Argonne, Kentucky join forces for battery research

  • 01-May-2009 03:07 EDT
Argonne has done plenty of research in batteries. Now it’s teaming with Kentucky universities to develop manufacturing techniques.

Many hybrid-vehicle supporters feel battery power can help wean the U.S. from its reliance on foreign oil, but there’s concern that most batteries are now made in the Far East. The Argonne National Laboratory and the state of Kentucky have teamed up to address this concern.

Argonne, one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s 10 research labs, is partnering with the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, planning to build a national battery manufacturing R&D Center. With support from the state of Kentucky, they plan to convert U.S. research into domestic manufacturing.

“Most lithium-ion battery technologies were developed in the U.S., but 90% of the manufacturing is done in the Orient—China, Japan, and Korea,” said Jeff Chamberlain, Account Manager for Argonne’s Office of Technology Transfer. “We need to bridge that gap.”

Both universities have manufacturing expertise, with some battery-related programs. More battery knowledge will come from Argonne, which has done extensive research with the many variations of Li-ion technology for years. Chamberlain noted that the research team, which will be headquartered at the universities, will develop techniques for making flat prismatic batteries. The materials used in the batteries may vary, given the applications.

“We’re keeping a very open mind for which technologies to develop,” he said. “Lithium-ion batteries can be tailored.” He explained that batteries for plug-ins may well use technologies that provide the greatest storage capacity, while batteries in conventional hybrids may provide quicker charging so they can store energy generated during braking.

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear noted that the R&D Center is within 500 mi (800 km) of 4800 auto-related vehicle manufacturers, including 69 vehicle-assembly plants. That will be a critical factor when large volumes of batteries are shipped from manufacturing sites to the automotive production plants.

“We need the battery suppliers to be local,” Chamberlain said. “Batteries aren’t like semiconductors, which weigh nothing and have a fairly high value. Batteries are heavy, and their value is less than for many chips.”

The state of Kentucky is pledging funding, and proponents expect to see support from the federal government. President Obama has set a goal of having one million plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles on the road by 2015. That translates to several million batteries. At present, a handful of companies are setting up production in the U.S. They should benefit from research aimed at volume manufacturing, Chamberlain said.

He noted that President Obama’s goal is “very aggressive,” a term he also used for Kentucky’s battery program. He believes the aggressive plans are necessary even though the return on investment makes battery-powered vehicles hard to justify given today’s low gasoline prices.

“It’s very difficult to show that this makes economic sense with gasoline at less than $2 to $3 per gallon," said Chamberlain. "But the catch-22 is that we can’t wait too long; gasoline prices will eventually go up."

Many countries are racing to ensure that they become manufacturing centers for an expected transition to battery-powered vehicles. China has pledged to become a key player in batteries and battery-powered vehicles, as has Korea. Late last year, 14 U.S. companies set up the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture, which has pledged to work with the new Battery Manufacturing R&D Center in Kentucky.

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