Argonne wins 'Manhattan Project' for car batteries

Paul Merrion

Published: November 29, 2012 6:00 am ET

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Topics Automotive, Sustainability, Materials, Design

WASHINGTON (Nov. 29, 1 p.m. ET) — Argonne National Laboratory has won federal funding for a highly coveted research center modeled after Bell Labs and the Manhattan Project that will aim to create smaller, cheaper batteries for electric vehicles and other long-range energy needs.

The Energy Department’s decision is expected to be announced later this week, according to two Capitol Hill sources.

Argonne’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research proposal, which includes a team of four other national labs, four universities and private industry, was supported by 10 senators and 39 representatives, including most of the Illinois congressional delegation, according to a letter of support last April.

The main purpose of the research effort is to dramatically bring down the size, weight and cost of batteries for electric and hybrid cars. More efficient, longer-lasting batteries also are needed to make variable wind and solar power a more important part of the electrical grid.

Argonne, located in Argonne, Ill., about 25 miles southwest of Chicago, developed the lithium battery technology used in the Chevy Volt and is already a leader in battery research. But this new multidisciplinary center was viewed as critical to cementing its role at the forefront of battery development.

“In order to meet our energy goals – putting 1 million electric hybrid vehicles on the road and producing 25 percent of all electricity from solar and wind by 2015 – the U.S. must invest in the type of large-scale innovative research that will produce major breakthroughs in energy storage technology,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement last July after meeting with Energy Secretary Steven Chu about the proposal.

Winning the battery research center was a top priority for Argonne, and it lead to a full-court press by Sen. Durbin as well as Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Hinsdale, who lost her bid for re-election this year. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn also pushed hard for the project.

Congress already has approved $20 million to launch the research center, and it’s expected to be funded at $25 million a year for the next four years. The state of Illinois also is expected to help support the project, but the amount could not be confirmed last night.

An Argonne spokesman could not confirm the award and an Energy Department spokesman declined to comment.

The Argonne team includes the University of Chicago, which runs Argonne under a DOE contract, as well as Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Michigan.

Other national lab partners include Lawrence Berkeley, Pacific Northwest and Sandia, as well as SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, according to a congressional letter of support from last April.

Private industry collaborators include Santa Clara, Calif.-based Applied Materials Inc., Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co. and Glendale, Wis.-based Johnson Controls Inc. A fourth partner, Waltham, Mass.-based A123 Systems Inc., filed for bankruptcy protection last month and has reached a tentative agreement to sell its battery business to Johnson Controls.

“We believe that a large team multidisciplinary hub research environment would really link the fundamental science and engineering research to technology and production needs that are really necessary to have rapid and meaningful advances across the spectrum,” said Linda Horton, director of material sciences and engineering in the Energy Department’s Office of Basic Sciences, according to a transcript of a briefing for competitors on the project last year. “You never know where the advances are going to happen. But what the hub can bring is a focus across the technologies to really enable not just current solutions or science advances but next generation battery technologies.”


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Argonne wins 'Manhattan Project' for car batteries

Paul Merrion

Published: November 29, 2012 6:00 am ET

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