Argonne National Laboratory Joins Kentucky Universities in Battery R&D Center

By Greg Johnson April 8, 2009

It would take a heck of a lot of advanced-technology batteries for President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to put a million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.

Unfortunately, unless the competitive picture changes dramatically, most of those cars would be powered by batteries produced in Asian countries that now dominate the advanced battery manufacturing sector.

With that hard economic reality in mind, Argonne National Laboratory is teaming up with two Kentucky universities to establish a national research and development center that will be charged with transforming the U.S. into a viable contender when it comes to manufacturing tomorrow's high-tech batteries.

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Prius test vehicles at Argonne National Laboratory

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The center that will be located in central Kentucky will be supported by the University of Kentucky and Louisville University. Its not-so-modest goal, as summed up on Wednesday morning by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear: ramp up domestic production capacity and turn the U.S. into "the hands-down global leader of these technologies."

The center is supposed to make it easier for federal laboratories, university researchers, manufacturers, suppliers and end-users to collaborate on technologies that can be commercialized.

Many experts believe that advanced battery design and manufacturing could become as strategically important to the global economy as oil is today. But the U.S. has reduced itself to a bit player when it comes to manufacturing increasingly high-tech batteries that will be needed to reduce global dependence on oil and cut tailpipe emissions.

Much of the advanced battery technology now being commercialized in Asia was developed in the U.S., according to a recent report for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Nevada-based energy storage consultant Ralph Brodd. But U.S. companies "opted out" of battery production, Brodd said, because of the relatively low financial return.

The U.S. can't afford to remain on the sideline because "other countries are investing heavily in the manufacture of lithium-ion cells," Brodd said. "Those countries understand that whoever makes the batteries will one day make the cars."

That prospect has fueled a flurry of activity in recent months. Earlier this week, for example, Michigan increased the amount of tax credits available to battery manufacturers to $555 million. Next month, Washington, D.C. will begin to distribute as much as $2 billion in grants for advanced battery research.

But the U.S. battery industry faces a decidedly uphill battle. More than four dozen advanced-battery factories are being built in China -- none, currently, are under way in this country.

Late last year, the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture petitioned Washington, D.C. for $1 billion that would be used to help build a plant to make advanced batteries for electric cars.

Founding members of the alliance include 3M, ActaCell, All Cell Technologies, Altair Nanotechnologies, Dontech Global, EaglePicher Corporation, EnerSys, Envia Systems, FMC, MicroSun Technologies, Mobius Power, SiLyte, Superior Graphite, and Townsend Advanced Energy.

The Alliance has thrown its support behind the new research center in Kentucky.

Initially, researchers in Kentucky will focus on lithium-ion battery manufacturing R&D, said Mark Peters, Argonne's deputy associate laboratory director of Energy Sciences & Engineering. Later on, the center would focus on "technologies that would enable a significant increase in energy densities, including lithium-air and zinc-air systems for vehicle applications and advanced batteries for cost efficient and long-life grid power storage applications," Peters said.

Why drop a center down in Kentucky? Officials at Argonne and the two universities note that central Kentucky is within 500 miles of more than 4,800 auto-related vehicle manufacturers, including 69 vehicle assembly plants.

Kentucky is expected to help fund the center through bonds, research tax credits and other incentives. Researchers from UK's Center for Applied Energy Research and Louisville's Center for Renewable Energy Research and Environmental Stewardship will work with the center. 

Argonne, which traces its heritage back to World War II's Manhattan Project, has turned its Transportation Technology R&D Center into one of the nation's leading R&D centers for advanced batteries.

Argonne is researching lower-cost cell materials and cell chemistry that would improve battery performance, life and safety -- three key attributes of the advanced lithium-ion batteries that will be needed to power the fleet that Obama envisions.

Greg Johnson, Contributor

Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

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greenpony says: 4:06 PM, 04.08.09

Why does it always seem like the US is playing catch-up with technologies these days?

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