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Argonne Highlights Sustainability Research during Earth Day Fair

Scientists from across the lab showcased environmentally conscious technologies that might soon find their way into daily life.

Talk about efficient: In the not-too-distant future, drivers might be able to power up their electric cars on the go just by rolling over charging pads implanted in the asphalt at stoplights. 

Argonne National Laboratory highlighted this and other sustainable energy research Tuesday at its annual Earth Day celebration that featured displays from more than half a dozen Argonne scientists. 

The charging pads that Argonne researchers envision would function like large-scale wireless charging mats for devices such as iPhones and BlackBerrys. They could make their way into our roads as soon as three to five years from now, said Purdue University grad student Hina Chaudhry, who’s doing doctoral research at Argonne. 

Hybrid cars such as the Chevy Volt have a fuel efficiency equivalent to 93 miles per gallon when running on electric power. The caveat is the battery will only serve as the sole power source for about 36 miles.

But in the future, Chaudhry said that low mile range won’t be a problem. “As electric cars become more popular with consumers, they won’t find it hard to charge their vehicles,” she said.

In addition to the charging pads, she said Argonne is also developing pay-per-charge power stations that drivers of electric cars would use much like a present-day gas pump.

The lab’s Life-Cycle Analysis Team is also working on what to do with all those electric car batteries once they die.

Though a battery as a whole might be worn out, researcher Andrew Burnham said components of it might still be useful. If serviceable lithium can be salvaged from an otherwise defunct battery, that means less of the metal needs to be mined and more will stay out of landfills.

“A battery isn’t a huge part of a car’s energy use, but it is an enabling technology to get it on the road,” Burnham said. And making more efficient use of batteries helps minimize some of the other environmental effects associated with driving and manufacturing cars. 

Environmental engineer May Wu and her team are also looking at sustainability from a life-cycle perspective. They’re examining some of the collateral effects of raising crops that become biofuels—specifically how much water it takes to produce crops equivalent to a gallon of biofuel and how that agricultural activity impacts water quality.

The team has produced maps delineating the regions best suited for growing biofuel crops such as corn, soybeans and algae based on an area's climate and land availability. 

“Every biofuel is very different,” Wu said. “We do not have a silver bullet at this moment, so we have to weigh the pros and cons.” 

The team’s goal is to find ways to increase biofuel production while maintaining or reducing pollution, she said. 

While practical application of some of the research presented at the Earth Day fair is still a ways off, some of it has already been implemented on Argonne’s campus, Sustainability Manager Devin Hodge said.

“One of our big challenges is to get research being done for the greater public and embed and use it at Argonne National Laboratory as a test site,” he said.

And like any employer, Argonne wants to get its employees involved in bettering the organization.

“But our employees happen to be world-class scientists,” Hodge said. 

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