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US Leads World in PHEV Battery R&D, Lags in Capability to Make Them

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.


Ron Fischer

Do US automakers care more about owning intellectual property or actually producing batteries? There was speculation that USABC was originally created to skirt monopoly rules while creating a secure patent pool. Or consider the struggles of Ovonic. It will be interesting to watch the effects of patent centralization, recession, fuel demand reduction, and purchasing slowdowns, on the (currently) numerous plans to release battery electric vehicles "by 2010". Serious recessions strike all chess pieces off the board.


Not surprising: manufacturing is on a decline in the US as it is outsourced more and more.

It first started after NAFTA with manufacturing going to Mexico. Now manufacturing is going to China. Personally, I would rather have seen most of the manufacturing in China go to least that way we are making a North American neighbor rich and not a country which we are on more shaky grounds with.

Understandable though since the Chinese seem more capable of handling manufacturing relative to Mexico.


It is capital formation and automation versus low wages. We could manufacture here with low cost capital and high levels of automation. Manufacturing represents a value added industry where you take raw materials and make finished products. I think it is essential that we keep some manufacturing in the U.S.

I remember similar debates in the 80s about display systems and the Japanese. The defense department was concerned that they would be too dependent on other countries.

If we truly believe in the invisible hand of the free market, then we would do nothing. Those ideologies propose that it will all work out in the end. It is what occurs in the intervening years that seems to have quite an effect.

Healthy Breeze

Invisible hands are grand. It's the opaque hands of sovereign wealth funds, and the dirty hands of mass intellectual property theft coming out of China that are a significant concern.

The US needs more manufacturing because you can't just export services and defend the value of your currency. Someday, I'd like to see the US so rich in renewable energy that we export electricity via huge "battery ships" (tankers full of aluminum powder and what not).

I wonder how many gigawatt-hours of electricity a large tanker could hold?

Near-term, yes, we should be building battery plants in the rust belt, to buiild up world-class expertise.


I found some pictures of the production process for LiFePO4 batteries. I believe it is a Thunder Sky factory. The interesting picture is at the end with the room full of Chinese women doing battery assembly. If this is how it is done right now we can certainly cut the price far more by more automation.


In "The End of Oil", the author recommends that we make advances in IGCC prove out and equipment manufacturing. He outlined how selling the equipment to other countries, including China, could help our trade balance and economy.

This would also show participation on the global warming front. China is and will be using more coal to generate power. They know the health and environment risks but choose old ways because they are cheaper. They have to build lots of plants during these high growth periods. As time goes on and the IGCC plants are built here, they can see that we are doing our part and that alternatives are available.


Don't for a minute believe that DoD and DoE are not fully aware of the jeopardy that comes with outsourcing the manufacture of key system components. Part of the whole transition economy is to rebuild manufacturing capability in North America.

Let's see, the most energy dense, safe, quick-charge,2k cycle LiIon battery for transport would be the Altair NanoSafe - invented in US, made in US, installed in a US-made vehicle - Phoenix. Can't see the doom thru the gloom...

Healthy Breeze

I don't think we'll balance our trade deficit by selling battery making equipment to foreign markets.

Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish...and he won't have to buy fish from you anymore. We ought to make the fish and the batteries here.


Not to mention all of the great manufacturing expertise (through experience) we are granting upon China.

Quality of Chinese products (when discounting gross oversights popularized in the media) is improving just as Japanese products improved in the 70's. High capacity for manufacturing also lends itself to a more capable war production base to draw upon should China decide to become more aggressive...they are already trying again to make aircraft carriers (Russian and Chinese aircraft carriers have never been anything to write home about but the Chinese are improving).


Mfg can be more expensive in china than US.
Quality and shipping.
Ask anyone that has tried to make something in China about quality.
Ask how many times they had to ship something back and forth to get it right.
The problem with American mfg is minimums.
US mfg don't want small quantitiy runs.
If the product can be machine made in large quantities then USA is a competive alternative.


"...he won't have to buy fish from you anymore."

Spoken like a true Neo Colonialist :)

That thinking stated that one should only trade old technology to keep the client country dependent. In the new global economy, it goes to the highest bidder and the Chinese have lots of our dollars. If they can not get it from us, then they will get it from someone else.

Heatlhy Breeze


Hey, the "teach a man to fish..." twist was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.I'm more concerned about the US becoming the colony. We export raw goods to the East (wood, agricultural products) and get back finished goods.

The US has a rust-belt problem. In a globalized economy, the tendency is for all wages to even out, and unless we keep increasing the skill of our workers and the productivity value-add of our manufacturing physical plant, wages will go down and many other economic indicators with them.

It just seems shortsighted to cede the key pieces of the next generation of automotive technology manufacturing to China. Also, supposedly China has lots of lithium, so we'll need expertise advantages to offset their resource advantage.


Lithium is available the world over in earth's crust and in its oceans. China's biggest problem right now is figuring out how to counter the flood of bad PR headed it's way as the planet's largest polluter. Not to mention human rights violations, poor quality record, etc.

Now their Olympics are in trouble with major contributors refusing to participate due to continued human rights abuses. Crushing human beings for economic gain yields massive failure.


"...he won't have to buy fish from you anymore."

"Spoken like a true Neo Colonialist :)"

Good idea... and if instead of fish it could be some cheaply produced substance that people would crave... even become dependent upon... then we've really got a business plan.


Balance of trade with China is a large issue. Last year our trade deficit was over $700 billion and more than $250 billion of that was with China. This was the largest single country deficit ever.

The U.S. can continue a value added position by designing, manufacturing and exporting advanced capital equipment. I believe that we missed our chance to automate and compete in the 70s. We did not automate and continued to export manufacturing.

Now the latest news is that drug companies are getting ingredients from questionable sources in China. The drug companies have high profit margins and may not need to get those ingredients from a low price source, but they do.

This is a complex issue and one that does not solve itself nor get solved with a sound bite. My contention is that we could decrease the wages of all Americans and not do the other 6 billion people one bit of good. That would be a lose lose situation.

Like any competitive market, you have to have a skill that is in high demand and short supply. At the present time that is technology and I can think of no better multiplier of value added than high tech capital equipment.


what happened to the sleeping giant that turned into a super power. the united states of america was the greatest success story in the 20th century, along with russia. these two powerhouses with there great manufacturing know how competed and led the world in innovation after inovation. american unions were as strong as european, and the middle class flurished, life was good, and then the 73 oil catastrophe that should have been a wake up call for the american government, instead paved the world for bush, the signer of the nafta treaty and the rest is history. walmart and the rest of the top executives in america that had there childhood paved with the goodlife thanks to the success and drive of the american manufacturing repaid that debt by selling out the american people and setting up shop manufacturing in another country, it gets even better, the employees of these companies in the united states are treated like garbage with no health benefits, no possible overtime , let alone a full 40 hour week. This while the top executes of these so called american manufacturing companies dine with members of the washington government. thanks, keep selling out the american dream with our tax dollars.


Yep, says right here in my Field Manual... "treated like garbage with no health benefits, no possible overtime..."

Glad I don't have to make this stuff up myself!

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