Scientists: warm up your Bunsen burners. The good times are about to roll at the US Argonne National Laboratory (ANL).

Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the lab is flush with cash – $99m to help accelerate environmental sustainability, and $13.1m to upgrade and replace major electrical switches and equipment.

Advertisement

ANL director Eric Isaacs is ecstatic – and realistic. With these funds, he says, ANL has the ability to secure the US’s energy future and provide tremendous opportunities for economic development.

In Kentucky, for example, the state has partnered with the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville to establish a national battery manufacturing R&D centre to develop and deploy a domestic supply of advanced battery technologies for vehicle applications.

The centre will support the development of a viable US battery manufacturing industry; make it easier for federal labs, universities, manufacturers, suppliers, and end-users to collaborate; develop advanced manufacturing technology to reduce advanced battery production costs; and accelerate the commercialisation of technologies developed at national laboratories and universities.

Farther afield, Argonne will play a key role in a Clean Energy Partnership between Turkey’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources and the US Trade and Development Agency.

Most importantly, the stimulus funds make it possible for national laboratories, such as Argonne, to leverage the more than the 3% of GDP being committed by US president Barack Obama to address the nation’s most pressing scientific and energy imperatives: energy security, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness and homeland security.

The commitment reverses a trend in which federal funding for the physical sciences has declined by nearly 50% over the past 25 years.

Long-term thinking

“I see huge potential for impact,” says Mr Isaacs. “The opportunity is both compelling and urgent. Through government funding, we can make long-term investments in higher risk areas such as battery research.”

Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline and its experts work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities and federal, state and municipal agencies to help solve specific problems and advance technology transfer. Now such collaborations will accelerate.

ANL is largely focused on applied materials research and development and is strongly coupled with industry either through technology licensing or joint-venture collaboration.

“Right now we are licensing a lot of our materials,” says Mr Isaacs. In June, for example, ANL and BASF signed a worldwide licensing agreement to mass produce and market Argonne’s patented composite cathode materials to manufacturers of advanced lithium-ion batteries. BASF will conduct further lithium-ion battery material application development in its current Beachwood, Ohio, facility.

Contingent upon winning a grant under President Obama’s Recovery Act – Electric Drive Vehicle Battery and Component Manufacturing Initiative, BASF plans to build one of North America’s largest cathode material production facilities in Elyria, Ohio.

While the future looks bright at ANL, Mr Isaacs warns that Argonne must be careful not to be pressured to produce rather than focus on pure research when federal R&D funding wanes.

“We must continue to drive exploratory research because that’s where unexpected events occur,” he emphasises.