Battery dream team will spark innovations in cars, grid
Imagine an electric car that costs less than $40,000 and runs on a battery which doesn't fill half the vehicle.
Imagine a battery with the capacity to store wind and solar power on cloudy, still days.
Who's on the battery dream team?
Here are some of the entities working with Argonne scientists to build a better battery: Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Michigan. Businesses include Johnson Controls, Dow Chemical Co., Applied Materials and Clean Energy Trust.
Imagine both concepts becoming reality within five years.
Anything is possible, with the right combination of lab coats, business suits and mechanics' coveralls, Argonne National Laboratory researchers think.
For years, the DuPage-based lab has worked to build a better battery, upping the ante on the lithium-ion version that powers hybrids and electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt.
That effort took a quantum leap late last year when the U.S. Department of Energy announced the creation of a battery dream team at Argonne that combines science and industry, including businesses like Dow Chemical Co.
Up to $120 million in federal funding is dedicated for a battery storage research center charged (pun intended) with two goals: invent a battery that goes further and is smaller than those currently used in electric cars and hybrids; and figure out how to improve storage of renewable energy such as wind or solar on the electrical grid.
And since "battery dream team" is too short for a $120 million project, it actually has two names — the Batteries and Energy Storage Hub or Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, or JCESR.
Argonne's proposal, chosen in a competitive process, is simple. "Five, five, five," said JCESR Director George Crabtree, a physicist and engineer. That means creating batteries with five times the energy density at one-fifth of the cost within five years.
Getting to that goal is anything but simple. "These are stretch goals," Crabtree said.
What makes it achievable is the mix of scientists, local universities and national labs partnering in the effort, researchers said.
"We're pulling together the best scientific minds in the country to look at new ways to store energy," said JCESR Deputy Director Jeff Chamberlain, a surface chemist who lives in Aurora.
Bringing the scientists down to earth will be representatives from the private sector.
"It's very easy for academic researchers to sometimes take their eyes off the ultimate goal, but if we have some partners who think about profitability, it will help keep us aimed in that direction," Chamberlain said.
For example, Chamberlain recalled talking to Ford executives about producing an electric car that could go 300 miles on one charge. They pragmatically deflated his balloon by pointing out that the U.S. doesn't have the electrical infrastructure to support that state-of-the-art battery yet, so he should adjust his target.
"Ford's point was that until you can charge (the battery) in five minutes, it will never compete with gasoline," Chamberlain said.
So let's talk cars first.
The enormous lithium batteries used in electric cars cost manufacturers anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000, Chamberlain guesstimated, noting that the industry keeps these numbers confidential. As a result, hybrids are pricey and electrics like the Volt retail around $40,000.
"If you can take the cost down by improving the performance of the battery, the average consumer will (benefit)," Chamberlain said.
Then, there's the size thing.
"The (lithium-ion) battery that goes into the Volt is a huge thing," Crabtree said. "We're looking beyond lithium ion to the next generation battery. We need to make a battery that's a smaller size but has a larger charge."
So how do you invent a super-battery?
"We're aiming at new technologies that are fairly simple," Chamberlain said, adding that this could include different elements such as magnesium or aluminum.
"Electricity is nothing but moving electrons," Chamberlain explained. While a lithium ion releases one electron in a reaction, magnesium releases two, he said. "In theory, you're doubling the capacity."
And what about the Hub's other priority — storing renewable energy on the nation's electrical grid?
Everyone wants to reduce dependence on foreign oil, and one way to do that is with alternate energy such as wind or solar power.
The concern is — "electricity is a product that's made on demand," Chamberlain said. And that's a problem when the sun doesn't shine or it's a windless day.
"We have to find a way to store (alternative power)," Crabtree said.
Wind and solar power now comprise about 2 percent of the electrical grid. To increase that percentage, renewable energy would have to be more consistent and reliable. Hence, the need for storage.
The team has five years to build a better battery, and if they're successful it will empower the local economy, researchers predict. They noted that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office and universities are working on plans to attract investors to support small businesses generated by the project.
"What really excites me is if we do it right, there's an enormous opportunity for jobs and business spinoffs," Chamberlain said.
What do you think about batteries ... or whatever? Drop me an email at
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"Check it out on the Official Illinois Highway Map. Lake-Cook Road is a Cook County Highway and IDOT cannot put an Illinois route designation on a county highway. Hence, Illinois Route 53 exits on Illinois Route 68 and not on Lake-Cook Road."
I spluttered my coffee when I read the happy news release from the Illinois tollway stating "Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88) roadwork complete." Does that mean forever? As in, I will never have to putter past orange pylons on I-88 again? No, but, that annoying stretch of construction between Orchard Road in North Aurora and Rochelle is complete. Be grateful for small blessings.
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