WASHINGTON— The Brookings Institution hosted a panel of experts on battery technology for electric vehicles Tuesday, who focused on the future of lithium battery technology in transportation and the pipeline between scientific discovery and the marketplace.

Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory, after giving a talk at the Brookings Institution's Battery Technologies for Transportation: From Scientific Discovery to Marketplace (Nina Lincoff/Medill News Service)

Battery innovation in the future is dependent on continued federal funding for research and development said Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory, and David Sandalow, assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Department of Energy.

The experts met as the DOE released a study showing that President Obama’s goal of one million electric cars on the nation’s roads by 2015 is within reach.  The department’s findings were at odds with a similar study by the automobile industry last week which said current production plans will fall short of the president’s goal.  The DOE study said winning consumer acceptance remains a challenge for manufacturers given the vehicles’ cost and limited range.  The president has proposed changing the current $7500 tax credit into a rebate that consumers could collect at the dealer.

In a room full of technology and development professionals, Isaacs and Sandalow were preaching to an audience that has high hopes for the future of electric
vehicles in the American marketplace, a technology which President Barack Obama suggested in his State of the Union address last month may very well be a ‘Sputnik’ moment for the country to be the first to develop it.

“The electric car—and the advanced battery that powers it—holds the promise of revitalizing American’s manufacturing sector and securing the United States’ position as global economic leader for decades to come,” Isaacs said.

Developing the battery is not a simple task— of four components, the cathode is the most critical in addition to being the most complex. In order to become practical, lithium batteries need to balance both acceleration and energy storage in electric vehicles and compete with the cost, life and performance of an internal combustion engine.

“What I really want to do is take the weight of a tank of gas and replace it with a battery and have the battery do what that tank could do…this comes back to needing a lot of radical scientific development,” Isaacs said.

“This speaks to the larger issue of the whole competitiveness of the United States in the world market [and with battery technology] we do not want to see one more industry slip from our grasp into the hands of our foreign competitors,” Charles Ebinger, senior fellow of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said.

Isaacs and Sandalow agreed that with the proper federal and private funding, the administration’s goal of 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 is attainable. Obama’s push for electric vehicles is only one part of an overall plan for the lessening of U.S. petroleum dependency and the shift in the energy landscape towards clean energy sources.

For Isaacs, the environmental benefits of electric vehicles are huge.

“The development of practical, reliable electric cars has extraordinary implications for our global environment and for our nation’s energy security. A fully electrified U.S. transportation system—cars and light trucks—would cut American oil consumption by a third, roughly 7.2 million barrels of oil a day, it’s tremendous it’s a third of our oil consumption [and it] would reduce our well-to-wheels carbon footprint by 25 percent,” Isaacs said.

Kathryn Clay, vice president for Research and Technology Policy at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, agreed that continued federal funding is imperative for development of battery technology, but argued it will take time for battery technology to become competitive with internal combustion engines in terms of cost and performance.

“If we over promise what one technology can do, then we disenfranchise other markets,” Clay said, citing not just petroleum but bio-fuels and other greener options. Tomorrow will have a different energy landscape said Clay, but today the U.S. is not ready to completely shift to electric vehicles.

“The White House predicts that, by 2015, the United States will boast 40 percent of the world’s battery making capacity for vehicles. That’s a remarkable change from zero to 40 percent,” Isaacs said.

Obama’s stimulus program included $2.4 billion to spur creation of the electric vehicle battery and component manufacturing plants; currently there are more than half a dozen advanced battery manufacturing plants up and running or near completion. Federal investment in battery technology is not just going toward generating profits, “it’s about creating jobs,” Isaacs said.

“Grants from the DOE are creating thousands of jobs for Americans,” Sandalow. The private market alone is not going to adequately fund research and development, said Sandalow.

Isaacs and Sandalow said the innovations in battery technology will help in ‘winning the future’ for all Americans, as Obama promised in his SOTU address.

“We’re working on a problem that’s bigger than ourselves…it’s something as engineers that we wanted as children, to work on a problem that can have an impact on humanity and that is bigger than ourselves as individuals,” Jeffrey Chamberlain, leader of Energy Storage Initiative at the Argonne National Laboratory, said.