The main potential benefit of this technology is new batteries with up to two times more energy stored per weight than existing technology. This still doesn't make batteries as energy dense as gasoline, but it's another "important step" in the process, said Cathy Zoi, Acting Under Secretary of Energy and Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the DOE.
The licensing agreement works this way: ... just kidding. No one was willing to discuss the exact fee structure, so that part remains a mystery, but since Argonne is a taxpayer-funded project, the patents are not exclusive and Argonne has similar battery technology licenses with other companies at this time. Also, other automakers and battery companies can license the same technology. This deal concerns a broad suite of patents that LG Chem and GM have licensed and that will allow them to develop the technology further. These are U.S.-only patents, and LG Chem has been able to work on the technology in Korea before licensing it for the U.S.
What is the technology that GM and LG Chem have licensed? A patented composite cathode material (cathodes are one of the three important parts for battery chemistries, along with anodes and electrolytes) that allows the cells to reach a higher voltage, and thus store and extract a higher level of energy. Jon Lauckner, president of GM Ventures, which made the $5 million investment, said, "What we're licensing is really advanced cathode material. This is the most capable cathode material that we have seen. Will take some years for us to develop it, but we wanted to get it on the road." He also said that GM is expecting significant – more than single digit percentage – cost decrease in lithium-ion batteries thanks to this technology. With cheaper batteries, plug-in cars will be cheaper "and that's what we're all striving for," Zoi said.
The exact technology that GM licensed is not in the Chevy Volt today, but some of Argonne's components are in LG Chem's cell structure already. One way future Volts could benefit from the technology, aside from longer range, is a higher operating temperature. Argonne's data says that batteries using this technology could run at the higher temperature, but that's not the goal. Instead, this ability means the pack can be safer overall.
Not everyone at Argonne is blindly in favor of battery electric vehicles (as you can read here) and the lab is testing a lot of other technologies, like an omnivorous engine and more propane powerplants.
[Source: Argonne, GM]