Argonne battery lab adds Midwest power to industry
Dec 01, 2012 (Menafn - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --A 120 million federal project to develop smaller, cheaper and more powerful batteries for the next generation of fuel-saving cars will be based in the Chicago area and deeply involve Johnson Controls Inc., Wisconsin's largest company.
Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., won five-years of funding to create the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research. The award was announced Friday by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.
Illinois may be the host of the new battery project, or hub, but the inclusion of Wisconsin's largest company and the University of Michigan is key, said MaryAnn Wright, vice president of global technology and innovation at Johnson Controls' power solutions business.
"The beautiful thing of this is this is a Midwest play," Wright said.
While the project won't yield an immediate expansion or hiring spree for Johnson Controls, it boosts work under way at the company's advanced battery lab in Glendale as well as labs that it's opening at University of Wisconsin engineering schools in Milwaukee and Madison.
The Argonne battery hub -- modeled on other energy hubs around the country, including a bioenergy research center in Madison -- will bring together energy storage research that's taking place in different spots and, working with industry players like Johnson, help to bring the best technologies to market quickly.
"It's very important for American industrial competitiveness," said Chu. "It's very important that the research be intimately linked with manufacturing in a way that will propel the United States forward."
The aim: to make the Midwest known not just for the design of and production of cars and trucks but to be a nexus for key technology research and development for a new generation of vehicles.
Johnson Controls is the only auto-industry manufacturer included in the list of partners announced Friday.
"We were very deeply involved in the writing of the proposal both from a technical standpoint as well as helping to articulate the goals and objectives of the hub, from the standpoint of the right technology commercialized as quickly as possible," Wright said.
More electric vehicles
Breakthroughs such as these will enable more electric vehicles to hit the road, and help the auto industry comply with the Obama administration's aggressive gas mileage standards -- proposals that aim to curb emissions of greenhouse gases from vehicles' tailpipes.
Experts say the key challenge is to reduce the cost of batteries in hybrid cars.
Chemists and engineers are studying new and lighter materials that pack more energy into a small space. Instead of lithium, they may craft batteries from magnesium or yttrium, which can store two or three times as much energy as lithium, according to Argonne.
"We call it the 5-5-5," Wright said. "Five times the energy density at a fifth of the cost, inside of five years."
Johnson Controls is the world's leading supplier of car batteries, and has been a partner with President Barack Obama's administration in an industry effort to build up an advanced battery industry to compete with China and South Korea.
The company received a 299 million federal stimulus investment, which it matched, to open a lithium-ion battery factory in Holland, Mich. The company also tapped the stimulus funding to expand its research lab in Glendale, where its engineering team analyzes and tests novel battery chemistries.
Wright has been working at Johnson Controls for five years. Before that, she led a team that designed the first hybrid vehicle for Ford Motor Co., the Escape. She also sits on the board of directors of Argonne.
The company will be able to use its advanced battery factory in Michigan to help test and scale up manufacturing for new technologies developed through the research partnership, she said.
The University of Michigan will be a research partner, and Holland, Mich.-based Lakeshore Advantage, a business development group, has signed on as an affiliate. Lakeshore Advantage hopes to partner with advanced battery manufacturers and suppliers, including Johnson Controls, to connect industry players with researchers, said Lakeshore President Randy Thelen.
Friday's announcement is expected to help the company and the universities as they attempt to recruit a Johnson Controls-endowed energy storage professor at UW-Milwaukee and Madison.
In addition, the hub aims to encourage students to pursue training for careers in science and technology and engineering disciplines, Johnson Controls spokeswoman Gretchen Miller said.
"This is the type of talent pipeline Johnson Controls and the nation needs to ensure we maintain global technology leadership," she said.
The energy hub public-private research partnership is modeled on former President George W. Bush's administration's initiative that created a 125 million bioenergy research hub at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Chu pioneered the hub concept while he ran the Berkeley lab in California, after learning, he said, that "when you had to deliver the goods very quickly, you needed to put the best scientists next to the best engineers, across disciplines, to get very focused on coming in and solving a problem."
Argonne has already been focused heavily on battery research, coming up with some of the technological advances that helped develop the battery for General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Volt.
The Argonne-led hub was selected after a competition involving several other national energy labs.
About the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research
Based at Argonne National Laboratory, the center will receive 120 million in federal funding, as well as 35 million from the state of Illinois.
Industry partners: Johnson Controls Inc., Applied Materials, Dow Chemical
Energy lab partners: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Academic partners: University of Chicago, Northwestern University and University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Illinois and University of Michigan
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