Today the Department of Energy established a new, $120 million center for battery research with an ambitious goal of making batteries for electric vehicles and electric grid storage five times cheaper within five years. The center, which will be headquartered at Argonne National Lab near Chicago, is the fourth DOE Innovation Hub, a novel type of research organization at DOE that’s meant to mimic the successful R&D model behind the development of transistors, atomic weapons and radar. The strategy is to put together the “best scientists with the best engineers,” to speed up the process of commercializing advances, says Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who came up with the Hub concept based in part on his time at Bell Labs.
At the Hub, people with experience in industry can help guide scientists toward battery materials that have the potential for scaling up, and engineers can build prototypes out of new materials developed by scientists that could break through the limits of existing materials. Argonne will team up with a handful of universities and with companies, including Dow Chemical, Applied Materials, and Johnson Controls, that bring manufacturing expertise.
Better batteries are needed before electric cars can supplant gasoline-powered ones. Batteries are very costly, which is one of the main reasons electric vehicles cost far more than conventional ones (see, “How Improved Batteries Will Make Electric Vehicles Competitive” and “Beyond Lithium Ion: ARPA-E Places Bets on Novel Energy Storage”). One problem with previous approaches to energy research, especially in the area of battery development, is that often major industrial players have already solved the problems academic and governement researchers are working on—but are keeping their discoveries to themselves as trade secrets. Industrial partners at the Hub can nudge scientists away from working on those problems.
The selection of Argonne isn’t surprising. It’s been doing battery research for decades, and technology developed there has been licensed for use in the Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle and served as the basis for a new battery from the startup Envia that stores more than twice as much energy as conventional lithium ion batteries, the type used in current electric vehicles.
Earlier innovation hubs are making progress. One, which was funded two years ago, recently opened new research facilities and showed off prototype devices designed to make fuel out of sunlight and water (see “Artificial Photosynthesis Effort Takes Root”).