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Argonne Lab’s Breakthrough Cathode Technology Powers Electric Vehicles of Today

February 14, 2011 - 6:15pm


Jeff Chamberlain Speaks at Brookings Battery Forum | Photo Courtesy of Audra Capas, 5StarPR

Jeff Chamberlain Speaks at Brookings Battery Forum | Photo Courtesy of Audra Capas, 5StarPR

The Department of Energy has been investing in vehicle electrification for more than a decade, with results that speak for themselves: The battery technologies in almost all of the electric vehicles and hybrids on the road today were developed with support from the Department. As you may have read last month, one of those vehicles is the Chevrolet Volt, which gets power from a lithium-ion battery that uses breakthrough cathode technology invented and developed at the Department's Argonne National Laboratory.

Last Tuesday, the Brookings Institute brought together some of the top minds working to research, develop and commercialize the innovative technologies that will help America meet the President’s goal of one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. At the seminar, we caught up with Jeff Chamberlain, who leads Argonne’s Energy Storage Initiative, to get a sense of what goes into the kind of research and development that delivers breakthrough innovation. 

David Moore: In simple terms, what makes the Argonne cathode material special?

Jeff Chamberlain: Argonne’s technology offers at least a 50 percent increase in energy storage capacity over conventional cathode materials used in lithium-ion batteries. In short, it offers among the longest-lasting energy available in the smallest, lightest package.

What makes Argonne's patented lithium composite cathode material unique is its combination of lithium- and manganese-rich mixed-metal oxides in a materials-design approach that extends the operating time between charges. Early indications show that these cathode materials will enable a substantial decrease in battery pack costs, while providing the battery life and safety necessary for electric drive vehicles. The enhanced stability of the composite material permits batteries to operate at higher voltages, which leads to a substantially higher energy storage capacity than currently available materials.

DM: How and when did this innovation occur? What was going on in the world of electric vehicles at the time?

JC: This invention stems from sustained Department of Energy support that dates back to the late 1990s, first through the Office of Science, then through follow-on investment from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The original lithium-rich Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt (NMC) invention that is of great interest to licensees was first filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office in June of 2000; the inventors included Michael Thackeray, Khalil Amine, Christopher Johnson and Jaekook Kim.

But the story really begins more than 30 years ago. In 1980, Argonne researcher Michael Thackeray published his first research paper in what would become a series of scientific papers that would feed into the development of Argonne's patented lithium-rich composite cathode material. Four years earlier in 1976, Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act, which was designed to jumpstart the development of new technologies like advanced batteries and hybrids.

Twenty years after passage of that legislation, General Motors debuted the EV1, the first electric car to be mass produced in the late 20th Century. A year later, in 1997, Toyota made and marketed the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid car, and Honda followed in 1999. Though Ford, Nissan and Honda had introduced all-electric vehicles between 1997 and 2000, the major automakers discontinued production of all-electric cars by the early 2000s.

Still, the idea of an all-electric car was alive. A small California start-up company named Tesla Motors was incorporated in 2003 with the goal of increasing the number of electric vehicles bought by mainstream consumers. The Tesla Roadster, the company's first car and the first car to run on lithium-ion batteries, went into production in 2008. The company introduced its Roadster Sport in 2009 and plans to roll out its Model S sedan in 2012.

Two years later, GM and Nissan began selling their electric cars, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. GM recently licensed Argonne's advanced battery cathode technology with plans to study it for use in future GM vehicles.

DM: When did folks from the auto or electronics industry get wise to what you were up to? Who was the first to show interest in this technology?

JC: Dr. Sujeet Kumar, now Chief Technology Officer of Envia, was the first in the United States to directly approach Argonne, back in 2006, to learn how the lab's Li-rich composite NMC might be best commercialized.

Sujeet told Argonne that he had been looking in the published literature for what might be the most valuable, untapped intellectual property in the energy storage space. Sujeet has since founded Envia, and Envia has invented technology that complements and enables Argonne's original inventions.

At around the same time Sujeet approached Argonne, we were also contacted by both Toda America, a subsidiary of Japanese Toda Kogyo, and Engelhard Corp., which was subsequently purchased by BASF, to determine how they might commercialize the technology for both electronics and automotive applications. Both Toda and BASF now hold licenses to Argonne's unique cathode technology.

DM: The chorus once was "Who killed the electric car?" Now the more fitting question seems to be "Who revived it?" What's your answer?

JC: Reports of the death of the electric car were greatly exaggerated. Scientists and engineers at Argonne and throughout the Department of Energy laboratory complex have been working steadily and persistently for more than a decade to create the advanced batteries that power today's new generation of electric vehicles. The electric car has not been "revived" because it was never killed; the new cars on the road today build on previous technological advances, and offer advanced electric energy storage systems that provide greater range, making the vehicles more practical for a larger group of American consumers.

DM: What's next for Argonne's battery research and development team?

JC: Right now, we are still striving to achieve the theoretical maximum performance of lithium-ion materials. We already have made significant technological advances on the batteries in today's electric cars. If we reach the maximum performance of Li-ion systems, it will possible to increase the range and decrease the costs of electric cars even further -- making them practical for larger numbers of consumers and more profitable for carmakers.

We have a great deal of work ahead of us. But at least at this point, we believe we understand the primary technical hurdles. In concert with our collaborators at other labs, universities, and various industrial companies, we have identified the key scientific and engineering challenges, even if we don’t have all the answers. We need to continue to pursue advancements in our basic scientific understanding of how these systems function at the materials level to make the next leap toward independence from fossil fuel.