Battery production hasn’t been a major US industry for a long time. In recent years, US firms have become more and more involved with developing new technology to make batteries last longer. Now they’re ready to lure the actual production of batteries back to the US. A group of automobile manufacturing companies has formed a coalition and raised $1 billion in government funds to set up domestic battery production facilities – primarily inspired by the anticipated demand for hybrid and all-electric vehicles.
The coalition, the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture, is backed by various established and start-up companies including Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions, 3M Co, ActaCell, All Cell Technologies, EnerSys, Envia Systems, MicroSun Technologies, and Townsend Advanced Energy.
The coalition claims it will guarantee that government monies are used efficiently. The group is planning to create various prototype development centers that are going to manufacture the battery cells. Members will be sharing the use of a large ultra modern manufacturing facility based on an ‘open foundry’ concept – with a focus on perfecting of lithium-ion car batteries. The US Department of Energy’s department Argonne National Labs will be advising the venture.
The Alliance isn’t unique. It’s copying SEMATECH, the semiconductor alliance. Their collaborating is a strategic necessity because it salvages a manufacturing process which might not immediately make economic sense. SEMATECH did a similar thing for the semiconductor industry in the 1980s–with great success.
If the National Alliance is going to replicate SEMATECH’s fortunes, its main challenge will be making the batteries compact and light and to adapt them to the increasingly complicated specifications of the electric and hybrid car industry. Batteries for vehicles are totally different than your ordinary flashlight battery. They are much bigger in size and increasingly are being integrated in the structural components of vehicles. And there are other challenges. For instance, in the case of Project Better Place, a global project that aims to have you pay for the energy and not the car, batteries are going to be required that can be rapidly exchanged. Project Better Place already says it will need an uninterrupted supply of batteries for a future zero carbon car network to function smoothly.
The initial focus of the new coalition will be to develop advanced lithium ion battery cells for electric cars. The group will also tap into the military vehicle market. Members of the coalition say that lithium ion batteries are bound to replace gasoline in the not too distant future as the main source of energy in cars.
It’s not only the car sector that the battery manufacturers will service. In the next decades the market for other types of batteries is also projected to grow phenomenally. Take the future hardware of renewable power – it will increasingly rely on batteries to store excess supply of energy.
The production of batteries on US soil might even herald a greater shift within the automobile sector itself. Some insiders say that larger parts of the automobile industry are set to come back to the US. Whether or not this turns out to be true remains to be seen. But it’s undeniable that the car battery manufacturing will benefit the economy because it will create new jobs and generate profits.
But having secured $1 billion in government funding doesn’t automatically imply that the alliance’s success is guaranteed. For starters, the total initial investment cost might be double the money the government is providing. And the competition from the Far East won’t suddenly cease. The Japanese government already invested millions in similar ventures among automakers pioneering novel ways of manufacturing auto batteries.
Nevertheless a spokesman for the coalition is upbeat about the future prospects. “It’s a huge deal for the nation, and for the lab,” said Mark Peters, who heads up transportation and battery research at Argonne National Laboratory. “[Other] countries understand that he who makes the batteries will one day make the cars,” he said.
Total funding set aside by the US government for the development of the battery industry reaches around $7 billion. These funds are allocated under the provision of the energy security act which was passed last year.