01/10/2011 08:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Putting the Power of Science Into the Electric Car

If you want proof of the real-world value of basic science research, take a look under the hood of GM's innovative new Chevy Volt. There you'll find a safe, long-lasting lithium-ion battery that uses materials developed and patented at Argonne National Laboratory.

The Chevy Volt, and the Argonne-developed materials inside the GM battery that drives its wheels, demonstrate that American ingenuity, powered by American investment, can renew our industries, create good jobs, improve our energy security and protect our environment.

As America's first mass-produced electric vehicle, the Volt represents a major, exciting step toward electrification of our nation's transportation fleet -- a critical component of President Obama's vision of ending America's dependence on foreign oil.

Just as important, the development of the electric car is recharging the American battery industry, creating new green tech jobs where they are most needed. Under just-announced licensing agreements, battery manufacturer LG Chem is building batteries using Argonne's cutting-edge lithium-rich materials, and General Motors can use Argonne's battery technology throughout its supply chain -- for the Volt and for future electric vehicles. Already, an LG Chem subsidiary is building a new battery facility in Michigan. The plant, which was partially funded through the federal stimulus program, will employ more than 400 workers.

As Director of a Department of Energy national laboratory, I am sometimes questioned about the investment of taxpayer dollars of basic scientific research, especially in these challenging economic times. Today I am proud to answer those questions by pointing to the role Argonne's "dream team" of scientists and engineers has played in the development of the new electric car. Our fundamental research made it possible to develop reliable, safer cathode materials for car batteries, and our advanced energy storage technologies are backed up with years of world-class basic and applied research and development, as well as extensive testing and validation.

Argonne's collaboration with the U.S. auto industry shows that our national laboratories are delivering on the Department of Energy's mission to expand the innovation pipeline, which runs from the earliest discoveries of basic science to the development of amazing products built by U.S. industry and delivered to American consumers.

Our latest contribution to today's electric car batteries is only the beginning. Argonne researchers already are racing to create a new generation of car battery technologies. As Foreign Policy magazine recently noted,

"The future of the electric-car industry belongs not to the scientists and engineers who perfect the batteries we have now, but the ones who figure out what comes next, in the 2020s, the 2030s, and beyond... The holy grail is a battery powerful and safe enough to challenge the energy density of gasoline and the freedom of the internal combustion engine."

The stakes for our national economy are incredibly high. The research firm IHS Global Insight predicts that advances in battery technology will allow hybrids and electric cars to grab up to 15 percent of the world's new-car sales by 2020. At today's production rates, that adds up to about 7.5 million cars a year -- and at an average cost of $30,000 per car, that equals $225 billion a year, roughly equivalent to Toyota's entire global sales in 2009, Foreign Policy calculates.

It won't be easy. But I am optimistic that the national laboratories, in collaboration with private industry, can provide world-class, mission-driven basic and applied research that will keep America in the forefront of energy technology.

The rollout of a practical, reliable electric car represents a milestone in American auto technology that underscores the critical need for continuing, significant investment in basic research at laboratories nationwide. It shows that intellectual curiosity, combined with an innovative spirit, continue to fuel the engine of America's economic might.

Physicist Eric D. Isaacs is the Director of Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy's first national laboratory for science and engineering research.