If an American automaker wants a lithium-ion battery today, it often has to turn to Japan. Perhaps it's time to create a home-grown lithium-ion battery industry that can compete with the Japanese. We need a strong government-backed program to develop a new line of green car batteries.
If you’re brave enough to venture into a toy store this time of the year, you’ll probably find a large display of batteries at or near the checkout counter. That’s because the toy industry is notorious for its “batteries not included” policy.
While reviewing the highlights of the $14 billion Big Three bailout plan, which is officially called the Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act, I noticed that batteries are not included in any of the details. (Although recently killed by the Senate, this plan is reportedly serving as the basis for a bailout package from the White House.) Unless I’m missing something or not reading all the fine print, there does not appear to be any mention of developing a domestic infrastructure to mass-produce nickel-metal hydride or lithium-ion batteries, which are commonly used to power hybrids and other green vehicles. Shame on you, Washington, for failing to take this into consideration. Maybe the new Car Czar will address this issue.
This oversight prompted me to wonder why we don’t have a much stronger advanced battery manufacturing infrastructure in the United States. Sure, there’s a lot of good work already being done in places such as Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, IL), which is a short drive away from ASSEMBLY’s editorial office. And, engineers at companies such as A123 Systems Inc. (Watertown, MA), AFS Trinity Power Corp. (Bellevue, WA), Cobasys LLC (Orion, MI), Farasis Energy Inc. (Hayward, CA), Firefly Energy Inc. (Peoria, IL) and Johnson Controls Inc. (Milwaukee) are busy developing some innovative technology.
But, if an American automaker wants a lithium-ion battery today, it often has to turn to Japan. The market is dominated by companies such as Panasonic Corp. (Osaka, Japan) and Sanyo Electric Co. (Osaka, Japan). And, to make matters worse, those two companies, which already have a strategic partnership with Toyota Motor Corp. (Nagoya, Japan), are currently in the process of merging their operations. Another player, GS Yuasa Corp. (Kyoto, Japan), is involved in a joint-venture with Mitsubishi Motors Corp. (Tokyo) and is currently building the world’s first mass-production assembly line for automotive lithium-ion batteries.
Isn’t it time we create a home-grown lithium-ion battery industry that can compete with the Japanese? How about a strong government-backed program to harness the power of nanotechnology to develop a new line of green car batteries?
Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE, Washington, DC) announced a small step in that direction. It selected three commercial R&D projects, involving 3M Co. (St Paul, MN), BASF Catalyst LLC (Iselin, NJ) and FMC Corp. (Charlotte, NC), in which it will invest almost $7 million. The projects focus on improving battery material performance and developing manufacturing processes to increase the performance and decrease the cost of plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) batteries.
According to the DOE, the acceleration of lithium-ion battery technology is a key step in the successful commercialization of PHEVs capable of traveling up to 40 miles without recharging. I encourage DOE, and other government agencies, pump more funds into innovative battery manufacturing programs.