When it comes to enablers for a variety of future technologies that will move the industry forward in terms of efficiencies and cleanliness of power and energy, it is most often advances in energy storage that rise to the top in terms of necessities, and close behind is the pinpoint exploitation of nanotechnology.
As experts at Argonne National Laboratory see it, grid-level storage can help reduce carbon emissions through the increased adoption of renewable energy and use of electric vehicles while helping bring electricity to developing parts of the world. At the same time, nanotechnology is transforming the electronics industry and bringing a new set of powerful tools and materials to engineers who are developing new ways to generate, store, and transport energy through new catalytic nanomaterials.
Recognizing the power of such technologies and seeking ways to accelerate their impact, Argonne has created two new collaborative centers that it is hoping will provide a bright path for business and industry to speed discoveries to market by accessing Argonne's resources to address energy and national security needs.
“We recognize that delivering to market our breakthrough science in energy storage and nanotechnology can help ensure our work brings the maximum benefit to society,” said Peter B. Littlewood, Director, Argonne.
Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS) will provide central points of contact for companies-ranging from large industrial entities to smaller businesses and startups, as well as government agencies-to benefit from Argonne's expertise, scientific tools, and facilities.
NDW and ACCESS will provide a single point of contact for businesses to assemble tailored interdisciplinary teams to address challenging R&D questions. The centers will also provide a pathway to Argonne's fundamental research that is poised for development into practical products. The chance to build on existing scientific discovery is a unique opportunity for businesses in the nano and energy storage fields.
Argonne says the center directors, Andreas Roelofs of NDW and Jeff Chamberlain of ACCESS, have both created startups in their careers and understand the value that collaboration with a national laboratory can bring to a company trying to innovate in technologically challenging fields of science. While the new centers will work with all sizes of companies, a strong emphasis will be placed on helping small businesses and startups.
“For a startup like mine to have the ability to tap the resources of a place like Argonne would have been immensely helpful,” said Roelofs. “We've seen the power of that sort of access, and we want to make it available to the companies that need it to drive truly transformative technologies to market.”
Chamberlain's experience as an energy storage researcher and entrepreneur led him to look for new approaches to leveraging the best aspects of private industry and public science. Shortening the time from basic research to product has become a growing point of emphasis for the national laboratories over the past couple of decades. The thought behind ACCESS and NDW is to make that collaboration even easier and more powerful.
“Where ACCESS and NDW will differ from the conventional approach is through creating an efficient way for a business to build a customized, multi-disciplinary team that can address anything from small technical questions to broad challenges that require massive resources,” said Chamberlain. “That might mean assembling a team with chemists, physicists, computer scientists, materials engineers, imaging experts, or mechanical and electrical engineers; the list goes on and on. It's that ability to tap the full spectrum of cross-cutting expertise at Argonne that will really make the difference.”
Chamberlain led the formation of Argonne's Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), and is thus familiar with the potential of energy storage as a transformational technology. The center spent years researching technologies beyond lithium-ion batteries, solidifying its reputation as one of the key global players in battery research. ACCESS will tap Argonne's full battery expertise, which will extend well beyond JCESR.
Energy storage research has profound implications for energy security. Chamberlain cites that approximately 1.3 billion people across the world do not have access to electricity, with another billion having only sporadic access. Energy storage, coupled with renewable generation like solar, could eliminate the need to build out massive power grids.
Batteries also have the potential to create a more secure, stable grid for countries with existing power systems and help fight global climate disruption through adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles.
Nanotechnology is similarly poised in a transformational way. Scientists have been working with materials at the nanoscale-generally described as less than 100 nm-for several decades and have made dramatic discoveries. According to Roelofs, through quantum effects, materials can develop very different properties when created at nanoscale, essentially establishing a new dimension of materials that behave differently than those described in the periodic table of elements. Advancing technologies are giving scientists the tools to work in new ways at the nano scale, essentially enabling them to place individual atoms in a specific order to create materials with novel properties.
Argonne researchers are pursuing hundreds of projects in nanoscience, but some of the more notable include research into targeted drugs that affect only cancerous cells; magnetic nanofibers that can be used to create more powerful and efficient electric motors and generators; and highly efficient water filtration systems that can dramatically reduce the energy requirements for desalination or cleanup of oil spills. Other researchers are working with nanoparticles that create a super-lubricated state and other very-low friction coatings.
“When you think that 30% of a [vehicle] engine's power is sacrificed to frictional loss, you start to get an idea of the potential of these technologies,” Roelofs said. “But it's not just about the ideas already at Argonne that can be brought to market, it's also about the challenges for businesses that need Argonne-level resources. I'm convinced there are many startups out there working on transformational ideas that can greatly benefit from the help of a place [like] Argonne to bring those ideas to fruition.”