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Like Jason’s quest to find the Golden Fleece with the help of the Argonauts, GM enlisted the Argonne (National Laboratory) to help them produce the revolutionary battery for Chevrolet’s Volt.
 

By Kate Silver
 

The simple brick building on Argonne National Laboratory’s 1,700-acre forested campus famous for its white deer population looks more like an outdated high school than a cutting-edge research facility. But inside the walls of this modest structure, located just outside Chicago, Illinois, scientists are working in a number of different labs (one so dry its humidity levels mimic Antarctica)—sticking their hands into aquarium-like “glove boxes” to manipulate chemicals; slicing electrodes, and performing all manner of other scientific magic—in their quest to create the best and most advanced battery technology to power plug-in electric vehicles with a gas generator, such as the Chevy Volt.

Argonne’s history is as ripe with mystery and intrigue as its present. Born of Enrico Fermi’s Manhattan Project—which produced the first atomic bomb—the lab’s work began at the University of Chicago on Chicago’s South Side, but later moved out of town to continue concentrating on its potentially dangerous experiments in relative seclusion. Since its beginnings in 1942, three Argonne physicists have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes for physics, including Fermi himself.

Today, the lab, which is managed by the University of Chicago for the Department of Energy, concentrates on projects revolving around energy, the environment and national security. It has received extensive attention in recent years for its advances in battery technology—particularly car battery technology.

These sorts of advances will lead to upwards of 70 percent savings in the near future, making electric and hybrid cars and trucks more affordable for more Americans, This will also mean more jobs and less dependence on oil.

Argonne has been working to optimize energy storage (via batteries) for more than 40 years, following the Arab oil embargo. For the past 15 years, their focus has been on lithium ion batteries, where the United States is competing with Asia and Europe for a piece of the business, which is expected to grow to $100 billion a year in the next two decades.

General Motors has helped America stake its claim in the global advanced battery race. In 2011, GM signed an agreement with Argonne to license the lab’s patented cathode material technology. The move furthered the automobile manufacturer’s role as a tech leader, pushing innovation and making breakthroughs that are changing the auto industry and society.

“The Chevy Volt is the first serious foray into the extended-range electric vehicle since the GM EV1 in the ’90s here in the U.S.,” says Jeff Chamberlain, the leader of Argonne’s Energy Storage Initiative. Because of that, the Volt has brought deserved attention to both American-made vehicles and American-made batteries.**

Named 2011 North American Car of the Year and 2012 European Car of the Year, the Volt is powered by two sources of energy: the lithium ion battery and an on-board gas generator. With the lithium ion battery, the vehicle can drive gas-free for up to an EPA-estimated 35 miles, while the gas generator produces enough electricity to cover nearly 375 miles on a single full tank.* Together, on average, Volt drivers who charge regularly are traveling nearly 900 miles between fill-ups.

Eventually, the scientists at Argonne hope to invent a battery that lasts 10 years and yields 200 to 250 miles per charge. That, says Chamberlain, could be 20 years in the future, and Argonne isn’t alone in trying to make it happen. “It’s a very vigorous, well-fought, aggressive competition around the world, in both academic and industrial circles—but I think more importantly in the national realm.” The result, he adds, could be a noticeable economic boom.

*EPA-estimated 35-mile range based on 94 MPGe (electric); 340-mile range based on 35 MPG city, 40 highway (gas). Actual range varies with conditions.

**The Chevy Volt is assembled in the U.S. of U.S. and globally sourced parts.

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Kate Silver is an award-winning journalist and editor based in Chicago. Her work appears regularly in Spirit Magazine, Men’s Health, the Chicago Tribune and Midwest Living, as well as on Parents.com.