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Seeking to Start a Silicon Valley for Battery Science


A researcher at Argonne National Laboratory loads a lithium ion battery into a detector that will help probe the mechanisms that limit battery performance.

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.
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