DoD hopes $30M BEACONS will light the way to next-gen American battery designs

And less than half the cost of a single F-35 – bargain!

The Department of Defense has become the latest US government body to push for next-gen battery manufacturing in America, with a $30 million (£24m) investment in an energy storage systems campus in the Lone Star State. 

The funds, awarded to the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) and a consortium of other universities, private companies and national labs, will be disbursed over the course of three years. The funding will be used to build the Batteries and Energy to Advance Commercialization and National Security, or BEACONS, center at the Dallas university to investigate future electricity storage systems.

"This initiative is a tremendous opportunity to showcase UTD's mission of research, service and teaching in the context of accelerating workforce development and next-generation solutions that are critical to our nation's economy and defense readiness," said UTD president Richard Benson this week.

According to the DoD, BEACONS will be focused around three main goals: optimizing existing lithium ion battery technology; accelerating the path to next-generation batteries; and ensuring a smooth supply of materials needed to make such kit available in the US. UTD said a fourth priority, developing a US workforce needed to make the aforementioned three goals possible, is also as important as the other three. 

"Renewable energy is a rapidly expanding area, and Texas is leading the country in the expansion of energy storage capacity," said Kyeongjae Cho, UTD professor of materials science and engineering and chosen director of the BEACONS center. "We need not only PhD-level experts but also technicians who know how to safely handle batteries."

Some workforce development programs will begin in around a year, we're told by UTD. 

As for where the facility will be located, UTD said the future center will be built on a 1,200-acre plot in the Dallas suburb of Richardson in the city's so-called innovation quarter. The BEACONS facility will include space for developing next-gen battery technology, as well as small-scale manufacturing facilities.

For those curious what the DoD is getting out of its $30m investment, UTD said there will be lab space "tailored to defense applications," although the DoD envisions the space as dual use for both defense and commercial purposes. 

"Defense systems operate at extremely cold or hot temperatures, encounter high shock and vibration, and may be stored for long periods then needed quickly for immediate use," UTD said of the specialized DoD research needs. "Defense battery systems also are sometimes operated in environments where safety demands exceed current commercial requirements."

The facilities in Richardson will begin opening in six to nine months, UTD professor of bioengineering and VP for research Joseph Pancrazio told The Register. "We're going to have more like a grand opening in different phases than a big groundbreaking," Pancrazio said. 

Pancrazio told us the small-scale manufacturing facility will follow construction of an R&D space and will be opened in around 18 months with the ability to produce everything from button batteries to cylindrical cells for automotive applications. 

"I like to think of the space in Richardson as a live, work and invent space," Pancrazio said, "we want it to have small businesses, investors, homes - a community space." 

Researchers working at the future BEACONS center will mainly focus their time on moving beyond lithium-ion batteries toward safer, more efficient and longer-lasting alternatives. Staff joining BEACONS have worked on solid-state batteries as well as aqueous zinc-ion batteries made from more abundant materials, UTD said. Maximizing existing lithium-ion technology is a part of the process, too.

"You deserve an EV with a 450 mile range, not just a 300 mile one," Pancrazio told us. 

While the US has done plenty to lead battery research and development, much of its production - like the rest of US industry - has been offshored, leaving the America in a perilous national security state from a manufacturing perspective. 

The Biden administration has made returning lithium mining and other energy technology industries to the US a cornerstone of its energy plans, along with grid modernization and vehicle electrification. Both, in turn, have spurred additional battery plants and projects in the Land of the Free. 

More is needed, though, and Pancrazio said BEACONS will work with partners such as Sandia National Labs to help identify useful mineral resources and contribute to US-based battery production from start to finish. 

"This investment by the DOD will facilitate collaboration with our industry partners to help ensure reliable, domestic manufacture of lithium-ion cells, as well as the battery packs that support defense systems and advanced commercial systems," said UTD professor 23Cho. ®

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