How Argonne is working to power a clean energy revolution
BY CHRISTINA NUNEZ|FEBRUARY 22, 2021
Argonne was established 75 years ago with a mission to advance atomic energy. Today we are working to revitalize the U.S. energy sector and boost growth economywide.
When four light bulbs switched on at the Experimental Breeder Reactor-I in Idaho in 1951, a new energy era began. The lights were powered with the first usable electricity from atomic fission, one in a series of nuclear energy milestones driven by research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.
Today, Argonne pursues an ambitious portfolio of research to support a 100 percent clean energy economy, including work to modernize the U.S. electric grid, revolutionize batteries and reinvent transportation. Like nuclear energy in its infancy 75 years ago, some of these advancements might seem unimaginable today. But they will ultimately create a reliable, zero-carbon power sector and build a nation resilient to the impacts of climate change.
“The next 10 or 15 years is going to bring about monumental change through decarbonization. Energy storage is going to be right in the middle of it.” — George Crabtree, director, JCESR
Home to five DOE Office of Science User Facilities, one DOE Energy Frontier Research Center and the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), Argonne brings together experts from across research institutions and industries to conceive tomorrow’s energy solutions, scale them up and deploy them across the U.S. and the world.
A Transforming Energy Landscape
The perennial search for reliable, cost-effective energy did not end with nuclear reactors in the 1950s, nor will it conclude with wind and solar in the 2020s. Every breakthrough brings another set of questions and possibilities. The defining challenge of this century will be to meet the energy needs of a global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 while slashing the balance of planet-warming greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere to nearly zero.
A slow transition away from fossil fuels has begun, with nearly every country in the world agreeing to lower carbon emissions as part of the Paris Agreement. Yet this transition must be accelerated, and it demands an array of solutions. These include — but cannot rest entirely on — improving energy efficiency and ramping up renewable energy solutions like wind and solar power.
Energy research at Argonne is focused on getting the most value from the resources we have while exploring new materials that push the boundaries of what is possible. In the 20th century, much innovation focused on honing the methods for extracting resources such as oil, gas and coal from the ground. Now, advances in imaging, computing and basic science are enabling the next wave of energy extraction, this time from carbon-free sources such as the sun, wind, water and atomic fission. These new clean energy technologies will help revitalize the U.S. economy by creating high-paying jobs in communities across the country.
At the most fundamental level, scientists are working on new types of solar cells that are organic (that is, carbon-based) rather than silicon-based, opening up the potential for harvesting the sun’s energy from windows and other places where thin films could be applied. Other research aims to improve fuel cells that provide hydrogen-fueled power and analyze the potential of existing resources like batteries and hydropower to support wind and solar.
Argonne engineers are also making further improvements and discoveries in nuclear energy, which currently provides more than half the nation’s emissions-free electricity. Today, the nuclear industry faces headwinds: The operating costs of existing nuclear power plants are higher than alternative energy sources, and used fuel requires safe, long-term disposal. But nuclear plants can offer large, reliable amounts of electricity within a compact land area, and the nation would benefit economically from exporting nuclear technology to other countries. New nuclear power systems would include large power plants and the portfolio of small modular and micro-reactors being developed in the U.S.
“Our vision at Argonne is to realize nuclear energy as a sustainable carbon-free energy source to support economic growth and prosperity worldwide,” said Temitope Taiwo, director of Argonne’s Nuclear Science and Engineering division. “We are looking at a slew of systems, from large reactors all the way to micro-reactors.”
Down the road, many reactors will look quite different from the ones we see today, but all will offer zero-carbon power. Small modular reactor designs will enable affordable cost options. Micro-reactor designs will bring stable power to settings where wind and solar might not be feasible, such as the Arctic, space, and military mobile platforms. In addition to reactor designs, Taiwo and colleagues are working on advanced materials and technologies such as simulation tools, sensors and controls that can help bring down the cost of nuclear power. Argonne is one of the major contributors to the development and construction of DOE’s Versatile Test Reactor, which will support research on these and other innovations for a range of reactor types.
Generating power is only part of the picture. In a society that’s increasingly connected by trade and travel on a global scale, we need to rethink how we move both people and goods. Argonne scientists who have worked for decades on ways to improve efficiency and reduce emissions from gas-fueled cars and trucks are also turning to aviation, electric and self-driving cars, hydrogen fueling and other aspects of mobility.
Bolstering the Nation’s Electric Grid
More than 80 percent of the new electricity generating capacity in the U.S. in 2021 will come from wind and solar backed by batteries. This influx of renewable energy is just one of many changes coming on fast for the U.S. electric grid.
While centralized power generation now comes from a wider range of intermittent and seasonal sources, there are also customer contributions to manage. Households, businesses and communities can generate and store their own electricity through rooftop solar panels, batteries and other distributed resources. They can participate in utility demand response programs, voluntarily ramping down power use to avert stress on the grid at peak times.
“Today, it’s not just one-way power from a big power plant,” said Argonne Grid Program Manager Mark Petri. “It’s two-way power that might go from my house into the grid system. That requires additional communication between customers and grid operators.”
At the same time, different infrastructure systems are increasingly interconnected. Managing two-way power flow requires sophisticated and reliable communications networks; a disruption in those networks can, therefore, cause problems on the grid. And, of course, the telecommunications that feed our digital economy need dependable electric power. Likewise, gas pipelines critical for feeding electric power plants must have electricity to pump that gas. The reliability of one system depends on the reliability of others in ways we haven’t seen before.
