During opening testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Don Hillebrand from the Argonne National Laboratory noted that while the United States is leading in the development of battery materials and chemistries for hybrid vehicles and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV), the nation lags behind the world in having the manufacturing capability to produce the batteries.
Indeed, while “DOE battery research programs have spawned small businesses and pushed applied development of promising battery chemistries to a high level,” Hillebrand pointed out that, “…Many small American battery companies plan to build their factories in China.”
The U.S. is the leader in battery materials and chemistry development, and also leads battery start-up activities and innovation. The major problem with the U.S. is that it lacks manufacturing or prototyping capability. Battery manufacturing know-how and capability are developed over time and require huge capital investments. Toyota has invested substantial funding in developing the capability to develop and produce batteries. Estimates of costs vary, but studies indicate that Toyota pays one-third less for their batteries than do the American-owned companies.
Asian-based battery makers have marked advantages based on the large investments they have made in manufacturing. No matter how good the chemistry, one needs manufacturing skill to produce commercial batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are complicated devices that are prone to overheat, leak, and fail, no matter what chemistries they use. Superior design can minimize the chance of these faults occurring, but if you don't have advanced manufacturing methods you cannot make high-quality, durable, and safe commercial batteries.
...Government should continue support for research and development, provide market incentives for conventional hybrids, and consider added incentives for plug-in hybrids. Government R&D funding for advanced vehicles should better reflect the likelihood of success. A sustained effort to develop domestic battery manufacturing capability will be equally important. Ultimately, we have not accomplished much if we transfer a dependence on imported oil for an addiction to foreign batteries.—Don Hillebrand
Don Hillebrand is the director of the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne National Laboratory. He leads Argonne National Lab’s Transportation activities including Vehicle Systems and Hybrid Vehicle Development, Engine and Emissions Research, Material Research, Tribology, Thermal, and Life Cycle and Economic Analysis.