For Hourly Fee, This U.S. Lab Will Help You Make Batteries

  • Argonne scientists looking to help proliferate battery storage
  • Small- and mid-size businesses can pay to do research at lab

Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. government-funded center near Chicago that designed the first nuclear reactor to generate electricity in 1951, is looking to do business with battery storage developers.

The $760 million-a-year operation will charge small- to medium-size companies by the hour for its help developing energy storage technologies. Under the arrangement, businesses will approach the center with scientific problems -- from wear and tear on widgets to battery performance -- and Argonne scientists and engineers will consult and work alongside the companies at the lab for a fee.

Energy storage is seen by the U.S. Energy Department as key to adding more intermittent renewable resources such as solar and wind power to the nation’s grids while ensuring a reliable supply. Under President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, renewables will make up 28 percent of U.S. generation capacity in 2030.

“There’s a shift happening to clean tech,” Jeffrey Chamberlain, director of Argonne’s energy storage research, said in an Oct. 2 interview at its campus. The lab announced the service at the South by Southwest Eco conference in Austin on Tuesday. “The timing is perfect for this capability, this asset that our federal government has built here at Argonne National Laboratory to be capitalized on. That’s the point here.”

Cheaper Alternative

The cost of the lab’s help may range from free to millions of dollars, depending on the services rendered, the personnel involved and the equipment used, said Chamberlain and Andreas Roelofs, director of Nano Design Works. The arrangement offers a cheaper alternative for smaller developers who may otherwise need to build their own research and development facilities, they said.

Fledgling companies are forced to “outsource part of their research” because they may not have the capital to expand development, Roelofs said.

Energy storage companies raised $275.9 million in the second quarter, less than half of total investments in the three months prior, Bloomberg New Energy Finance data show.

“Historically the U.S. led the way in electrified transport and energy storage investment globally,” BNEF analysts including Aleksandra Rybczynska in London said in an Aug. 24 market outlook. “However, China is stepping up its efforts in the electrified transport sector.”

Chamberlain is director of the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science. That division as well and the one Roelofs directs on nanotechnology are “interconnected,” an Argonne spokesman said.

The Argonne lab is also looking to advance research and practical applications for nanotechnology, a process by which matter is manipulated at the molecular level. It could be used, for example, to make solar panels cheaper and more efficient, or to maximize energy combustion in engines and shrink fuel use, Roelofs said.

Such technologies would help states meet the pollution targets established by the Clean Power Plan. The regulation is designed to shrink power plant emissions 32 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, largely by increasing the use of renewables.

“The overall upgrading of the grid is needed, because of regulation, and as we move further and further away from fossil fuel use and try to address the climate change problem,” Chamberlain said.

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