“In some respects, we have a more robust system that allows for more services and more efficiency,” Petri said. “But that also leads to new vulnerabilities and complexities in how these systems have to be run and understood.”
Modernizing the grid is crucial on multiple fronts. The nation’s system will need to accommodate more electric vehicles and more buildings using clean, American-made electricity rather than fossil fuels for activities like heating and cooking. It will balance the influx of variable renewable resources. And it must protect against threats from extreme weather driven by climate change, as well as cyberattacks. Tackling these challenges will create jobs, bolster national security, and lead to a more equitable system for all.
Argonne’s approach to research and innovation for a modern U.S. grid falls within three main areas: energy system resilience, critical infrastructure interdependence, and emergency readiness and response. With specialized computer models and tools, researchers can provide utilities with data-based guidance for planning for scenarios ranging from hurricanes to earthquakes to cyberattacks. Argonne’s Hurricane Electric Assessment Damage Outage (HEADOUT) modeling tool, for example, forecasts likely power outages after a storm. And at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, researchers have applied artificial intelligence methods to inform more reliable grid planning and operations.
Argonne is also a key contributor in the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium, a strategic partnership between DOE and the national laboratories to bring together leading experts, technologies and resources to collaborate on the goal of modernizing the nation’s grid.
Argonne’s multidisciplinary expertise sets the lab apart, Petri added: “At any given time, I’m working with engineers, economists, computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts and battery researchers, trying to bring all of these pieces together to come up with real solutions to real problems.”
Developing Better Batteries
Just as the first commercial lithium-ion batteries in the 1990s powered an explosion in personal electronics, the next generation of batteries will enable another transformation, this one driven by a renewed commitment to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Creating the best, most innovative clean technology in the world is not enough: To achieve aggressive emissions reductions, clean energy must be available when and where homes and businesses need it. Robust energy storage holds the key to that goal.
“The next 10 or 15 years is going to bring about monumental change through decarbonization,” said George Crabtree, director of JCESR, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub headquartered at Argonne. “Energy storage is going to be right in the middle of it.”
But there won’t be a “one size fits all” solution. Cheaper, hardier and more powerful batteries will be required for a range of purposes, from electrifying cars, trucks and small aircraft to storing fluctuating output from solar panels and wind turbines. Both at JCESR and elsewhere at Argonne, work proceeds to advance every part of the battery, starting at the molecular level.
“Our idea is to build the battery from the bottom up,” Crabtree said. “Every application has its own critical needs. You have to design the battery for that application.”
For researcher Lei Cheng, an Argonne chemist and focus area lead at JCESR, that means using computational methods to screen tens of thousands of molecular candidates for energy storage, analyzing their properties to better predict how they will perform in a battery. Cheng helped lead the development of the Electrolyte Genome, the first extensive database of simulated organic molecules introduced by JCESR in 2013.
Any recipe can only be as good as its ingredients. A battery’s performance — and its limitations — will be determined by its components at the most basic level. Scientists at Argonne have a range of tools for characterizing these components, including powerful X-ray beams at the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science User Facility. The upcoming APS upgrade, which will make the APS’s X-ray beams up to 500 times brighter, will give researchers an even more precise view of battery chemistry.
“You need to start with the right materials,” Cheng said. “Our computations help find those materials and predict which ones we should start working on experimentally.”
Cheng and many other researchers at Argonne are exploring different materials that may be less expensive and easier to obtain than current battery ingredients. Earth-abundant magnesium, for example, might serve as an alternative to lithium in the electrolytes that transport energy between the positive and negative ends of a battery. And manganese, another common and inexpensive material, could be used in cathodes instead of cobalt, a pricy metal that also raises humanitarian concerns because of how it is mined.
Scientists are developing another type of device, flow batteries, to handle the volume and duration of storage needed for the electric grid. These batteries could hold surplus energy from solar panels during the day for use well into the night, for instance. In this case, the charging and discharging happens with tanks of liquid electrodes (called catholytes and anolytes) rather than the solid electrodes used in a conventional lithium-ion battery. To become feasible, these batteries will require high voltage and stable materials, including organic ones that can support low-cost, high-capacity energy storage.
Zhengcheng (John) Zhang, a senior chemist at Argonne, leads work on electrolytes for this and other applications. “In the past, people thought nothing needs to be done to improve electrolytes — that they’re just a medium for transporting energy in the battery,” he said.
On the contrary, he notes, the research opportunities are plentiful. Among other projects, Zhang’s group is working on developing functional liquid electrolyte materials that could make a battery more powerful, as well as solid-state electrolytes that are safer and more stable than current, flammable liquid electrolytes found in conventional lithium-ion batteries.
“With a long history of working on electrolytes at Argonne, we have the capability and expertise to move the technology far beyond the current state of the art,” Zhang said.
Because of everything scientists have learned over the past 75 years, the energy horizon contains no shortage of intriguing and exciting new frontiers. Nanoscopic engineered materials might redefine the capabilities of everything from batteries to solar cells. Electric or biomass-fueled flight must advance in a world where air travel will continue to grow and package deliveries might arrive via drone. Hydrogen’s potential as a clean fuel for transportation and power has yet to be realized.
A clean energy revolution will require ambitious thinking, pioneering leadership and pivotal discoveries. Argonne, building on its 75 years of success in transforming science, is developing the technologies of tomorrow — today.
This work was supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, including the offices of Advanced Scientific Computing Research and Basic Energy Sciences, the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and through the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, an Energy Innovation Hub funded by the DOE Office of Science.