Energy storage, the key to unlocking the vast potential of renewables, is getting a big push from the U.S. Department of Energy, which said it will spend up to $120 million over five years to establish a high-powered research and development hub at the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.

The DOE said this latest Energy Innovation Hub, to be housed at the new Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, will draw on brain power and resources from Argonne and four other national laboratories (Berkeley, Pacific Northwest, Sandia and SLAC), five Midwestern universities (Northwestern, Illinois, Illinois-Chicago, Chicago and Michigan) and four partners from the private side: Dow Chemical, Applied Materials, Johnson Controls and Clean Energy Trust.

argonne battery hub
Argonne researchers prepare a sample of battery materials for Raman spectroscopy, used to gather info regarding the nature of the materials in the sample. (image via Argonne National Laboratory)

The DOE says the Batteries and Energy Storage Hub is akin to the public-private R&D programs that gave the world the atom bomb (through the Manhattan Project), radar (at Lincoln Lab at MIT) and the transistor (at AT&T Bell Laboratories). The focus now is put on making breakthroughs on advanced battery technologies, which could extend the range and lower the cost of electric vehicles on the transportation front, and allow for greater grid integration of intermittent renewable energy sources like solar power and wind.

“The research at the Energy Storage Hub has the potential to revolutionize the energy industry,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said in a statement. “From transportation to the electric grid, the Hub will bring the private sector, national labs and universities together to deliver new technologies and scientific approaches needed to transform the battery and energy storage industry and spur commercial innovation.”

The “hub” concept is a favorite of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, hatched in 2009 to tackle the gnarliest barriers in energy technology. This Batteries and Energy Storage Hub is the fourth to be established of the eight originally envisioned by the secretary, a physicist himself who won a Nobel Prize for work he did at the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey. The hubs set earlier are the Modeling and Simulation for Nuclear Reactors Hub, Fuels from Sunlight Hub and  Energy Efficient Buildings Hub.

Another hub, focused on critical materials research, has been announced, but the application process is ongoing. While the federal government is promising at least $20 million a year in funding to the centers, local support is key to a winning bid. Argonne was aided in snaring the battery hub by a $5 million commitment from the state of Illinois that will go toward construction costs for the center, and the DOE said Governor Pat Quinn has vowed to seek $30 million in future funding from the state legislature.

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