A $120-million plan funded by the U.S. Department of Energy aims to develop a range and cost-busting electric vehicle battery has been likened by proponents to another “Manhattan Project,” but critics have called it a potential “money hole.”

Whatever it turns into, the Energy Department has committed said funds over the next five years to finance a Chicago-area battery research hub to be led by the Argonne National Laboratory. The endeavor will be called Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR).

The goal? An automotive propulsion battery with five-times the range capacity, costing one-fifth present lithium-ion batteries, and to be completed in the next five years. In documenting the endeavor’s announcement, proponents are saying the effort is needed for national security.

Tapping into the politicized vein of thought held by those who object to government spending for technology that could fail, Fox News this week focused on taxpayer funds being risked yet again with the Obama administration’s blessing.

In defense of the expenditure, Jeff Chamberlain, the deputy for development and demonstration at JCESR, told Fox something must be done to counteract manifold ramifications of billion of gallons of oil being imported to the U.S. per day.

Chamberlain suggested that if just 5 percent of drivers switched to EVs, $100 billion in battery purchases would result, and this would represent a step toward broader reliance on domestic energy.

“The Chevy Volt sticker price is $40,000. If we can have a battery with five times as much energy [as the Volt’s battery] at even a third of the cost,” Chamberlain said, “then those vehicles become cost competitive with gas vehicles. If they are competitive on the lot, and they can save on costs to drive, people will buy them.”

The JCESR will be a think tank for government organizations and other private affiliates. More specifically, five DOE national laboratories, five universities, and four private firms will be key collaborators. Included in these will be such organizations as California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Washington’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and other private affiliates including Dow Chemical and Johnson Controls and General Motors.

Battery Critical Materials Hub

But Fox also found some who are looking askance at the massive federal effort. In question is whether the government initiative can successfully lead to, perhaps, a $32,000 Nissan Leaf that goes 360 miles on a charge, or maybe a $32,000 Volt with so much electric range, that GM could potentially delete the range-extending generator.

Contending that taxpayer money could be wasted, the author of “Green Illusions,” Ozzie Zehner, who is also said to be a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, told Fox that government-funded labs should stay out of the EV market, and look for other green initiatives to get behind.

“Both the National Academies and, more recently, the Congressional Budget Office, have found no benefit to the environment from subsidizing electric cars,” said Zehner.

Also skeptical is Rob Enderle, described as an analyst who has studied battery innovations. “This is the definition of a money hole,” said Enderle, “They aren’t going to the Moon, they are just making something that exists better and setting goals that can’t be achieved in a reasonable time.”

In contrast, Amy Francetic, executive director of the Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust which helps with the transfer of government research to industry sees government as playing a key role.

“Batteries have made their way into every form of our life,” said Francetic to Fox, “Any time [something] is critical to our way of life, or an advancement of industry, it should be the role of the U.S. government. It is hard to make those advancements without the U.S. government.”

Further, Chamberlain said only the government has the resources needed for the purported moon shot. The JCESR is expected to grow its staff to 120 researchers, and they will have access with their collaborative partners to powerful supercomputers and even Stanford’s linear accelerator lab if needed, along with other resources not likely to be at the disposal of even larger private efforts.

Chamberlain noted Toyota – whose “father of the Prius” recently opined that EVs are not ready for prime time – may have 100 researchers working to make them ready for prime time.

And adding to her argument that the government has more resources than most companies, Francetic said “Physicists are behind inventing battery science, manufacturers are behind manufacturing.”

What to Think?

The above was one snapshot of some initial point-counterpoint comments. Undoubtedly more could be said, and we’ve included a couple links below for your perusal.

We’ll note an important question is whether the project can accomplish its lofty goal. We have heard of other private efforts, including one in which IBM strongly predicts it will have its own five-times more energy denselithium-air battery some time after 2020 – not as soon as the ambitious – but possibly better resourced – five year plan of Uncle Sam.

Until it actually happens though, this could be called yet one more promise in line with others before it.

No doubt EV fans would wish success for this effort for a five-fold energy density improvement while cutting costs by one-fifth in a mere half decade from now – just in time for ramping-up 2017-2025 CAFE rules.

And if it is successful, Chamberlain’s example of “5 percent” of consumers who switch away from petrol-based transport is probably too conservative given such a battery would make feasible a far broader migration away from fossil fuels.

What’s more, if taxpayer money is the root of such a success, do you think those who backed it will have political capital to burn? But if not, critics will be able to write “I told you so” over the Obama Administration’s legacy.

How about you? Do you believe it can be accomplished? It at least sounds like the beginning of a powerful effort in any event.

Press releaseFox NewsJCESR.org Web site.