Manufacturing, Sustainability, and Technology

Jump start for 5-5-5

West Michigan has a role in federal-funded electric vehicle battery research.

December 8, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
Print
Text Size:
A A
New, expanded research on smaller, cheaper and more powerful batteries for electric vehicles, funded with $120 million from the U.S. Department of Energy over the next five years, will be led by the prestigious Argonne National Laboratory and will include Johnson Controls in Holland, plus the University of Michigan and Dow Chemical Co. in Midland. The announcement from the DOE came Nov. 30.

Argonne Labs, based in Lemont, Ill., near Chicago, “is just an incredible advanced research center, one of the largest in the world, so for us to have a connection to that kind of horsepower is going to be a pretty exciting economic catalyst,” predicted Randy Thelen, president of Lakeshore Advantage, the economic development agency in Zeeland.

At least two years ago, according to Thelen, Lakeshore Advantage began working on a strategy to help promote the addition of advanced battery research to the production “cluster” in West Michigan. By then, Argonne Labs was aware of electric vehicle battery production being started in Holland by JCI and LG Chem, so Lakeshore Advantage took business leaders from West Michigan to visit Argonne, and the lab sent some of its researchers here.

Argonne National Laboratory began as the federal government’s Manhattan Project, which created the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction in 1942 at the University of Chicago. Soon, the dangerous research was moved out of the city proper and, over the years, Argonne branched out into other areas. It capitalized on its work in physics, chemical sciences and metallurgy to eventually establish a strong battery research program.

Thelen said when Argonne put together a grant proposal for submission to the DOE, it knew it wanted to connect its research teams to companies already in the field of electric vehicle batteries “to make sure their research was aligned with what the industry needs were. So it was just natural for them to reach out to us and invite us to participate.”

The research hub will be called the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, or JCESR, pronounced “J-Caesar,” and will involve five DOE national laboratories, five universities and four private companies.

Other national labs partnering with Argonne include Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. University partners include Northwestern University, University of Chicago, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and University of Michigan.

Four private companies also have been invited to join the hub “to help clear a path to the marketplace for the advances developed at JCESR,” according to DOE. Besides Dow and JCI, the other two are Applied Materials Inc. in California, and Clean Energy Trust in Chicago.

The University of Michigan said a dozen of its researchers will be part of JCESR “to develop breakthrough batteries for longer-range electric vehicles and a power grid that can store electricity from solar and wind energy.” U-M said its portion of the DOE grant is $7 million.

JCI, with world headquarters in Milwaukee, is the largest car battery maker in North America, and its Holland plant is already producing lithium-ion battery packs for electric vehicles made by Daimler and BMW in Europe.

MaryAnn Wright, vice president of Global Technology and Innovation at JCI, said her company has two roles within JCESR.

“One is to support the science (of advanced batteries development) and the second is get it out of the lab and into the market,” said Wright.

She said that will mean prototype development at the Holland plant, with the end goal being to get it into production. While JCI is not now predicting any increase in employment at the Holland plant, JCESR is expected to stimulate the electric vehicle industry in the U.S.

“Unlike a lot of open-ended research and development, this is very time-bound,” added Wright, referring to the five-year life of JCESR. She also mentioned that the goal of JCESR has been succinctly summarized in the slogan ‘five-five-five.” That stands for development of an advanced electric vehicle battery with five times the energy density and power of the existing batteries, costing one-fifth of those now, and ready in five years.

Successfully developing a cheaper, better battery and getting it into production will “clearly help establish the U.S. as the leader in these advanced technologies, because, you know, we’re in a big race and in competition with the rest of the world — in particular, Asia,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office issued an announcement Nov. 30 stating that the DOE grant will result in two new advanced battery research facilities in Michigan, one at MSU’s Bioeconomy Institute in Holland and one at U-M. However, Paul Hunt, senior associate and vice president for research at MSU and a spokesperson for the Bioeconomy Institute in Holland, could not confirm that it will be involved in JCESR. He did state, however, that MSU has “offered to be” involved.

George Crabtree, director of the JCESR at Argonne Labs, said MSU was not among the original participants in the grant proposal to DOE. “Now that the Hub (funding) has been awarded, we are actually looking to additional collaborations,” he said, although he noted that those new participants would not be covered by the DOE funding.

MSU research has “things to offer,” and MSU has been in conversation with JCESR since the DOE grant was made, said Crabtree, adding it is too early to say what might happen.

“We want to look for other partnerships that can extend our footprint and help us accomplish our goals,” said Crabtree. Argonne Labs would help potential new partners find funding, he added.

There was an open national competition for the DOE funding for advanced battery research, with a “rigorous merit review process that relied on outside expert reviewers,” according to DOE.

JCESR is the fourth Energy Innovation Hub established by DOE since 2010. Other Hubs are devoted to modeling and simulation of nuclear reactors, achieving major improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings, and developing fuels from sunlight. A fifth Hub focused on critical materials research was announced earlier this year and is still in the application process.

Energy Innovation Hubs are major integrated research centers involving many different institutions and technical backgrounds that combine research with engineering to accelerate scientific discovery in critical energy areas, according to DOE. They are modeled after the characteristics of the Manhattan Project; Lincoln Lab at MIT, which developed radar; AT&T Bell Laboratories that developed the transistor; and, more recently, the highly successful Bioenergy Research Centers established during the Bush Administration to pioneer advanced techniques in biotechnology, including biofuels.

DOE said key battery improvements developed at Argonne helped make the Chevy Volt battery possible.

Recent Articles by Pete Daly

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus