The Argonne National Laboratory, a Chicago-based developer of new battery technologies announced that it has formed an alliance with fourteen U.S. companies to manufacture lithium ion batteries for automobiles.

Automotive Lith-Ion Battery

Automotive Lith-Ion Battery

Developing the capability to mass manufacture advanced battery cells is expected to require investment of one to two billion dollars over the coming five years, it said, much of which is expected to come from the federal government.

The National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture said lithium ion batteries “are anticipated to replace gasoline as the principal source of energy in future cars and military vehicles.” Perhaps that is true, but Eestor may have an alternative and other super capacitor manufacturers may have competitive ideas. But the effort does solve many of the barriers of antitrust and other business law that prohibit, block and impede U.S. competitiveness. It does offer more highly capitalized competition with Asian companies.

Today, United States automobile manufacturers and defense contractors depend upon foreign suppliers — increasingly concentrated in Asia — for lithium ion battery cells. The alliance said it would seek to develop one or more manufacturing and prototype development centers in the United States. A disbursed manufacturing base over many companies with small market shares could find competition from the Asian companies with very low cost labor an insurmountable challenge.

It’s well known now in the lithium market that lithium ion battery manufacturing in Asia is concentrating into fewer larger companies. Panasonic and Sanyo just announced another effort to combine management and capital for battery manufacturing.

Some business forecasters suggest that they who make the battery will make the cars.

The Argonne Lab is a part of the U.S. Department of Energy and will serve in an advisory role as the alliance begins operations. Additional battery developers and materials suppliers are anticipated to join the alliance over time. The national alliance goes on to say U.S. truck and carmakers are expected to play an important role in the alliance and would be invited to serve on its board along with representatives of the Department of Defense.

The founding members of the Alliance include 3M, ActaCell, All Cell Technologies, Altair Nanotechnologies, Dontech Global, EaglePicher Corporation, EnerSys, Envia Systems, FMC, Johnson Controls, MicroSun Technologies, Mobius Power, SiLyte, Superior Graphite, and Townsend Advanced Energy.

So far, it isn’t clear what form the new alliance will take. Alex Molinaroli, president of Johnson Controls’ power solutions division, stopped short of endorsing the group’s manufacturing vision. He said Johnson Controls already has contracts to build lithium ion batteries for Mercedes S-Series cars in 2009 and the BMW 7-Series in 2010. The batteries will be built at a manufacturing facility in Nersac, France, through a joint-venture arrangement with the French-owned Saft Group.

Argonnne drew comparisons to Sematech, the government-supported collaboration with private industry in the 1980s to make US manufacturers competitive in semiconductor technology.

“Sematech played a key role in improving manufacturing in the US semiconductor industry,” said Sanford Kane, a former director of Sematech. “Batteries will be to automobiles what semiconductors were to computers.”

On the other hand the competitive die is cast, which leaves the matter of lithium supplies as a concern. The technology has come a long way since laptop batteries set themselves on fire just a few years ago. The prospects for large volume production has just begun which can only mean a race to lower costs – if the lithium miners can keep ahead of demand.

This story is far from over. But the excitement is building up!


8 Comments so far

  1. Matt in NC on December 26, 2008 10:07 AM

    Nobody has ever done what Eestor is attempting to do – industrialize supercapacitor manufacture. To date it has taken more time and money than the folks at Eestor anticipated.

    However, Lithium Ion batteries are a proven technology. It seems prudent to create an onshore manufacturing facility.

    The marketplace may eventually go to the one technology or the other. And, it may not be the obvious choice. Just ask the Betamax people.

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  3. ADVILL on January 3, 2009 10:40 PM

    It´s not a Beta V.S VHS situation, they can complement each other, EESTOR will not deliver what press is saying but still it will be a quite interesting piece of equipment in combination with batts.
    By the way is any reason why other s important companies (A123, Valence or Ballard) are not in the team?.

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