Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Crucial Role of Public Private Partnerships in US Battery Technology

Public private collaborations have played a fundamental role advancing the US position in the development of commercial scale energy storage systems for cell phones, laptops, hybrids and electric vehicles. National laboratories conduct vital research that make it possible for the private sector to achieve commercial scale.

According to Jeff Chamberlain, who currently heads up battery research and development for Argonne National Lab, "In the U.S., businesses tend to invest in research that will pay off in the short term. National laboratories are filling a gap by conducting the essential research that will change the game 10 to 20 years down the road."

In the late 1990s the Energy Department’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences funded an extensive study of lithium-ion batteries. Their findings led the team at Argonne National Lab to focus on reworking the chemistry of the cathode, the positively charged portion of the battery.

What their research discovered revolutionized the battery industry. The researchers utilized new synthesis methods to develop a manganese-rich cathode that not only surpassed existing batteries in safety and capacity, but also cost less to manufacture due to the low market price of manganese.

"Existing materials weren't good enough for a high-range vehicle," explained Michael Thackeray, an Argonne Distinguished Fellow who helped develop the new cathode. The Argonne materials marked “a big step forward in extending the range for an electric vehicle."

This new approach to storage effectively addressed three of the major obstacles standing in the way of a mass produced electric vehicle:

1. Cost
2. Lifespan
3. Driving range

Once the technology was created the private sector stepped in to reach commercial scale.

Argonne partnered with companies such as LG Chem and Envia Systems to help adapt its battery technology for large-scale production. These partnerships have produced a supply chain that’s creating jobs all across the country and allowed revolutionary cars such as the Chevy Volt to go from concept to commercial reality.

As stated by Chamberlain, “We're developing technology that I'm highly confident will help make plug-in hybrid cars more economic. The work at Argonne ends up in the hands of taxpayers who paid for research. This is a fulcrum, a key component to moving away from fossil fuels."

© 2011, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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