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Eric Isaacs: Argonne at forefront of research on batteries

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 1:39 p.m. CDT

If we can build a better battery, we can change the world.

That statement may seem overblown if you think of batteries only as minor necessities — little cylinders that power children’s toys, flashlights and laptop computers.

But with rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere threatening our global environment, it’s clear that we need to move fast to replace carbon-emitting fossil fuels with wind and solar power. Unfortunately, electricity has no “shelf life”; it must be used as soon as it’s generated.

So we need a way to store clean power for use when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. That means we need superbatteries that can store enough electricity to power our cars and trucks, heat and cool our homes, and keep our lights on and our factories humming.

The United States took a giant step toward that goal a few weeks ago when Secretary of Energy Steven Chu chose the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory, to be the new Batteries and Energy Storage Hub. With this new hub, which represents a $120 million federal investment over the next five years, we are embarking on a historic, focused effort to transform our nation’s energy landscape.

Argonne is already in the forefront of battery research worldwide; in fact, our battery materials are powering the Chevy Volt. So we have a running start. And with JCESR, we’ve put together a “dream team” in energy storage science — a public/private partnership that brings together America’s very best battery scientists, engineers and manufacturers, from academia, national labs and industry, all under one organizational roof.

We have a lot at stake here. The international market for advanced batteries is expected to grow to $50 billion over the next five years.

If JCESR succeeds in creating new, affordable, practical batteries for transportation and the grid, we will position the United States to lead the global energy storage industry, creating thousands of new jobs and restoring manufacturing in this country. Just as important, we will demonstrate the power of this new model of collaboration, showing how much we can get done when we bring together the top people from the public and private sectors, provide them with great facilities and adequate resources, and — most critically — assign them an inspirational mission and an ambitious goal.

Eric Isaacs is director of Argonne National Laboratory

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