University of Kentucky opens $20.7 million research lab at Spindletop

lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 15, 2012 

The University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research opened a new laboratory Wednesday that backers called an economic development engine, supporting research and manufacturing of biofuels, solar technology and high-tech batteries.

The labs within the building will be "magnets that attract more of the nation's top scientists, researchers and engineers," Gov. Steve Beshear said at an opening ceremony Wednesday.

The $20.7 million building at Spindletop research park on Iron Works Pike is practicing some alternative energy of its own, using geothermal heating and cooling, and "nanogel" windows that diffuse sunlight and have the same insulation as brick walls. The 43,000-square-foot facility is expected to get gold certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards, said center director Rodney Andrews.

The building will be divided between labs for battery manufacturing and testing, a biofuels research lab and solar research. The second floor is devoted to the work of chemistry professor John Anthony's research group, which is working on organic solar cells for low-cost electricity generation and light-emitting diodes for high-efficiency lighting.

Beshear said he was most proud of the Kentucky-Argonne Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center, a collaboration among the state, Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, UK and the University of Louisville.

The shared-used facility will work on how to manufacture better batteries for hybrid and electric cars. Beshear visited the Argonne lab in Chicago in 2009, where the idea of such a joint venture first came up.

"This will benefit the entire commonwealth for years to come," he said.

One example is Hitachi's selection of Harrodsburg for its North American lithium-ion battery production last year.

Argonne director Eric Isaacs also attended Wednesday's gathering.

"It's not enough to invent a better battery," he said. "We need to continue to revitalize our domestic battery industry by building tomorrow's batteries here in America."

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray pointed out that among Wednesday's attendees was Ted Miller, the main researcher for battery technology for Ford Motor Co. worldwide. Ford has a production facility in Louisville.

"This is a big deal," he said. "We are at the right place at the right time."

The building was funded through a competitive grant of $11.8 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards, plus $3.5 million from the state and $1.9 million from UK. An additional $3.5 million in stimulus funds was used for LEED certification standards.

Andrews said the facility will allow scientists to do research and testing they previously had to send elsewhere.

"This now gives us the capability to compete nationally and internationally for projects in these areas," he said. "We have faculty and research staff who are world-class, but prior to this, John Anthony's group was having to send material out for the testing that he's now able to do in-house."

For example, the "dry room" has just 0.5 percent humidity, compared to the 4 percent humidity of the desert. That allows researchers to do better work with materials, such as lithium for batteries, because humidity can cause lithium to catch fire.

In addition, the lab is open access, which means companies in Kentucky may come to the lab for help with specific issues.

"This is an easy, one-stop shopping lab," Andrews said.

Linda B. Blackford: (859) 231-1359Twitter: @lbblackford

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