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Battery Effort Helps Secure Michigan's Economic Future

Advanced battery technology is going to dominate the future of the automotive industry.

Michigan's economic future, and indeed the nation's, depends on winning a race against our economic competition around the world. That race is to find the technologies that will power homes, vehicles and businesses in the decades to come. Win that race, and we claim the economic high ground.

That's why an announcement in November by the Department of Energy was so important to Michigan. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, a consortium of government, university and private-sector research labs aimed at revolutionizing battery technology.

Fittingly, Michigan is playing a key role in the effort. The consortium, headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, will include research hubs at Johnson Controls in Holland, and on the University of Michigan campus. Dow Chemical in Midland is also a key corporate partner.

The JCESR is nothing short of a Manhattan Project-styled effort to blow through the technical and economic limitations imposed by existing battery technology. Despite enormous progress that has allowed impressive accomplishments in hybrid vehicles and plug-in electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt, today’s batteries are still bigger, heavier, more expensive and lower capacity than we’d like. With technical improvements, we can bring down costs, reduce our dependence on imported oil and protect our environment.

The answer to this challenge is an effort that, as my colleague Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois put it, "brings together, under a single organizational roof, the world’s leading scientists, engineers and manufacturers in energy storage and provides them with the tools, resources and market reach necessary to produce major breakthroughs."

And if you're bringing together world-class experts in battery technology, you’re right in Michigan’s wheelhouse. Our universities are hubs of research on this and other automotive technologies. Companies such as Johnson Controls, Dow, the Big Three automakers, Sakti3, Compact Power and others are leading the drive to develop and market new battery technologies. And no place on earth can rival Michigan’s concentration of scientific, engineering and workforce talent.

So, at Johnson Controls' lithium-ion battery manufacturing facility in Holland, technical experts will work on ways to commercialize next-generation technology. At U-M, engineers and chemists will simulate new battery materials and build large-scale prototypes. Dow will bring its world-leading skill in chemistry and energy storage.

It's impressive that President Obama's administration and these companies and research facilities have made this commitment. But the truth is, we have little choice in terms of our economy. Advanced battery technology is going to dominate the future of the automotive industry. It's vitally important to reducing our dependence on foreign oil, a dependence that doesn't just damage our environment, but threatens our economy and our national security.

This effort will no doubt have its ups and downs, just as any innovative new technology would. It's important that we keep in mind our long-term goal: Innovation that ensures these technologies are made in America, by American workers.

We're not the only country seeking these breakthroughs. Foreign companies are too, and they have financing and research support from governments. If our own government refuses to make the same kinds of investments in our companies and research labs, we'll allow those offshore companies and governments to take this vital economic high ground. If we want the next generation of vehicle technology to be manufactured here in America, these investments are a necessity.

Thanks to JCESR and other key investments, we're on the way to winning this economic competition. That’s good news for Michigan workers, Michigan companies, the U.S. auto industry and America's economic future.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.

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