops, cell phones – to electric vehicles.”

And there will be applications beyond that, he promised, noting the 35 pounds of batteries U.S. troops often must carry now could be reduced to one-tenth that weight.

PolyPlus, founded in 1991 as a spinoff from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, remains a small firm but has trained people with little or no scientific expertise to undertake the company’s work, Visco said; now they’re seeking venture capital to launch a production facility, also in Berkeley, that could create a host of new jobs.

After PolyPlus, Lee visited the Joint Bio-Energy Institute in Emeryville, a partnership led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that has received $7.6 million in federal funding for development of next generation bio-fuels. And then she visited Amyris Biotechnologies in Emeryville, which has received $24 million in stimulus grants to support its efforts to create renewable fuels and chemicals.

After that, Lee spoke this afternoon at the Alameda County Transgender Health and Resource Conference in Oakland’s Preservation Park, an event is designed to connect the transgender community with community resources outside of the scope of HIV/AIDS testing.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • RR, Uninvited Columnist

    I’d like to hear a trained scientist comment on these enterprises. Offhand, it looks more dream than reality.

  • Ralph Hoffmann, Formerly Invited Colunmist

    Your wish is my command, RR. I have a MS in Chemical Engineering. Lithium. Li, is the 3rd lightest element, and lightest metal. As lithium carbonate, it was used by Psychiatrists to treat Bipolar Disorder, the mental illness from which our political system is now currently sick. In air, the metal rapidly oxidizes. In water, it forms LiOH. It’s use in batteries is much more promising than in curing our political system.