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Ky. gets battery research center

FRANKFORT — Kentucky's first federal research lab could play a key role in President Barack Obama's push to put 1 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

The state's two research universities will partner with a prestigious national lab to create the nation's first Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center in northern Fayette County, Gov. Steve Beshear announced Wednesday.

Its first task will be to develop a lithium-ion battery that can be used by the country's ailing automotive industry for use in electric and hybrid cars. Obama's push for more electric vehicles is part of a much broader goal to reshape the nation's auto industry and decrease its dependence on foreign oil.

Beshear said the new lab — a state-run partnership of Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville — will help solidify Kentucky's future in the automotive industry.

The center also could help Kentucky lure more automotive jobs to the area, Beshear said in a news conference at the Capitol.

"This research center will also position Kentucky to become one of the key players in a national strategy to recapture the automobile manufacturing market by developing and producing the technology that will power the new generation of vehicles," Beshear said.

Argonne, UK and U of L will provide staff and some equipment for the new center, to be located at the Spindletop office complex near the Kentucky Horse Park. Energy and Environmental Secretary Len Peters said that $5 million to $7 million in federal stimulus money will pay for renovation of space for the new laboratory.

Further details of the collaboration remained hazy Wednesday.

It's not clear how much the state will have to kick in to finance the new collaboration or whether it will create new jobs. Peters said Wednesday that many researchers who probably will work at the facility are already faculty at UK and U of L.

Argonne director Robert Rosner said Wednesday that the lab will first focus on emerging technologies that will make lithium-ion batteries viable for use in automobiles.

Lithium-ion batteries are used in cell phones and laptop computers, but researchers are working to make those batteries more compact, safer and cheaper, and capable of storing enough energy for a 300-mile to 400-mile car ride.

Rosner said that eventually, the center probably will go beyond development of lithium-ion batteries into other energy research.

Beshear and Kentucky Economic Development Secretary Larry Hayes said the state has spoken to federal officials about allocating more federal money to help finance the collaboration.

With Wednesday's announcement, Kentucky enters a worldwide race to make lithium-ion batteries for use in hybrid and electric cars.

Japan and China have begun initial research to make those batteries, and most large-scale production of advanced batteries is overseas. The United States needs to develop a domestic source for advanced battery technology, Beshear said.

Mercedes-Benz and Johnson Controls announced in 2008 that they had developed a major breakthrough in the development of lithium batteries and expected to have a test fleet of hybrid lithium-ion batteries in cars soon. Meanwhile, Toyota and Panasonic have partnered to ramp up their lithium battery research. Toyota has said it plans to sell its batteries to other companies.

Beshear said he started thinking about a research and development center for advanced batteries after visiting Japan last year. Beshear said he then approached Argonne and UK and U of L about the idea. Argonne is a national laboratory operated by the University of Chicago and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Hayes said the center will not be in direct competition with Toyota, which has a manufacturing plant in Georgetown and is one of the state's largest private employers. "They're manufacturing those batteries in Japan," Hayes said.

However, if Toyota wants to expand its battery production to the United States in the future, Kentucky will be better positioned to lure that business, Hayes said.

Wednesday's announcement comes just months after the University of Louisville said it would open the Center for Renewable Energy Research and Environmental Stewardship — a research center for new energy technologies. The center was made possible by a $20 million gift from engineer and U of L graduate Henry Conn.

Rosner said it was Beshear's statewide energy plan and his commitment to energy research that impressed Argonne. Kentucky's strong presence in the automobile industry also made it an ideal state for the research center, he said.

Kentucky trails only Ohio and Michigan in automobile production. It has more than 4,800 automobile-related manufacturers, including 69 vehicle-assembly plants.