Argonne National Laboratory on October 6 announced it is opening two centers of collaboration that will afford private-sector companies a new, more direct means of contributing to and taking advantage of the latest advances in two critical fields of endeavor for the world’s best scientists and engineers: energy storage and nanotechnology.

As Argonne explains in a press release: ¨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 start-ups, as well as government agencies — to benefit from Argonne’s world-class expertise, scientific tools and facilities.¨

Engaging Start-Ups and Small Businesses in Fedearal Energy Storage and Nanotech R&D

Advances in energy storage and nanotechnology have and continue to make substantial impacts across the US and global economy and society. The launch of its energy storage and nanotech R&D collaboration centers represent a new, more open, publicly engaged and applied science approach for Argonne, which is one of the Department of Energy’s network of national R&D labs.

More broadly and from a longer term perspective, the opening of Argonne’s two centers for public-private sector collaboration highlight the critical, seminal role the federal government, its departments and agencies continue to play in the development and commercialization of innovative new technologies that hold the potential to dramatically transform, shape and enhance the way people in the US and the world over live, work and play.

Advanced, intelligent energy storage systems in short order have come to be viewed as the ¨missing link¨ required to successfully make the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources.

Research scientists and engineers working in the field of nanotechnology, meanwhile, continue to revolutionize the means by which materials are designed, fabricated and manufactured.

If not with, or in addition to, having completely new attributes and characteristics, the result has been the creation and commercialization (often too quickly, critics assert) of new types and classes of ¨nano¨ materials and products that are lighter, stronger, more powerful and/or more flexible than those already in use.

Furthermore, they are often considered potentially cheaper to produce over the long run and touted as being able to reduce the negative impacts on ecosystems, natural resources and human health and safety that production, use and disposal of existing materials used today have.

Argonne’s New NDW and ACCESS R&D Collaboration Centers

By establishing NDW and ACCESS, Argonne ¨a single point of contact for businesses to assemble tailored interdisciplinary teams to address their most challenging R&D questions,¨ according to the press release.

¨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.¨

Both the directors of NDW and ACCESS – Andreas Roelofs and Jeff Chamberlain, respectively – have created and helped start-ups de elop and grow. Helping small businesses and start-ups do just that will be a particular emphasis for the two Argonne R&D collaboration centers.

“For a start-up like mine to have the ability to tap the resources of a place like Argonne would have been immensely helpful,” Roelofs was quoted as saying. “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.”

Shortening the time between scientific breakthroughs and development of commercial products and services has become a point of intense interest and intensive efforts and investments on the part of private companies and government alike. Providing completely open, public access and not narrowing down government-sponsored R&D to topics and areas private businesses deem of high priority has increasingly opened up issues of conflict of interest over the course of recent decades, however.

“Where ACCESS and NDW will differ from the conventional approach is through creating an efficient way for a business to build a customized, multidisciplinary team that can address anything from small technical questions to broad challenges that require massive resources,” Chamberlain elaborated.

“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.”

Prior to being named director of ACCESS, Chamberlain led the formation of Agronne’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). Developing new, better performing alternatives to lithium ion battery storage technologies (the predominant form for everything from consumer electronics devices on through to electric vehicles and stationary energy storage systems) has been an R&D area JCESR has zoomed in and worked on extensively.

Chamberlain noted that some 1.3 billion people around the world lack access to electricity. Another 1 billion only have sporadic access. Coupling intelligent energy storage systems with renewable energy generation sources, such as solar PV systems and wind turbines, could solve the main challenge to much more widespread use of these and other clean, renewable energy resources: their intermittent nature.

Shortening the Time Separating Discovery and Commercialization

Accelerating commercialization of new advanced energy storage technology and systems would significantly reduce the need for utilities to invest in more costly and environmentally destructive fossil-fuel generation capacity and power distribution infrastructure. In addition, odds are that it would substantially reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and hence be of great benefit in the global drive to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The potentially beneficial impacts of commercializing new nano materials and products are similar, if not even greater, in scope and scale. The quantum effects inherent at ¨nano¨ scales (typically 10-7 meters and smaller) has resulted in development of a wide variety of new materials with unique properties.

Hundreds of nanoscience R&D projects are in progress at Argonne. Among them are projects that aim to use develop new ways to deliver drugs that affect cancerous cells only directly into patients or develop magnetic nanofibers that could be used to build much more efficient electric motors and generators, super-efficient water filtration and purification devices and equipment that could be used to desalinate saltwater or clean up oil spills, Argonne highlighted.

“When you think that 30 percent of a car engine’s power is sacrificed to frictional loss, you start to get an idea of the potential of these technologies,” Roelofs stated.

“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 Argonne to bring those ideas to fruition. That is what has me excited about ACCESS and NDW.”

*Image credits: Argonne National Laboratory