One of the most troubling problems vexing those who work on the future of energy, in almost any capacity, is the problem of energy storage.
Whether it's trying to harness solar power while the sun is shining for use when the sun has gone down, or if it's finding ways for batteries in electric vehicles to last longer and allow people to travel further without gas, energy storage might be the number one dilemma facing researchers working on energy.
But perhaps the most ambitious project yet to tackle the issue has just been announced. Bringing together leading scientists and researchers from five national Dept. of Energy laboratories, five universities, and four private companies, the brand-new Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) will be located at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, Ill.
The JCESR has been kick-started with a $120 million grant over five years, with the goal of achieving "revolutionary advances in battery performance," and "advancing next generation battery and energy storage technologies for electric and hybrid cars, and the electricity grid."
One very ambitious goal already stated: "To have a battery that can produce five times the energy at 1/5th the cost in the next five years."
At the press conference announcing the formation of JCESR, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said:
"Based on the tremendous advances that have been made in the past few years, there are very good reasons to believe that advanced battery technologies can and will play an increasingly valuable role in strengthening America's energy and economic security by reducing our oil dependence, upgrading our aging power grid, and allowing us to take greater advantage of intermittent energy sources like wind and solar."
JCESR is the fourth Energy Innovation Hub established by the Energy Department since 2010. Other Hubs are devoted to modeling and simulation of nuclear reactors, achieving major improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings, and developing fuels from sunlight.
The organizations involved represent a veritable "who's who" of energy research and development brainpower. The DOE labs partnering with Argonne are the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, Pacific Northwest National Lab in Washington state, Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., and the SLAC National Accelerator Lab in California.
The academic partners to Argonne will be Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois-Chicago, the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, and the University of Michigan.
Finally, the four industrial partners involved, who will "clear a path to the marketplace for the advances developed at JCESR will be: Dow Chemical Company; Applied Materials, Inc.; Johnson Controls, Inc.; and Clean Energy Trust.
Based on the players involved, this is the largest national effort yet to work on energy storage. For the details on how things at JCESR might work, I spoke to Jeff Chamberlain, who will be the Deputy Director of the new lab.
Chamberlain said that Argonne first put in a bid to host the enormous group project in Feb. 2012.
Argonne battery researcher Javier Bareno Garcia-Ontiveros manipulates an air-sensitive sample inside an inert glove box. Argonne will be the headquarters for a new Dept. of Energy research group called JCESR.
"It was a competitive bid process once the funding opportunity was announced, and here at Argonne we saw it as an exciting opportunity," Chamberlain said. "Ever since 2009, researchers and scientists have been mobilizing around energy storage and trying to pull together our collective knowledge; this (JCESR) will allow us to do that even more effectively."
Chamberlain said that JCESR will have a two-pronged approach, in coordination with its partners: One side will be developing the research and design side, with the scientists working in the lab to create new ways to improve energy storage and battery life, while the second part will be the operational side of taking breakthroughs made at JCESR and incorporating them into public use in real-world applications.
"Our higher-level objectives are numerous, but a big one is that there's a lot of great lithium-ion technology today, and a lot of work going on to make it more accessible," Chamberlain said. "But we want technology that goes beyond lithium-ion, that can satisfy two needs of society: One is for transportation services; to have a less expensive, more lightweight battery. And the other is for storing energy on the grid, which is becoming more and more of an issue."
On that second point, legions of people in the New York and New Jersey area can agree on the necessity of energy storage on the grid; after October's Superstorm Sandy knocked out power to millions of homes, many were left without any power for weeks.
If a storm like Sandy comes through again, energy that's available on the grid, or even a small backup battery in your garage, could help a lot.
At a technical level, Chamberlain said JCESR will be working with basic materials trying "to find out how certain matter functions, so we can design the matter, and then with applied sciences, building devices to prove the efficacy of the innovations we make at the materials level."
This is where chemical companies like Dow and Applied Materials will come in, as their vaunted research and development labs ought to give JCESR a clear advantage in developing those innovations Chamberlain talks about.
One major potential obstacle, which of course no one mentioned at JCESR's announcement, is that the funding for the project is not guaranteed. Every year JCESR's financing will be subject to Congressional approval. Now, battery and energy storage research is not normally a hot-button issue that divides Democrats and Republicans, but Chamberlain is well-aware that JCESR needs to show results.
"The onus is on us to prove that this model of collaborative research is effective, and more effective than the standard operating model. If we can connect to the end-users and make major breakthroughs like we think we can, than hopefully we'll show that it's vital to keep JCESR going."
On a logistical level, Argonne will be the main leader and coordinator of all projects done by the groups, but Chamberlain stressed that "we've designed this to pull down the organizational walls; we want to see who has the best and brightest minds in this area. We're unified and have agreed to a management plan, but we think this will be a place where young and talented people can thrive."
With an estimated 100-150 scientists working together at the new building being constructed (paid for by the state of Illinois), Chamberlain envisions scientific talent being cultivated in addition to new methods of energy storage and stronger batteries.
In addition to the work being done at Argonne, the research partners from the private sector will be working on a series of sub-projects related to energy research; Chamberlain said that those projects will require the private companies to put in 20 percent of the financial backing, with the rest coming from the government grant.
As with most at the start of any bold venture, Chamberlain spoke excitedly and nervously about the hard work ahead.
"It won't be easy, because it's an enormous challenge," he said. "To have a battery that can produce five times the energy at 1/5th
the cost in the next five years ... that kind of acceleration has never happened before.
"We're setting the bar very high; it's right at the limits of reality."