News Column

Argonne Lab Chosen as US Capital for Battery Technology

Nov. 30, 2012

Julie Wernau

Nov. 30--The U.S. Department of Energy has chosen Argonne National Laboratory, in suburban Lemont, to become America's capital for battery technology.

The announcement, to be made Friday, will include building a research facility to coordinate the clout and brainpower of five Department of Energy national laboratories, five universities and four private companies that independently have been working to advance battery technology.

Funded with $120 million from the DOE and a $35 million commitment from Gov. Pat Quinn, the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research is expected to develop lighter, cheaper batteries for everything from smartphones to electric vehicles that store more power and charge faster.

Chicago would be the fourth so-called Energy Innovation Hub that the DOE has established since 2010. The concept is modeled after research and development programs that spurred breakthroughs in the past, such as the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb.

Other hubs have been devoted to modeling and simulating nuclear reactors, developing fuels from sunlight, and improving energy efficiency in buildings.

Like the space race of the 1960s, the U.S. is battling other nations to be at the forefront of a rapidly growing $42 billion worldwide market for rechargeable batteries that's growing 8.6 percent per year. That number comes from research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, which predicts the industry's growth rate and revenues to double by 2018.

A breakthrough in battery technology would have major implications for the auto, wind and solar industries. In particular, the wind and solar industries are looking for affordable batteries to store intermittent power so they can provide power even when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining.

Batteries that store electricity from the electrical grid are also in demand in countries where outages are frequent or in the case of natural disasters that black out cities for days.

"We're going to be the center of the universe when it comes to charging batteries and storing energy," Quinn told the Tribune in an interview Thursday.

Quinn committed the state to giving $5 million to the project through a capital construction budget he controls designed for job creation and said he will work with legislators to garner an additional $30 million in state funding to help with the building's construction.

The DOE will dole out the $120 million over five years. News of the hub was first reported by Crain's Chicago Business.

A successful battery hub in Illinois, Quinn said, would drive companies in the industry to set up shop nearby and encourage scientists and engineers to stay in the Midwest.

"These people would have the opportunity to change the world. It's transformational," Quinn said.

Earlier this week, Smith Electric Vehicles announced it would make battery-powered trucks in Chicago and hire about 200 workers. Wanxiang, a Chinese automotive company with North American headquarters in Chicago, is vying to purchase bankrupt Massachusetts-based battery-maker A123. As of last week Woodridge-based Palladium Energy became the largest independent battery pack-maker in the Americas and Europe after acquiring competitor MicroSun Technologies LLC.

The Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the development of clean-energy businesses in the Midwest, will be responsible for ushering technology from Argonne to the marketplace with the help of Dow Chemical Co., Applied Materials Inc. and Johnson Controls Inc., which all have a financial interest in seeing batteries advance. Johnson, based in Milwaukee, also is vying for the A123 battery assets.

In addition to its own scientists, Argonne would be coordinating the research and development from Lawrence Berkeley, Pacific Northwest, Sandia and SLAC National Accelerator as well as students and researchers at Northwestern University, University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Michigan.

"I think this is probably the greatest opportunity that we have seen in a long time to bring federal funding that's intended to promote the creation of new companies and jobs," said U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill.

Tribune reporter Ted Gregory contributed.



Source: (c)2012 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services


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