DOE Energy Innovation Hub Chicago: A 21st Century Manhattan Project for Clean American Energy

Could the next Albert Einstein be working on the world’s most powerful battery just outside Chicago? As of Friday, this is entirely possible.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (D), and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last week the establishment of a new Batteries and Energy Storage Hub. Led by Argonne National Laboratory, a public-private consortium will receive up to $120 million over five years from the Department of Energy (DOE) and $35 million from the State of Illinois to develop a battery five times more powerful and five times less expensive.

The Illinois project perfectly illustrates that energy technology hubs are a key twenty first century solution to creating faster, cheaper innovation by concentrating public-private research, development, and deployment in one geographic region.

Today’s hubs take their inspiration from the Manhattan Project, which brought together some of the greatest scientists that have ever lived including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and J. Robert Openheimer to build the world’s first atomic bomb. The concentration of brainpower and resources that defined the Manhattan Project lives on, but unlike the top-secret government weapons program, the modern hub’s second great strength is its ability to bring together the best of public and private sector talent.

In the case of the battery hub, several successful independent research programs are now combined into one accelerated program that brings together five DOE national laboratories, five universities, and four private firms with funding from federal, state, and private resources. This all-star team will look for radically new approaches to electrochemical storage while seeking to reduce complexity and cost. Through the hub, battery technology will be advanced by more than a decade in half the time. Successfully deploying these new batteries would revolutionize the electricity grid by making it possible to seamlessly integrate intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind. 

The Batteries and Energy Storage Hub is the fifth DOE hub established since 2010. The first four hubs are also proving to be successful in pushing other major energy innovations in nuclear power, building efficiency, alternative fuel, and critical materials.

A nuclear hub, located in Tennessee, is utilizing modeling and simulation to make nuclear reactors safer and less expensive to capitalize and maintain and to reduce the volume of nuclear waste produced. In Pennsylvania, the energy efficient buildings hub is using state of the art sensors and modeling equipment to test how different energy saving technologies interact with the goal of finding the ideal suite of technologies to produce 50% better energy savings in commercial and multi-family residential buildings.  

Producing biofuel from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide is the mission of the California hub, but the first step is finding the right mix of microorganism and catalyst to make artificial photosynthesis possible at a rate ten times more efficient than plant based photosynthesis. Funding for the final hub has not yet been awarded, but DOE plans to focus on ensuring that the critical materials needed to produce renewable energy technologies, such as rare earth metals for batteries or thin film for solar, are readily available in the United States.

These five energy hubs are a model of how the spirit of the Manhattan Project is inspiring a new generation of scientists in both the public and private sectors to revolutionize American energy technology.