I’ll Take Manhattan

Dean Sigler Electric Powerplants, Sustainable Aviation Leave a Comment

While much of battery research goes into crafting the ultimate anode, cathode or electrolyte, there seem to be few efforts, at least to outside observers, of integrated approaches to making a better total battery.  That may change soon, with the Department of Energy announcing formation of a new Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (J-CESR, or J-Caesar).

Over 150 years of development. We can do better.


Dr. Steven Chu, U. S. Secretary of Energy, has established the Center at Argonne National Laboratory with a budget of $120 million over five years to create a battery five times more powerful and five times cheaper than today’s norms – all within five years.

For those of us who’ve grown wary of those “breakthough” announcements that almost always include the line, “researchers say the new product could become a commercial reality in the next five to 20 years,” this may seem too hopeful.  Secretary Chu’s announcement included several factors that may alleviate this wariness.

The Department is putting up the money, and collecting a brain trust much like that of the Manhattan Project of World War II, a group of scientists and researchers that put the first atomic bomb together within the shortest possible time.  This collection will amalgamate the efforts of Energy Innovation Hubs, involving, “Six national labs, five universities – Northwestern University, University of Chicago, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, and University of Michigan — and four private firms, Dow Chemical, Applied Materials, Johnson Controls, and Clean Energy Trust.”  The national labs partnering with Argonne include Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

According to DOE, “Energy Innovation Hubs are major integrated research centers with researchers from many different institutions and technical backgrounds that combine basic and applied research with engineering to accelerate scientific discovery in critical energy areas. They are modeled after the strong scientific management characteristics of the Manhattan Project, Lincoln Lab at MIT that 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.”

Communications through teleconferencing and secure Internet connections will enable widely dispersed scientists to coordinate their efforts and produce results more quickly, according to DOE thinking.  The Secretary wants to see not the incremental advance of battery power that normal research approaches have made, but a fully marshaled approach that would make complete, commercially viable solutions possible.

“Based on new understanding, the Hub should foster new energy storage designs that begin with a ‘clean sheet of paper’ – overcoming current manufacturing limitations through innovation to reduce complexity and cost.”

Outcomes may include improved, less expensive electric vehicles, a hopeful breakthrough for electric aircraft, and greater energy independence, even at the personal level.  Secretary Chu pointed to his own recent experience with a power blackout, noting that improved batteries could solve such issues.  “You can be 80% self-sufficient and blackout immune.” Suggesting that prices could be less than $10,000 for a compact solar system (smaller because of the improved energy storage) with 5X battteries, “I would get that,” he concluded.

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