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Department Of Energy Powers Up Battery Research At Argonne

By Chris Bentley in News on Dec 2, 2012 4:00PM

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An electric vehicle parking spot at Northfield Walgreens. (Image courtesy Carmen B. via Flickr.)

Just look under the hood of any Chevy Volt for evidence of Argonne National Laboratory’s prominence in the field of battery research. In 1976, The research facility became the Department of Energy’s first independent test lab investigating battery applications for transportation, spinning off numerous patents and leading development of the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery.

The DOE returned Friday with a $120 million award for Argonne, tasking scientists at the nation’s fifth energy innovation hub with a tall order: Make batteries that are five times more powerful and one fifth the price in just five years. The announcement, which brought U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu to Lemont, Ill., formally established the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). Up to 120 people will work at the hub, which will get off the ground in a few months.

Lithium-ion batteries — currently powering your laptop, cell phone and virtually every other electronic device that can be recharged — are a topic of intense research now, largely because of renewed interest in electric vehicles. Although much of JCESR’s research will focus on improving current technology, scientists will also investigate new materials that have the potential to supplant lithium-ion batteries.

Energy storage is a crucial component for scaling up renewable energy generation, as wind and solar power sources do not provide electricity at a constant rate. Advanced batteries distributed throughout the national power grid could also lighten the load on utilities, helping reduce or eliminate blackouts.

Modeled after four existing hubs, JCESR will gather brainpower from partnerships with four additional national laboratories, five universities (University of Chicago, Northwestern University, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Illinois and University of Michigan), and industry partners including Johnson Controls, Applied Materials and Dow Chemical. Public-private partnerships will sustain the high-stakes research environment, which has earned praise from local politicians who hope private sector offshoots will create jobs and raise the region’s national profile.

Governor Pat Quinn has committed $5 million through his “Illinois Jobs Now!” plan to help build the JCESR facility, and has promised to provide an additional $30 million in future capital funding. Eric D. Isaacs, Argonne’s director, only half-jokingly proposed a new name for the region: Lithium Valley.