Friday, January 16, 2009

U.S., at last, begins assault on batteries

If you could just tune your ears above the recent clatter and racket that passed for debate over a bridge loan for the Big Three, you might have been able to just make out the tiny baby cries of a newborn U.S. auto industry.

I live in Detroit, so I heard the slap on that baby's ass, followed by the opening shrieks of a brat already born into a disadvantaged, dysfunctional family.

You see, in the literal power struggle over the next age of the automotive industry -- the electric age -- the U.S. battery industry is arriving late.

It's not that innovation is lacking. Some of the leading research into nanotech-enabled lithium-ion batteries is being done right in my hometown. But only now has it dawned on the federal and state governments to push that innovation forward through financial aid and tax breaks. And only now have U.S. battery companies realized that they can combine some of their efforts to bring those innovations from the lab to the marketplace.

Late and late.

But hopefully not too late.

Two years and an economic lifetime ago, I covered the Detroit auto show when a proud Bob Lutz unveiled the Chevrolet Volt (PDF 219k) hybrid electric concept vehicle to a great many ooohs and aahhhs even from the jaded press.

But a few months later, at the Society of Automotive Engineers' 2007 World Congress, I peaked under the hood of all that shiny new plastic and found disparate and desparate U.S. and European engineers sweating it out for what they assumed would be second place in the race to create safe, long-lasting batteries for vehicles like the Volt.

Today, the race is still for second place, behind Asia. And, as I covered the North American International Auto Show again this year, it looks like nanotechnology has come in second, too. GM chose Compact Power, a subsidiary of the Asian LG Chem, to provide the lithium-ion batteries for the Volt. A close second was A123 Systems, whose nanophosphate formula is an important ingredient in its li-ion batteries. The reason, according to GM, was the the formula seemed too experimental, the company too inexperienced and, most importantly, the battery manufacturing infrastructure just does not yet exist in the United States.

To its credit, GM is working on building its own battery infrastructure from the ground up. Another lesson learned from Toyota. So, there is still hope for nano-enhanced li-ion batteries, as there will be room for many players, eventually.

It's about time.

Of course, not in time to save my Motown hometown from further pain. But perhaps enough to implant an embryo that will, in time, give birth to a brand spanking new auto industry.


mtburke59 said...

All well and good that GM is pushing to get the Volt to market but they should not be forgiven for killing the very much superior EV-1 in favor of monstrosities like the Hummer.

Non-petroleum based motor vehicle power has been fought by both the oil industry and the auto industry for years. No wonder others are significantly ahead in alternative technology. And, dispite the NNI, we do not invest sufficiently in nanotechnology to be the leaders.

Two years ago, China surpassed Japan in R&D investment to take the number 2 spot behind the US. It won't be long, unless our governments, both federal and state, wake up, that they will overtake us.

Of course, then we can start pirating their technology for a change.

Howard Lovy said...

Well, actually, there is no need for the United States to pirate China's automotive technology. It's ours to begin with. The Big Three are helping China in its great technological leapfrog forward when it comes to automotive technology.