The Department of Defense will invest $30 million over three years at the University of Texas at Dallas to create new battery technologies and worker training programs, the Pentagon announced Monday.
As part of its investment, UTD will construct an energy storage systems campus that will also optimize existing battery technologies, decrease battery dependence on scarce raw materials, and train workers for jobs in the emerging battery energy storage workforce, the university said.
“This initiative is a tremendous opportunity to showcase UTD’s mission of research, service and teaching in the context of accelerating workforce development and next-generation solutions that are critical to our nation’s economy and defense readiness,” UT Dallas President Richard C. Benson said in a statement.
The $30 million award, part of the Defense Department’s local enterprises initiative, is the largest UTD has received from a federal agency.
In addition to the initial award, the university said it will leverage and stimulate $200 million in private capital and $700,000 from UTD’s Seed Program to finance operations at the energy storage systems campus.
Joseph Pancrazio, vice president for research and innovation at UTD and co-principal investigator on the project, said it’s critical that UTD and the U.S. succeed in efforts to make breakthroughs in battery technology.
“We can’t afford to fail. I say that for the entire scientific and, ultimately, the commercial enterprise,” Pancrazio said. “We don’t have enough lithium to meet the needs of all the rechargeable technologies that are going to be critical for renewables, the next generation of mobility solutions and even DOD-related activities and infrastructure. Without a doubt, we have to be successful.”
The U.S. government thinks it can accelerate those efforts by creating “market pull” to commercialize innovative research that could add to the nation’s capability and capacity, said Laura Taylor-Kale, assistant secretary of defense for industrial base policy.
“Our approach of aggregating demand across national security and commercial markets will generate that market pull, drastically reducing timelines to transition and scale emerging technologies,” Taylor-Kale said.
Pancrazio said if the U.S. does not meet the need for batteries using different technology in the future, it could become a national security problem.
“We’ll be meeting the nation’s need from a national security perspective,” Pancrazio said. “But also we’re meeting a very Texas need, which is to be able to maximize the utility of these kinds of renewable energy systems.”
Pancrazio said he hopes the campus and center will also give entrepreneurs an opportunity to invest, design and develop in the industry, creating jobs in the process.
“Our objective is to build out and then centralize as much as possible within the North Texas region,” he said. “This is a seed. So how big will the tree grow? It could be that over the course of five years, we’re able to have multiple industries either locate or get established here. With that, I would anticipate several thousand jobs at multiple levels, from high school graduates all the way to Ph.D.s.”
UTD led the Defense Department bid along with partners LEAP Manufacturing; Associated Universities Inc.; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Chicago; and other energy storage companies.
Kyeongjae Cho, a UTD professor of materials science and engineering, will direct the project and run the Batteries and Energy to Advance Commercialization and National Security (BEACONS) center. He said it is important for the U.S. to get ahead of emerging battery technologies.
“Renewable energy is a rapidly expanding area, and Texas is leading the country in the expansion of energy storage capacity,” Cho said. “We need not only Ph.D.-level experts but also technicians who know how to safely handle batteries.”
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the U.S. will need more than 130,000 additional workers in the battery energy storage industry by 2030. Texas is expected to account for at least 12,000 of those workers.
Pancrazio said UTD is primed to have results within two years.
“This is not a heavy lift for us,” Pancrazio said. “The research and development lab will get up relatively quickly within the first eight, maybe nine months. We anticipate to have manufacturing capability closer to a year, or a year and a half.”
Cho said manufacturing will be important to DOD and UTD efforts.
“In the last few decades, we’ve really been rapidly catching up,” Cho said. “But how we bridge the gap from research to manufacturing to commercializing it all to regain the manufacturing strength, I think that’s the challenge we’re addressing.”