ARGONNE, Ill. - Given what people know now about electric vehicles, a publicly funded institution that has spent the past quarter century developing and evaluating battery power for cars and trucks would appear to have wasted tax money.
But Argonne National Laboratory officials say battery technology developed in its laboratory can be found in General Motors' Precept, a cutting-edge, diesel-electric, hybrid-powered concept car.
And they point out that even fuel cell systems, widely viewed as possible successors to internal-combustion engines, will need advanced batteries for startup, acceleration and other driving demands.
This is the predicament of national laboratories: They exist to do so-called pure science and to conduct research in the national interest, especially in fields where private enterprise is unwilling to spend money. Yet taxpayers expect a return on their dollars, especially from a lab such as Argonne, which doesn't do the military weapons work usually associated with national labs. It works instead on domestic interests, including energy and the environment.
'We see our role as trying to look farther out,' said Larry Johnson, director of Argonne's Transportation Technology Research and Development Center.
Besides work on batteries, engines and fuels, that longer view includes projects on ceramics and lightweight materials, manufacturing processes, vehicle recycling and intelligent transportation systems.
Incongruously, the projects are conducted in a setting that looks like a relic of the Cold War. The 1,500-acre Argonne National Laboratory property, partly hidden in a forest preserve 25 miles southwest of Chicago, has buildings with 1960s-style architecture, above-ground pipelines that snake across the area and the ominous dome of a former nuclear reactor.
What matters more than location is what the research means to taxpayers and lawmakers, who increasingly demand accountability. So, Argonne officials are eager to explain how some of their futuristic research is attracting attention from companies interested in commercializing it now.
Their list included the following examples:
Valvoline Co. is among the suppliers that have shown an interest in nanofluids, liquids that contain dissolved particles and have engine-cooling properties far greater than expected, especially in narrow channels.
Penske Corp. has contacted Argonne about its work on near-frictionless carbon coatings and other solid lubricants that can protect engine parts from wear, especially in advanced powerplants with higher operating temperatures and pressures.
Robert Bosch GmbH and Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. have collaborated on high-energy X-ray studies of fuel injector spray characteristics, with the hope of making better injectors.
Watchdog groups, such as Citizens Against Government Waste, remain wary of such taxpayer-supported research. 'We are a bit concerned that the federal government is giving corporate welfare,' said David Williams, policy vice president for the group, which claims a membership of 1 million people.
The Bush administration has not made clear where it stands, but its sketchy 2002 budget proposal unveiled Feb. 28 contains this statement about the Department of Energy, which owns Argonne and other national labs and hires contractors to run them:
'Research and development projects that subsidize large companies will be suspended or revisited to determine the appropriate role of the department and private sector.'
Overall, President Bush is proposing a 3 percent cut for the Department of Energy in fiscal 2002, but budget official Chase Hutto said last week that decisions still are being made on how much will go to individual programs, including the labs and the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.
The partnership is the joint government-industry research effort created early in the Clinton administration with the goal of developing advanced technology for ultra-fuel-efficient family cars to be built by the Big 3. Some of the partnership research is conducted at Argonne.
'The national labs always worry about funding,' said Johnson, whose background is economics and who has been at Argonne since 1979.
The transportation r&d center gets about $28 million a year, most but not all of it from the federal government.
It's not all tax money
That's because research can be funded in a variety of ways. Besides the direct federal funding, companies can contract with Argonne for a project and pay the full bill. A third method is for companies and the government to make jointly funded Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, called CRADAs (pronounced cray-dahs).
Argonne officials and their allies say more companies ought to take advantage of opportunities to use lab resources and expertise.
Sheila Ronis, a management consultant from Birmingham, Mich., and an adviser to a coalition of national labs, said this is especially true for Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers, which are getting more and more responsibility for vehicle development from automakers.
Said Ronis: 'We need a strong industrial base in the United States to maintain our position in the world.'