Argonne Goal: A Major Energy Revolution in Batteries Could Happen in 5 Years


The Obama administration last week pledged $120 million to a new project with a stated goal of developing batteries that are five times more powerful and five times cheaper. In an accelerated, interdisciplinary research and development program over the next five years, the effort aims to link the cutting edge of research and green technology directly to manufacturing.

Energy Secretary Stephen Chu made the announcement on Friday at the Chicago-area Argonne National Lab, the home of the new project, called the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR, pronounced “J-Caesar”). In order to "change the rate in which something is actually done," innovations must move from the lab to the private sector as quickly as possible, according to Chu.

He compares the project to the development environment Bell Laboratories in the World War II Manhattan Project that produced an atomic bomb.

Naysayers and contrarians in Washington are likely to compare the federal funding to that of the now-bankrupt A123 Batteries and Solyndra, both backed by the Obama administration. The auction of A123 this Thursday is expected to draw a bidding war between a Chinese company and American interests aiming to keep U.S. technology stateside.

The award is the latest in the DOE effort, begun in 2010, to keep the U.S. out front in energy technologies. The Battery and Energy Storage Hub at Argonne is the latest of the “Energy Innovation Hubs.” Others include the Modeling and Simulation for Nuclear Reactors Hub, the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub, and the Fuels From Sunlight Hub.

While many media outlets have focused on the car battery aspect of the stated research goals of the project, the aims of this energy storage research and technology are much broader.

“With the creation of this hub, we embark on a historic, focused effort to transform our nation’s energy landscape in both transportation and the power grid,” said Director Eric Isaacs of Argonne National Lab.

The hurdle for the wind and solar industries is no longer in public opinion or capacity, and it’s certainly not in supply. The technologies developed in recent years can solve both pollution by coal-fired power plants and high energy costs if only the electricity produced could be stored and transported in a large, modernized power grid.

"This hub award gives us the resources necessary to speed innovation not only in advanced battery research," Isaacs said. "We will develop entirely new ways to store energy, and that’s important beyond lithium ion."

The modernizing of the U.S. energy grid has been a stated goal of Washington for years, and one that is sorely needed. This effort will also be aided by the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), which announced $130 million in funding projects last week.

Chu added that it is "very, very important for American industrial competitiveness that research be intimately linked with manufacturing in a way that will propel the United States forward.”

Japan and South Korea are providing stiff international competition in this technology, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pointed out at the press conference. The project, largely regional but also national, is a boon for the area, bringing with it the promise of manufacturing jobs.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn touted the state’s research innovation and history.

“Illinois is going to be the battery capital of the United States of America,” said Quinn.

Isaacs said that the issues at hand need not be a dichotomy of “either/or.” He stated a belief that greenhouse gas emissions can be cut while jobs are created, power grid storage technology can make wind and solar practical and cost effective, and that innovative and practical electric cars can be produced and sold more cheaply.

Five Midwestern universities will collaborate on the project: the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Michigan, and the University of Illinois campuses at Chicago and Champaign-Urbana. Four private firms — Dow Chemical, Applied Materials, Johnson Controls, and Clean Energy Trust — will participate in the project. Participating national laboratories besides Argonne include Lawrence Berkeley Labs, Pacific Northwest (Richland, Wash.), SLAC (Stanford) and Sandia (Albuquerque and Livermore, Calif.).