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With new battery hub, Chicago seeks to lead nation on electric vehicles


Physicist Mahalingam Balasubramanian conducts battery research at Argonne National Laboratory. (Photo by ANL via Creative Commons)

Chicago has often been called the nation’s candy capital, murder capital, basketball capital, steakhouse capital and even the capital of “false confessions.”

Now Chicago boosters are planning to add the title “battery capital” to the list (though that title is already claimed by Holland, Michigan, thanks to two factories that opened last year).

Advanced batteries are crucial to a cleaner and more efficient energy future, many experts say. Developing better batteries for electric vehicles could replace emissions-spewing trucks, cars and machinery. And improving giant batteries to store energy on the grid or in buildings is key to large-scale deployment of solar and wind energy.

In November, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago had won the heated competition for a $120 million, five-year grant to develop a battery research and development hub.

This means a stand-alone battery facility will be built at Argonne, and the lab will partner with prominent universities and private companies in a multi-faceted initiative that aims to explore fundamental yet vexing science and engineering questions while encouraging venture capital start-up companies and established multinational corporations to channel their findings into commercial applications.

The hub will enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Chicago’s existing clean energy entrepreneurial scene and with municipal efforts to promote electric vehicles – Mayor Rahm Emanuel has also said he wants Chicago to be the electric vehicle capital of the nation. Within a week of the Department of Energy announcement, Emanuel also made four other announcements related to electric vehicles — including the opening of a Smith Electric Vehicles factory making electric trucks.

The Clean Energy Trust, a partner in the battery hub, works with city officials, researchers and investors to foster clean energy start-up companies and innovations in the Chicago area. City and state officials have also made commitments to developing an advanced grid of the type that would benefit greatly from improved energy storage options.
A powerful hub

Along with the Energy Department funds, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn promised $5 million in capital and he is working with the state legislature to offer another $30 million for the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research – or JCESR (pronounced J-Caesar) — being built as the nerve center of the battery hub.

Jeff Chamberlain, JCESR’s deputy director, explained that the battery hub will give researchers the chance to explore “basic” yet tricky questions that industry forces rarely find the time or resources to address.

The idea is that breakthroughs in understanding how atoms act and interact will allow researchers to overcome some of the problems that have so far curbed the development and production of more powerful and more efficient batteries.

“At Argonne we’ve worked on batteries for many decades and usually the question we’re trying to answer is ‘can we make a technology work?’” said Chamberlain. “In our proposal we instead said ‘how does matter function?’ We’re using particle-scattering devices to look down at the atomic level at what’s happening during use of a battery…It really is about moving atoms and electrons and nano- and micro-particles around.”

Chamberlain said a major goal is developing batteries from multivalent ions. Lithium ions in the batteries currently used in electric vehicles are monovalent, meaning they have only one electron in the atom’s outer shell easily accessible for chemical reactions. Batteries made with magnesium ions with two such electrons (divalent) or aluminum ions with three (trivalent) could be far superior for electric vehicles and other uses.

Chamberlain said another hope is to perfect a non-aqueous (or non-water-based) battery for energy storage on the grid or at the sites of wind and solar arrays.

Chamberlain thinks that once such breakthroughs are made, the resulting technology innovations will be perfected and brought to market much more quickly than in most situations. That’s because of the structure of the hub, wherein researchers will be in constant contact with private developers and investors who can begin the process of honing in on a useful product as soon as promising research emerges.

The intellectual property resulting from the battery hub’s research will be available for anyone to build upon, while the companies and partners working directly with the hub will have a “head start,” in Chamberlain’s words.

“Normally the innovator is at the bench thinking, developing, publishing, talking to industry,” before commercial developers even get involved, Chamberlain said. “What we’d like to do is compress that serial process or, even better, think of it not as serial. The reason we have companies operating with us is they have very early insights into what we’re doing, so they can take a license very early and contribute to the research.”

Amy Francetic, executive director of the Clean Energy Trust, said that her organization will work with an advisory panel to review the hub’s research twice a year and share results with potential investors. “We’re committed to finding the right path to market for all this science,” she said. “Maybe it’s as a portfolio of investors, maybe it’s a small company or a large company.”

She added that utility policies and state laws related to the grid and electricity distribution could be mutually beneficial with the development of electric vehicles and energy storage systems that the battery hub will explore.

“The way we price electricity could make it cheaper to own electric vehicles, and could speed the adoption of electric vehicles,” she said. “And over time we’ll have one of the most sophisticated grids in the country, and that will be very complementary with the battery science.”
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