Think of it as a Manhattan Project, except instead of secret nuclear bombs, the end result is much better batteries for devices, electric vehicles and the power grid. That’s at least one of the analogies used by the U.S. Department of Energy on Friday when it announced the launch of a new advanced research “Battery Hub,” to the tune of a $120 million, five-year government grant.
The Battery Hub, as most of those involved refer to it — officially named the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR, pronounced “J Cesar”) — will be led by scientists at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois (outside Chicago), will include actually include top researchers from a wide swath of some of the most prestigious institutions around the country, among them Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and other universities throughout the state and the Midwest.
“We wanted to have an aspirational and ambitious, but concrete, goal,” said Jeff Chamberlain, an Argonne chemist and the Battery Hub’s deputy director. “That goes back to Bell Labs and the Apollo Mission and the Manhattan Project. We set the goal as high as we possibly could.”
Check out the following video from Argonne introducing the Battery Hub:
Specifically, Argonne wants the Battery Hub to be able to make a battery with five times the energy storage capacity as the upper limit of current technologies, at one-fifth the cost, within five years, the so-called “5-5-5” plan.
“This is an extremely difficult bill to achieve,” Chamberlain emphasized. “We recognize that.”
But Chamberlain was confident that the Hub had assembled all of the right institutions and the right people to make the best possible attempt at attaining such a technological breakthrough in such a tight time frame.
Key to this is the fact that the Battery Hub isn’t conducting open-ended research for purely exploratory purposes — rather, the roughly 120 full-time equivalent scientists and engineers involved are working with performance standards that will allocate the Energy Department’s funding toward those projects that demonstrate success, while “de-emphasizing” in Chamberlain’s words, those technologies that don’t produce rapid or demonstrable progress.
“The question is: How do we drive toward development of these technologies so that scientists have the freedom to explore and discover but do so toward a specific goal?” Chamberlain asked rhetorically. “And the answer is through performance-based standards.”
Indeed, even getting the $120 million grant was based on a competitive process: The Energy Department selected Argonne’s proposal among several other candidates.
Argonne’s, and thus the Hub’s focus, is on three specific types of new battery technologies: Multivalent battery systems, chemical transformation of battery reactions, and “flow batteries.”
Multivalent battery systems are those that use a different primary material than the common lithium found in lithium ion batteries to carry a charge. Although lithium can only transport one electron in every interaction, other materials, such as magnesium and aluminum, can transport two or three, respectively, dramatically increasing the energy density of the battery. The challenge is that these materials are reactive — in the case of aluminum metal anodes, even explosive — and so no practical commercial batteries have yet been developed from them.
Meanwhile, another route that the Battery Hub will be pursuing is employing a completely different way of deriving energy from a battery. Instead of using intercalation — sandwiching molecules between each other in the batteries’ electrodes, this method would rely on “extracting energy through creation and destruction of chemical bonds,” as Chamberlain explained it to TPM. This, too, hasn’t yet been achieved on any significantly stable scale.
But while those two methods would be the best ways to optimize electric vehicle batteries or device batteries, Argonne is also pursuing the concept of batteries that could link into the power grid and better support the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, which aren’t always available per weather conditions. Flow batteries separate the components of a battery cell into separate tanks, making them unattractive options for mobile power sources.
Argonne notably did not include a target goal for improving the commonly used lithium-ion battery found in most electronics around the globe, from smartphones to tablets to laptops, because, as Chamberlain explained, there is already much work being done in this space by other capable teams, including other researchers at Argonne, and the Battery Hub wants to develop a more futuristic successor to that technology.
“We explicitly left lithium ion out of the proposal, there’s a lot of good work going around on lithium ion right now,” Chamberlain explained. “The innovation channel is already filled with lithium ion projects, and we think many will succeed. What’s missing is the front end, what’s next after lithium ion. That’s what we’ve set up with our objectives.”
Aside from the academic and government labs involved, the Battery Hub also includes partners from the private sector: Dow Chemical Company, Applied Materials, Inc, Johnson Controls, Inc., and Clean Energy Trust, each of which has made an agreement to support 20 percent of the cost of the specific projects they’re involved in with the Hub, or “skin in the game,” as Chamberlain put it.
Ultimately, Chamberlain said that scientists want the center to not only produce new technologies, but new products, jobs and whole spin-off companies. The Hub even has a whole intellectual property pool designed to deal with the patented technologies that it expects to come out of its work.
Still, Chamberlain noted that the center’s $120 million grant over five years is subject to continued appropriations from the Energy Department, and thus Congress, which must renew the budget every year, though the state of Illinois has also committed to some $5 million upfront to build a new headquarters for the center at Argonne’s campus, and another $30 million down the road, all on top the federal funding.
Correction: This article originally misidentified the deputy director as George W. Crabtree, who is in fact the director of the center. The deputy director, who spoke to TPM for this article, is Jeff Chamberlain. We have since corrected the errors in copy and sincerely regret them.