DOE wants 5X battery power boost in 5 years

Establishes center for battery research at Argonne National Laboratory

The U.S. Dept. of Energy has set a goal to develop battery and energy storage technologies that are five times more powerful and five times cheaper than today's within five years.

To accomplish this, U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu is taking some lesson from U.S. history.

The DOE is creating a new Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, at a cost of $120 million over five years, that's intended to reproduce development environments that were successfully used by Bell Laboratories in the World War II Manhattan Project that produced an atomic bomb.

"When you had to deliver the goods very, very quickly, you needed to put the best scientists next to the best engineers across disciplines to get very focused," said Chu at a press conference Friday that was streamed live from Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. The center will be located there.

The Battery and Energy Storage Hub project will involve six national labs, five universities -- Northwestern University, University of Chicago, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, and University of Michigan -- and four private firms, Dow Chemical, Applied Materials, Johnson Controls, and Clean Energy Trust.

While physical proximity will have a role in the research, Chu said electronic communications and video conferencing will help achieve similar results.

The intent is to organize research in a way that can "change the rate in which something is actually done," said Chu. The key is moving technology innovations from the lab to the private sector as quickly as possible, he said.

Improving battery technology is seen as pivotal to transportation and storage, particularly around the need to store solar and wind energy.

Chu said the idea of seeking a 5X improvement is really around getting the battery and energy storage prices to a point where they will gain widespread adoption.

"We look very carefully at the price points," said Chu, who cited the impact of falling prices on cell phones of PCs, as examples of how low prices trigger mass adoption.

Chu said the effort it's "very, very important for American industrial competitiveness that research be intimately linked with manufacturing in a way that will propel the United States forward. This is what the whole Hub concept is about."

The intent isn't to aim for incremental improvements of existing technology, but to seek new approaches and "rapidly drive towards electrochemical energy storage solutions beyond the current limits," according to DOE's proposal.

DOE, in its solicitation for proposals, said current battery research is typically focused on one particular problem "and thus lacks the resources and the diverse breadth of talent to consider holistic solutions."

The goal of the Hub is to create a "critical mass for the best, most innovative and far-reaching ideas."

"Based on new understanding, the Hub should foster new energy storage designs that begin with a 'clean sheet of paper' -- overcoming current manufacturing limitations through innovation to reduce complexity and cost," said DOE.

Chu personalized the results.

When his home lost power recently, Chu said he did some calculations and said with battery storage improvements someone could halve the number of solar panels on their roof, "you can be 80% self-sufficient and blackout immune," he said. If prices were less than $10,000 for that system, "I would get that," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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