Saturday, 1 December 2012

Green Blog: Seeking to Start a Silicon Valley for Battery Science

The Energy Department will establish a research hub for batteries and energy storage at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., and spend up to $120 million over the next five years, the department announced on Friday.

The hub is meant to mimic the creative environment of the old Bell Labs, where the energy secretary, Steven Chu, once worked, with physicists, chemists, engineers and others collaborating on practical problems.

Dr. Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, had sought to establish eight ?innovation hubs,? but Congress has gone along so far with only five. Three are now operating: One in energy efficient building designs, in Philadelphia; one on developing fuels from sunlight using artificial photosynthesis, split between Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, and one in improving light-water nuclear reactors, the type of reactor now in common commercial use, at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

In addition to the new hub for batteries and energy storage, which will be the fourth, the department is planning another for rare earth and energy-critical materials. It has not announced a location.

The battery hub is intended to produce revolutionary advances in batteries for electric cars, and for use on the grid, where they would help in integrating intermittent renewable energy sources like sun and wind.

?It?s a new operating model for doing R.&D., where you bring the discoverers, scientists like myself, and designers, who know how to think about putting those discoveries into prototypes, and finally manufacturers, people who build things, under one roof,?? said Eric D. Isaacs, a physicist who is the director of Argonne.

?Part of our partnership is actual companies who make massive amounts of things,?? he said. ?When I?m sitting in a lab, discovering, I have a colleague who is looking over my shoulder, who is thinking about how am I going to make that into a device, and make a million of them.??

Up to 120 people will work at the hub, he said, which is to begin operations in the next few months.

Batteries have advanced from lead-acid through nickel-cadmium, and nickel metal-hydride, to the current lithium ion, and lithium will remain the basis of batteries for the next few years, he predicted, but the hub is looking for the next big thing, something that will store five to 10 times as much energy in a package of the same size and weight. In this search, there are ?known unknowns,?? he said, maps of what needs to be worked out. There are various chemical approaches, but no ability now to manipulate the materials at a molecular level.

In a lithium ion battery, an atom that carries one unit of electrical charge can be made to flow in one direction or the other, thus absorbing electricity or giving it off. One approach, said Dr. Isaacs, would be to find a particle that carries two units of charge, something a chemist would call multivalent. And Argonne has instruments and expertise to work on that problem, he said.

The project has strong support from Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, which is contributing $5 million, and Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, both of whom are hoping for spin-off economic benefits.

?I want Chicago to be the global center of the battery and electric vehicle industries,? said Mr. Emanuel in a statement. ?From the research and ideas to the construction and the vehicles hitting the street, I want every phase of the industry here, and the Argonne hub will be a catalyst that will allow us to capitalize on this research.?

It also came with strong support from a variety of senators, led by Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

Dr. Isaacs said they were hoping for the equivalent of Silicon Valley, which in researching batteries might be called ?Lithium Valley,? or, he mused, perhaps ?Multivalent Valley.?


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