Before the recession hit and before gasoline routinely settled in near $4 a gallon, two things were becoming clear:
• Hybrid electric vehicles such as the Toyota Prius were in a position to revolutionize the auto industry and gobble up market share.
• The United States was trailing, badly, in the race to develop and manufacture the key component of these vehicles — advanced batteries using lithium-ion technology.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear recognized early in his first term that the state, as the nation’s third-leading manufacturer of light-duty vehicles, could and “must become the epicenter for the advanced manufacturing technology that will produce
the vehicles of tomorrow.”
His vision led to the creation of the Kentucky Argonne Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center in 2009, an effort to position Kentucky and the United States as a leader in the advanced battery technologies market to support the state’s vibrant automobile manufacturing industries and create jobs.
Kentucky: EV Research Hub
The University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky have strong programs in material development for advanced battery technologies for a range of applications, including vehicles and storage for grid-scale renewable energy such as wind and solar. Argonne is the federal government’s lead laboratory for applied advanced battery research and development.
“This center is a unique partnership in Kentucky, and it will help us in our goals to enhance energy security, protect the environment, create opportunities for renewable energy resources and grow our economy by developing a domestic supply of advanced battery technologies for vehicle applications,” says Dr. Leonard Peters, secretary of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet.
A growing team of researchers at the center are testing different types of batteries to determine which mixtures of metals can produce a lot of power while being cheap to manufacture. The technology still has room to grow.
“The battery center is the first national lab presence in Kentucky,” says Dr. Tony Hancock, special assistant to the secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet and director of business development for the battery center. “This brings an international team of battery material specialists to focus on the future of batteries for automotive applications. These batteries bear little resemblance to your father’s old flashlight batteries, but are high-tech electronic devices,” he adds.
The battery center is set up to accelerate aging and perform failure analysis to continue improving the performance of these devices. The Kentucky-Argonne Center’s ability to test and improve those materials should give a technological boost to manufacturers in the United States, which has helped draw companies to the state.
Cranking Up the Economy
For nGimat, Kentucky-Argonne provided an excellent chance to test one of its new nanotechnologies: a highly conductive lithium-ion powder.
In 2010, the Atlanta-based company announced plans to open a Lexington laboratory that is expected to employ 18 high-tech workers within the next two years, then 50 more people in manufacturing and other roles. The Lexington facility is headed by Ganesh Venugopal, director of nanomaterials.
Andrew Hunt, nGimat’s CEO and chief technology officer, says the company plans to infuse existing batteries with thin layers of “electrochemical materials that are exponentially better than other materials.”
The idea is to create superconductive pathways through which electricity can move quickly, allowing power to flow in faster for charging and flow out faster for power. Imagine an electric vehicle that could accelerate like a Corvette and recharge in minutes instead of hours.
Big international players are also eyeing the Lexington facility. Japan-based Hitachi has been manufacturing in Kentucky for more than a quarter century.
Since Gov. Beshear visited officials in Japan in 2009, $154.5 million in new investments have been announced at its Kentucky plants, adding 335 jobs. That includes Hitachi’s decisions to create electronics in Harrodsburg to regulate lithium-ion battery performance (which will add 60 jobs), and to build electric drive motors in Berea (which will add 130 jobs.)
Of the three major components of electric engines, that leaves only the inverter – and Doug Bowling, senior vice president and general manager at Hitachi Automotive Systems Americas, says the company is “optimistic about the opportunity” in the future to transfer inverter manufacturing from its Japan facility to Harrodsburg.
Hitachi is working closely with the Kentucky-Argonne Center, Bowling says. The company’s Kentucky locations “have highly skilled employees, a strong technical staff [and] the infrastructure needed to support advanced technology,” he adds.