5 Reasons Why Chicago Is the Place to watch for energy innovation

Posted by Jonathan Schwieger

Dec 19, 2014 7:50:08 AM

When it comes to battery technology innovation, Chicago is leading the charge. Indeed, two years ago the U.S. Department of Energy awarded a multi-partner team led by Argonne National Laboratory, located at Chicago’s doorstep, $120 million over 5 years for research into advanced battery systems – possibly the largest national effort yet focused on energy storage. The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research or JCESR (pronounced “J-Caeser), also know as “The Hub”, is solely focused on next generation battery technologies. The kind that will let you drive 400 miles on a single charge with a vehicle that will cost significantly less than EV models available today. While this initiative is emblematic of the transformations under way in the Chicagoland region, there is more to it than meets the eye. Along with the region’s dynamic innovation ecosystem, Chicago is poised to grow into the nation’s battery innovation powerhouse. And here are five reasons why:

1)     New Paradigm for Battery Research and Development

To achieve its ambitious goal of developing next-gen batteries with five times the performances for a fifth of the cost, JCESR is reinventing the scientific discovery process. Within this organizational framework managed out of Argonne, leading researchers across engineering and scientific disciplines collaborate in multifunctional teams to enable accelerated technology innovation at a large scale. The Hub has also partnered with domestic manufacturing giants to ensure the hand-off of successful prototypes for further scale-up. This integration of basic science, battery design, prototyping and manufacturing collaboration – akin to the Bell Labs research model – is not only critical for transformative innovation but unprecedented in battery research.

2)     Breakthrough Achievements

At the helm of JCESR, Argonne National Laboratory is an undisputed leader in battery innovation and research. In fact, the technology at the heart of the Chevy Volt, the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, is based in part on breakthroughs pioneered by Argonne scientists. Furthermore, in just under two years the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research has broken new ground in pushing forward the boundaries of battery science. Based on a model previously developed at Argonne National Laboratory, the Battery Performance and Cost model (BatPac), researchers have launched a techno-economic analysis tool available to industry to predict system-level cost and performances of next-generation battery technologies. Piloted for lithium-air technology, the tool is currently being expanded to other chemistries. The Hub has also developed an early stage prototype of a magnesium-ion battery, the first fully functional battery based on this chemistry since 2000. Such a technology would provide 200% to 300% improvements in range for electric vehicles.

3)     Research and Entrepreneurial Strength

Chicago is a deep reservoir of innovation, science and engineering brainpower across the fields necessary for battery technology development and commercialization. With top-tier science and engineering curriculums at Northwestern University, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and the University of Chicago, as well as leading MBA programs at Booth School of Business and the Kellogg School of management, the region is spurring battery technology innovations at the materials, module and system levels. SiNode Systems, winner of the Rice Business Plan Competition and the Department of Energy’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition is emblematic of this convergence of resources. The company’s silicon-graphene composite material for advanced Li-ion batteries is a product of Argonne technology, Northwestern University students, and IIT incubation.

4)     Early Stage Funding

Early stage cleantech companies in the Midwest are constrained by a lack of seed funding, with only $1.8 million in average annual investment in Illinois cleantech startups over the past thirteen years (2001-2013). To compensate for this shortfall, organizations such as the Energy Foundry and Clean Energy Trust (CET) are awarding much-needed seed-stage capital to entrepreneurs developing clean energy innovations and particularly battery technologies. These high-growth businesses create new jobs and support the transition to less carbon-intensive energy sources. Through the Illinois Clean Energy Fund, CET and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity recently awarded $1,000,000 in early-stage funding – the largest single day award to cleantech companies in a public event in the country – with half going towards two Chicago-based battery startups.

5)     Access to the Midwest

Worth $500 billion and home to 28 Fortune 500 companies, the Chicagoland region alone is the nation’s third largest economy. Yet Chicago’s deep ties to the broader Midwestern region are vital in all aspects of its growth. The city’s proximity to the country’s pioneering automotive research and manufacturing competencies in Detroit guarantees access to fruitful collaboration for automotive-focused battery technologies. Up north in Milwaukee, Chicago companies leverage product development and supply chain expertise from Johnson Controls, largest global supplier of lead acid batteries and leading manufacturer of advanced battery types. Finally, in southern Illinois, emerging startups piloting grid-connected battery technologies benefit from access to a utility-sponsored smart-grid installation test-bed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In addition to regional resources, Chicago is also well positioned nationally. As adoption of batteries increases across many industries and applications, global shipping costs will rise and become prohibitive, thus favoring cost-effective local production. Chicago is strategically located within the Midwest and the country, at the center of railroad networks, to be a distribution hub for these technologies and meet both regional and national demand

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Topics: JCESR, cleantech, advanced batteries, energy storage