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From the Lab to the Showroom: How the Electric Car Came to Life

October 17, 2011 - 11:02am


An illustration of the 2011 Chevy Volt, whose lithium-ion battery is based on technology developed at Argonne National Laboratory. | Image courtesy of General Motors.

An illustration of the 2011 Chevy Volt, whose lithium-ion battery is based on technology developed at Argonne National Laboratory. | Image courtesy of General Motors.

Years of conducting advanced research in both the private and public sectors have crystallized the complementary nature of their work for Jeff Chamberlain, who currently heads up battery research and development for Argonne National Lab.

"In the U.S., businesses tend to invest in research that will pay off in the short term. National laboratories are filling a gap by conducting the essential research that will change the game 10 to 20 years down the road."

That relationship is evident in the energy storage sector, where advanced research has helped to develop the technologies that power many of the products we use on a daily basis. Great strides in battery research have allowed laptops and cell phones to become constant companions and helped realize the long held goal of creating hybrid and electric vehicles.

But those innovations weren’t always inevitable. In fact, for the better part of the past decade the general perception was that the electric car was an impractical concept. Lacking in range and too expensive for mass production, the auto industry had all but written off any hope of bringing an all electric model to the larger market. So what changed? How did the electric vehicle go from a failed afterthought to a prime time player in just a matter of years?

Part of the answer can be found in the late 1990s, when the Energy Department’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences funded an extensive study of lithium-ion batteries. The goal was to develop a deeper understanding of how batteries work at the atomic level in order to identify the areas that were ripe for improvement. Their findings led the team at Argonne National Lab to focus on reworking the chemistry of the cathode, the positively charged portion of the battery.

The result was nothing short of ground-breaking. After years of research and experimentation, the team utilized new synthesis methods to develop a manganese-rich cathode that not only surpassed existing batteries in safety and capacity, but also cost less to manufacture due to the low market price of manganese.

"Existing materials weren't good enough for a high-range vehicle," explained Michael Thackeray, an Argonne Distinguished Fellow who helped develop the new cathode. The Argonne materials marked “a big step forward in extending the range for an electric vehicle."

This new approach to storage effectively addressed three of the major obstacles standing in the way of a mass produced electric vehicle: cost, lifespan and driving range. But the transition between lab breakthrough and a successful product can often be a “valley of death” for innovative technologies, where promising concepts falter as they attempt to reach commercial scale.

That’s where the private sector comes in.

As Argonne continued to push forward with its research, it simultaneously began to highlight its innovations to private companies who had the manufacturing experience and bandwidth necessary to commercialize these technologies. Ultimately, Argonne partnered with companies such as LG Chem and Envia Systems to help adapt its battery technology for large-scale production. These partnerships have produced a supply chain that’s creating jobs all across the country and allowed revolutionary cars such as the Chevy Volt to go from concept to commercial reality.

And that’s the ultimate goal of all research in Jeff Chamberlain’s eyes. “We're developing technology that I'm highly confident will help make plug-in hybrid cars more economic. The work at Argonne ends up in the hands of taxpayers who paid for research. This is a fulcrum, a key component to moving away from fossil fuels."

A fulcrum Argonne and their commercial partners will continue to improve upon in the years to come.