Industry invests in Li-ion vehicle batteries

Agreements have been announced in both Japan and the US to move forward on the development and manufacture of lithium-ion batteries for road transport.

In the US, 14 companies involved with batteries and advanced materials companies have joined with the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory to form the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture. Lithium-ion batteries are expected to replace gasoline as the principal source of energy in future cars and military vehicles. In a statement, the Alliance pointed out that US automobile manufacturers and defence contractors depend upon foreign suppliers - increasingly concentrated in Asia - for Li-ion battery cells.

As if to emphasise that point, Japanese battery and power supply business GS Yuasa and Honda Motor Co. have said they plan to set up a joint venture company to manufacture, sell and conduct R&D in high-performance Li-ion batteries with a central focus on hybrid vehicles. In particular, they want to develop smaller and lighter batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are expected to become more popular than nickel-metal-hydride batteries for hybrid vehicles because they offer better energy density and power density.

The founding members of the US Alliance are 3M, ActaCell, All Cell Technologies, Altair Nanotechnologies, Dontech Global, EaglePicher Corporation, EnerSys, Envia Systems, FMC, MicroSun Technologies, Mobius Power, SiLyte, Superior Graphite, and Townsend Advanced Energy. Argonne National Laboratory has been active in encouraging the Alliance and will continue to serve in an advisory role.

The Alliance seeks to develop one or more manufacturing and prototype development centres, which will be shared by members. Developing the capability to mass-produce advanced battery cells is expected to require an investment of $1 to 2 billion over five years. Most of that investment is expected to come from the federal government, because without current orders, no US-based battery companies can assume the risk of making such an investment. The Alliance will permit the most efficient use of available government support by having members share in the use of a large ultra-modern manufacturing facility rather than having to compete for smaller, less ambitious forms of government support.

"A small, fragmented battery industry will not long survive in the face of determined Asian competition," says Ralph Brodd, a long time consultant to battery manufacturers. "Other countries are investing heavily in the manufacture of lithium ion cells. Those countries understand that whoever makes the batteries will one day make the cars."

Lithium ion battery cell manufacture is heavily subsidised in many countries. The Alliance says it hopes to level the playing field.

Auto makers are expected to play an important role in the Alliance. "US truck and auto makers and representatives of the Department of Defense will be invited to serve on the Alliance's advisory board," says Alliance attorney James J Greenberger of Reed Smith LLP. The advisory board will help the cell makers move towards standardised cell formats that will simplify manufacture and ultimately lower the costs of cells.

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