PNNL in Richland picked to be part of energy research hub

December 1, 2012 

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland was picked Friday as part of a new batteries and energy research hub that will bring together the nation's top expertise on the subject.

"This is a partnership between world-leading scientists and world-leading companies, committed to ensuring that the advanced battery technologies the world needs will be invented and built right here in America," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement.

The Department of Energy is investing $120 million in the new Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, which will be based at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. The state of Illinois will provide $35 million to construct a home for the project.

PNNL will receive $15 million during five years to spend on materials science research and to develop scientific tools that others also can use. It's one of five national laboratories, five universities and four private firms in the joint center.

"Energy storage is a transformational technology that can help bring new clean resources onto the grid," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement. "Competition for this award was stiff, and I'm thrilled the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is part of the winning team."

Improving energy storage is an essential building block of a smarter, cleaner and more diverse electricity system, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a statement.

If the nation wants to reduce its dependence on foreign resources like oil, it will have to use its own resources, including coal, natural gas and renewables, said Jud Virden, associate laboratory director for the Energy and Environmental Directorate.

But that energy will need to be converted to electricity, including for electric vehicles, and there's not a good way to store it in that form now.

Car batteries need to be developed that can be produced at a reasonable cost and that last a decade or more.

The challenge for renewables, such as wind, is to store intermittently produced electricity until it's needed.

In the Northwest, the wind typically blows at night, but most electricity is used during the day. A battery could be used to store that electricity, but it would need to be long-lasting and would be expensive at a size able to store thousands of times the kilowatts of a car battery.

PNNL's expertise will be used to understand the chemistry of materials at the molecular level in conventional batteries to learn more about the performance of the materials and why the materials change, Virden said.

"We will try to understand what happens that limits performance over time," he said.

Researchers will look at how to make materials, at how to characterize and model materials, and the interface between materials, he said.

One-of-a-kind scientific imaging instruments on the PNNL campus will be used and further developed for the work, including instruments at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory.

The challenge is to develop batteries that can be produced in high volume and are long lasting for vehicles and grid energy storage, Virden said.

"If we can do that we could use less foreign oil and use our own natural gas, coal and renewables," he said.

The goal of the new joint center will be to bring together renowned researchers at the chosen labs and universities across the nation to break through obstacles in basic research, according to DOE. They will work with industrial partners to convert that new knowledge to market-ready energy storage technologies.

"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," Chu said.

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