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Argonne makes headway in energy research

Mar 3, 2017
In The News

Wind farms and the electricity grid, plus cars and cell phones are benefiting from technology developed over the course of a $120 million research project at Argonne National Laboratory, scientists told U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, during a recent annual review.

The Joint Center for Energy Research Project, charged with developing "clean energy storage technologies for transportation and the electricity grid," is a five-year, public and private effort that ends in December.

Foster said he was excited by the progress he has seen in the development of new technologies "that could make driving a car nearly 500 miles a reality.

"I got a briefing on the JCESR program, which has some very aggressive and high risk goals," Foster said. "There are two main goals -- developing a battery for a car or even a cell phone with five times the energy at one-fifth the cost, which would be transformative. The second goal involves a grid battery that you could put in the base of a wind farm so that when there is no wind, you transfer the energy out of the battery," he said.

Foster offered an application example -- such a grid could be added as a substation in a neighborhood so that "when everyone comes home at 5 o'clock and turns on his air conditioning, instead of a big transient load on the system, the battery helps you even it out and allows you to use the rapidly-lowering cost of wind power."

He met with a number of scientists, including George Crabtree, director of JCESR, who later listed a number of project accomplishments.

"Five years ago, there was only one magnesium battery simulation that had been developed, but we've developed two more demonstration test cells," Crabtree said. "We've also identified cathode material that is five times better than batteries at the start of the project, so we've been hitting our targets all along."

Assistant chemist Lei Cheng said so-called "super computers" have been used to test the theoretical properties of power storage materials.

"Rather than trying to develop battery materials in the lab, which takes a great deal of time and expense, we simulate the materials on the computer to identify the properties that are needed," she said. "Using target molecules, we start by making thousands of derivatives on the computer. Think of it as a funnel with 10,000 compounds. Rather than making all of them in the lab, organic chemists select and synthesize the most promising 10 or 20."

Another team member, staff scientist Arturo Gutierrez, said there are better products "closer to the pipeline" as well as some already available within the industry.

Congressional funding is key to questions about Argonne's future

"One of our goals is to make batteries last longer, which means having a cell phone that holds a charge pretty much as long a year later from the day you bought it," Gutierrez said. "Our job is to focus on surface materials, as lithium gets its charge from the oxide powder on the surface and the more lithium, the more power. In terms of the application of this for cars and lithium batteries, it's the issue of weight."

Crabtree says despite the progress made in car batteries, he continues to rely on gasoline-power for his own use as it delivers five times more power as well as convenience.

"You still have the issue of driving beyond the battery's capability and getting stuck, plus there is the recharging time," he said. "A lithium sulfur battery that works is the answer for the car side, but the current prices are still too high for electric to be an everyman car. I always say you need that factor of five – something that will go five times farther and costs about $20,000. Today, the median price is about $35,000."

Crabtree said JCESR has made a difference.

"Our legacy includes advancing the science, and advancing our understanding on an atomic and molecular level as well as why something works and why it failed," he said. "We've come up with two prototypes, one for transportation and one for the grid, and finally a new paradigm that includes discovery science, battery design, research prototyping, and manufacturing collaboration."

Foster can envision the project being renewed.

"I was really impressed – the research isn't done, but this was an ambitious and high-risk enterprise and the sort of research that, frankly, only the federal government can do because of its high risk and high reward nature," Foster said. "It's not something that a company that has to show profit in every quarter will ever invest in."