New U-M Battery Lab Will Help Industry Test, Scale New Technologies

Last week, the University of Michigan announced a new public, shared lab space that will be open to any researchers—from professors and students to entrepreneurs and company employees—who are trying to push the boundaries of battery technology.

The U-M Energy Institute’s Battery Fabrication and Characterization User Facility is a 2,700-square-foot lab space funded by $9.1 million from the university, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., and Ford.

“We’re here to accommodate anyone who can benefit from our equipment,” says Greg Less, the battery lab’s manager.

Less says the lab’s purpose is to develop and test pilot-scale battery technology for use in grid storage, transportation, and consumer product applications. Although there are other large battery testing facilities across the U.S.—Less singles out those maintained by Oak Ridge and Argonne national labs, as well as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—he says U-M’s is bigger and has more capabilities.

The lab’s equipment comes in several scales: coin cells, which are mostly used in proof-of-concept projects; 18650 batteries, used most often in consumer electronics; and 72-by-110-millimeter prismatic pouch cells, which are used in laptop batteries and electric vehicles. The lab will also serve as a base for U-M’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research and will support the CERC-Clean Vehicles Consortium’s electrification program.

“It’s been really challenging for small companies—and even big companies—to find time on a fabrication line so they can scale up from lab results to real-world results,” Less says. “This is a shared, public pilot space that also has people with battery expertise, and that helps de-risk the technology.”

As for how the lab will manage to be open-access and still protect the intellectual property of those using the space to test proprietary technologies, Less says only one customer at a time will be allowed to use the fabrication equipment. The lab will also use Voltaiq, analytics software that allows password-protected data to be uploaded to a Web-based server in real time.

“We make sure the materials are safe, but other than that, we don’t really need to know what our customers are working on,” Less says.

Ted Miller, Ford’s senior manager of energy storage strategy and research, says his company contributed $2.1 million toward the lab and acquired all of its equipment.

“We could have put the money in-house, but we have a solid partnership with U-M,” he says. “We want to help educate future generations of scientists. We’ve done a lot of work with U-M post-doctoral and graduate students in the past, but we’d like to get even younger students more engaged, and we think this will provide that opportunity.”

Ford is also hoping to tap the university’s brainpower as it evaluates new battery materials and components. “We’ve met with the university about industry pain points, and we also provided Ford’s perspective on the market,” Miller says.

The lab embodies Ford’s ongoing efforts to work more collaboratively with outside innovators even as the auto industry remains hyper-competitive. Although electric vehicle technology has been around for more than a decade, consumers have been slow to embrace it.

“Open access is important because at Ford, we design, build, and manufacture our own battery systems,” Miller adds. “What we don’t build is the battery technology itself. That innovation doesn’t have to be Ford-owned, and we need this technology to become as ubiquitous as the gas engine. I’m not sure competing on the electro-chemistry behind batteries is productive when the industry is still in its infancy.”

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