The Department of Energy's National Labs are like the collective dusty garages where the smart people of the US tinker on new technologies. Except that these garages are in fact massive campuses and they're not really dusty at all. They're high-tech research centers where the finish lines for the products being tinkered with might be two or three decades in the future. At the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, TX this week, the DOE announced the creation of two new collaborative centers that could have big impacts on the creation of cleaner, better vehicles.

The two centers are called Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS). The official word is that these new centers:

represent a new way to collaborate at Argonne, providing a single point of contact for businesses to assemble tailored interdisciplinary teams to address their most challenging R&D questions. The centers will also provide a pathway to Argonne's fundamental research that is poised for development into practical products. The chance to build on existing scientific discovery is a unique opportunity for businesses in the nano and energy storage fields.


The new director of NDW, Andreas Roelofs, told AutoblogGreen here in Austin that the reason that these two topics were chosen was because Argonne could see spikes in interest in them over the past few years. "Batteries were very obvious," he said. "A blind guy could have seen it." The Chevy Volt, for example, used some battery technology that was created at Argonne. The new director of ACCESS, Jeff Chamberlain, worked at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), which is on a, "years-long quest to discover technologies beyond lithium-ion batteries."

On the nanotechnology front, one likely way for Argonne to help clean up cars is by reducing the power loss of a typical engine to friction, which today sits at about 30 percent. It's possible, Roelofs, said, to use tiny diamonds and graphene to create a nano-bearing that would reduce or eliminate the need for motor oil. The problems is that this only works in dry environments today, Roelofs said, but, "If you could do this in a sealed bearing, if you could put this in a gearbox, you wouldn't need any oil. And then, with zero friction, almost, you have zero wear." So, the challenge that Roelofs is excited to tackle is to take the idea and make it work outside of a dry environment. Once that happens, then Argonne could create a demonstration project and, if that works, then perhaps an automaker would be interested.

Roelofs would not put a time frame on when either better batteries or cool diamond gear boxes might show up in your next vehicle, but he said that there are numerous projects in the works, and some of them might show up in as little as five years, others might take decades. It's all in how the tinkering goes.

You can watch promotional videos about the new centers above and below.

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