Thackeray and Oman can work anywhere. They can leave Argonne National Laboratory and make their own way. If they choose this path, they will no longer need Department of Energy bureaucrats to review every project proposal. Just explaining whether or not an experiment is safe can be lengthy, so that’s a bonus. However, they do not necessarily earn more income by developing in private enterprises. In 1980, the United States enacted regulations that allow recipients of federal funds to retain full or partial ownership of their patents. The two scientists were awarded for the NMC invention.
There are other benefits of working in a national laboratory. One of Chamberlain’s responsibilities was to manage mentally sensitive, self-respecting scientists, so he repeatedly emphasized these benefits to Thackeray and Oman. First and foremost is academic research. Argonne is an ideal choice if you want to get your patents noticed by publishing in a prestigious journal. Scientists working on batteries face stiff competition—it’s notoriously one of the hottest fields of research, and everyone wants to be the first to get the next research result and commercialize it as quickly as possible. Argonne is a world leader in battery science. Battery researchers are embarrassed to point out this advantage, but they feel that they have organized the most powerful R&D team in the United States and even the world, which can retain star scientists and attract new talents to assume postdoctoral assistant positions. Chamberlain’s team would get anxious if someone at another agency suddenly made small progress.
He was furious when he learned that California-based startup Envia had developed a battery that worked 50 percent longer than Thackeray’s team. Thackeray’s reaction was entirely to be expected, so Chamberlain could play to his strengths, what Chamberlain called the “surge method.” Even though Envia is essentially dependent on Argonne, it is continually improving on Argonne’s NMC patents. Thackeray sees Envia’s actions as a form of competition. He started putting more pressure on his team.
A battery scientist might say that Chamberlain has been out of sight all day—he has two jobs and a busy schedule. But when you sit down and chat with him, he takes a hard look at the goals you’re after and creates opportunities to help you achieve those goals. Scientists cherish this quality of him. They also knew, however, that Chamberlain was a thoughtful and purposeful boss, with the clearest goal being to win the race. For example: Even though Argonne is a laboratory under the US Department of Energy and is theoretically a public institution, they still cannot publish every scientific research result. The reason is simple, Argonne has joined a race. It’s a paradox, you want all researchers to publish and move the industry forward, and at the same time scientists earn the respect of their peers for so many papers. However, you also want to protect your invention, because once published, your competitors may use your invention to compete with you. Thackeray and Oman, and all scientists, knew what was at stake. This is what Chamberlain sees as a double war.
Every day, Chamberlain drives 18 miles from his home to Argonne National Laboratory along 75th Street. Since the lab took root in Targ-Wood more than 70 years ago, the suburbs it passes through have grown and prospered. Then he entered South Cass Avenue, which ended in a wide, beautiful road. There are dense forests on both sides of the road. Before long, he turned abruptly to the right, and in front of him was a huge black sign with the Argonne logo: a triangle with three primary colors painted on all sides. Follow the trail ahead for about a mile, through woods all the way, and end up at a guardhouse. Chamberlain showed the badge he wore around his neck, then turned right into a complex of mostly red brick buildings that covered hundreds of acres. A few minutes later, he saw a small black sign in Building 205, which also had Agung’s logo engraved on it. In just over fifty steps, he was able to walk to the building.
Today, Chamberlain turned left and entered the “dry room,” a modern laboratory with moisture-proof features designed for advanced lithium-ion battery testing. There is a sealed compartment between the drying chamber and the outside world. Inside, the researchers plated a mixture of carbon and NMC onto aluminum coils to obtain new battery cathodes. “It’s 19th-century technology,” Chamberlain said, and it doesn’t matter much in this kind of lab. He added softly that he’d seen labs in other countries where scientists literally stood by, dipped their fingers into the mixture, and evaluated its qualities. Minister Wan Gang was just one of the Chinese guests Chamberlain received at Argonne recently. A few months ago, the Americans and a Chinese delegation brought up the topic of “lithium air” and offered to help Chinese guests develop the technology. However, that group of guests only wanted to discuss one topic – lithium ion. Their theme was: How can we get hold of what you have invented? They were referring to Argonne’s NMC. Chamberlain and his team were extremely cautious and blunt. Because Argonne was able to design robots that could automatically make high-quality mixtures, it was able to invent the NMC. “That’s our chance to catch up with (competitors),” Chamberlain said.
Maybe Chamberlain was right. Thackeray and Oman may be the candidates to make that happen.