Applying Technology Readiness Levels to Advanced Battery Development

November 2, 2022
Advanced flight dashboard demonstrating TRL - technology readiness level

How has battery technology progressed in recent years?

There’s a certain skepticism that comes with battery technology. Something new is always five years away, according to some as ARS Technica reports, the capacity of today’s batteries is more than 1.5 times what it was ten years ago.

There are many categories of potential improvement within battery technology, including energy density, cost, cycle life, and safety. For example, our silicon anode lithium batteries represent a significant increase in energy density. 

Many battery manufacturers are continually exploring ways to store more lithium, with new active materials that can go beyond today’s limits. New markets for solid state batteries are yet another future concept, replacing the conventional liquid electrolyte in a battery with a solid compound.

As battery researchers, developers, and manufacturers explore ways to change existing batteries and envision new ones, it’s important to remember how far we’ve come. There will always be more work to do, and more improvements to be made, but comparing new and old shows how far we’ve come.  For example, we’re a far cry away from the original lithium ion battery of the 1990s, with an energy density of less than 100 watt-hours per kilogram.

What are the benefits of advanced battery development?

Energy storage in the form of advanced battery development ensures that the world has access to denser, lighter, more powerful, and more affordable energy. The World Economic Forum points out that demand for lithium ion batteries is projected to increase 17-fold by 2030, showing that this technology is in high demand.

Batteries are generally safe, ​​notwithstanding design defects or low-quality materials. New technology and development could make them — and the things they power — even safer. They could also make other technology, such as electric cars, more affordable as battery technology itself comes down in price.

We cannot talk about advanced battery development without talking about climate change. Batteries are considered a cleaner form of energy offering an opportunity to move away from oil, coal, and natural gas. They also offer a way to keep the supply chain closer to home and reduce reliance on other countries in an increasingly unstable world.

How are new developments changing the game?

Battery manufacturers and researchers are exploring ways to store more lithium, with new active materials that can go beyond today’s limits. 

Solid state batteries are yet another future concept, replacing the conventional liquid electrolyte in a battery with a solid compound. Some car manufacturers are working hard to bring this new battery technology to market to reduce the cost of electric vehicles.

What industries could benefit from this technology?

Transportation is a key contributor to global emissions, and thus, an industry that could be poised to take advantage of new battery development. Consumers increasingly want sustainable travel, and regulators are demanding a push away from oil and gas. Batteries could not only offer economic benefits, but also lessen humanity’s impact on the environment. The energy industry could also benefit from advanced battery development for the same reasons.

How do batteries meet consumer demand?

Batteries impact every area of our lives from consumer devices like phones, computers and smart watches to critical infrastructure. Batteries are used in transportation, medical devices, and in the energy sector as an energy storage device. Companies are working to ramp up production and future technology development to meet not only today’s needs, but also the needs of the future.

What is the technology readiness level (TRL)?

Technology readiness levels, or TRL, are measurements that assess how mature a particular technology is. TRL 1 is the lowest level, and TRL 9 is the highest.

TRL 1 means that the technology is simply at a stage of scientific research, and that results from that research are being extrapolated into research and development for the future. The TRL moves to 2 when there are practical applications, but the technology is still speculative. In TRL 3, active research and design are underway and there may be a proof of concept model underway as well.

When that proof of concept tech is complete, the tech moves on to TRL 4. That technology moves its way through testing and validation through TRL 5 to TRL 6, when there is a fully functional prototype or representation. TRL 7 brings with it a working model or prototype, tested in its operational environment. In TRL 8, the technology is complete and qualified. Finally, in TRL 9, the system is proven in the operational environment.

How was the measure first used by NASA?

TRL was developed by NASA in the 1970s, as a way to determine how close a technology was to being deployed in space. NASA recognized how important technological maturity was, and still is, to success in space. In a research paper written by Sadin, Povinelli, and Rosen in 1989, the authors explain that the TRLs were introduced based on learning experience from previous projects. They further explain that TRLs help various stakeholders understand where a technology is at, including when it’s time for handoff.

What are some common industries that TRL is used in?

NASA is still using the TRL concept, including for rover development. The Department of Defense began using Technology Readiness Levels in weapons technology, and it has since been picked up by many other organizations. Companies like BP and GoogleX use it as well, in small examples of commercial applications.

TRL is a useful scale for any sector with low risk tolerance, including defense and infrastructure. Of course, not everyone is going to space with their technology, but the general principles apply based on NASA’s original work.

How could TRLs be applied to battery development projects?

Many battery development projects are working off of existing technology, such as lithium-ion batteries, so the early research and development stages may not last as long.

What are the potential benefits of using TRLs in battery development?

Batteries might be able to follow the TRL stages. Governments and taxpayer-funded entities are often involved in research and development for batteries, which means resources must be carefully stewarded. And, with greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental concerns at the forefront, it’s important to avoid both public backlash and wasted time.

A TRL framework ensures that everyone involved in battery research and development knows what is happening at each stage. They could also be able to understand what can be determined with accuracy at each stage — for instance, in the early TRL stages, the final cost of the technology could be unknown. This could help keep expectations realistic, especially for those who are less knowledgeable about the intricacies of battery tech.

How could TRLs ensure successful battery development project outcomes?

When a project runs correctly through a system like TRL, all of the players involved have a roadmap. They can see where a project currently stands, see the future potential, and also, have the insight and information needed to decide if it’s worth further pursuing.

How could TRLs be improved for advanced battery development projects?

Battery development projects may also look at manufacturing readiness levels (“MRL”). This scale looks at how feasible it is to manufacture the product, in this case battery technology, in the quantity, cost and quality required. There are also business and market readiness levels (BMRL) which take a project from exploratory, high risk investment to sales at a high level.

REEEM adds a new scale, the Innovation Readiness Level (“IRL”). It combines technology readiness level, intellectual property readiness level, market readiness level, consumer readiness level, and society readiness level. The TRL and market readiness levels are as outlined above, but the IRL adds in the freedom to operate a technology, what knowledge consumers need and their need for the technology, and how the technology impacts society.

Finally, the IRL scale specifically looks at energy storage capacity, energy density, specific energy, charge and discharge rates, response time, lifetime of the storage system, and efficiency. These additions to the TRL scale focus heavily on the intricacies of advanced battery development projects, making the IRL scale a potentially helpful concept.

What factors are used to apply TRLs to battery development projects?

Another researcher offers the Battery Component Readiness Level (“BCRL”) framework as a concept, which can help shed light on how TRLs apply to battery development. While all falling under a broad battery industry umbrella, there are big differences in development paths for different batteries and different technologies. Applying TRLs to a slight improvement on an existing lithium ion battery, for example, might look a lot different than creating an all-new game changing battery.

It’s important to look at these variances when applying TRLs to battery development projects, whether one uses the BCRL scale or not, to understand potential timelines. Some technologies might face fewer barriers because they use existing production and processes or are a slight modification. Developers may find these products move quickly through the TRL scale.