In February, President Barack Obama told the crowd at a Henderson, Nev., high school that not so long ago, the U.S. made barely 2% of the advanced batteries used in the world's electric vehicles. Now, thanks to a multibillion-dollar federal investment, American companies are positioned to increase production tenfold and potentially control 40% of the global lithium-ion-battery market by 2015. "We've created an entire new industry," Obama said.
Not quite, but certainly the beginnings of one. Demand for lithium-ion batteries is increasing dramatically as electric-car technology improves and prices drop. Nissan has introduced the all-electric Leaf, and this year Chevy will debut the long-anticipated gas-electric Volt. Those and future electric cars need battery packs, and at least a dozen American lithium-battery start-ups are competing with Asian companies such as Sanyo and Hitachi to provide them. "There's a tremendous amount of competition," says David Vieau, chief executive of A123 Systems, a Watertown, Mass., start-up powered by federal money that is vying for the business.
And it's a ton of business. The consulting firm Pike Research estimates that the global market for lithium-ion batteries could grow from $877 million this year to $8 billion by 2015. In North America, the market is expected to expand from about $287 million this year to $2.2 billion in 2015.
A123 Systems is a window on how the government's multibillion-dollar electric-vehicle gambit is working. The company was founded at MIT in 2001 with a $100,000 Department of Energy grant. One of its early products was lithium-ion batteries for power-tool maker Black & Decker. Last year, A123 Systems got a $249 million federal grant to open at least three lithium-ion-battery plants in Michigan that will employ hundreds of workers. Michigan is home to or close to many of the plants where electric vehicles are being made, of course, and the state has a surplus of skilled workers. It's not, ahem, a bad choice politically either.
Vieau attributes his company's recent success in part to its deep finances and manufacturing capacity. Customers regularly ask, he says, "Do you have the financial wherewithal to keep up and execute at a large scale?" Companies like A123 are busy wrestling with two key issues facing electric-car batteries: providing enough power to the car's engine and storing enough power to guarantee a defined range say, 200 miles (about 320 km) between charges. The goal for electric-car manufacturers is an affordable battery that can handle countless partial charge-discharge cycles over an eight-to-10-year life cycle. The battery has to absorb energy from braking and provide short bursts of power for acceleration. Lithium-ion batteries, with their high density-to-weight ratio, provide the greatest acceleration and range with the fewest batteries compared with lead-acid or nickel-metal-hydride batteries. One big problem: they can overheat and even blow up bad enough in a single-battery laptop but potentially disastrous in a multibattery electric car. So engineers have been busy resolving the heat problem and refining the batteries' ability to handle partial charge-discharge cycles.
As for affordability, lithium-ion battery packs currently cost about $1,000 per kilowatt-hour of capacity. Which means the GM Volt's 16-kW-h battery pack alone would cost $16,000, according to some industry analysts. The price per kilowatt-hour has to fall below $500 to make production viable and it will.
Sakti3 is another company trying to create a breakthrough. The company was launched a few years ago at the University of Michigan by an ambitious young engineering professor, Ann Marie Sastry. Sakti3 is developing solid-state (as opposed to liquid) lithium-ion batteries that Sastry believes will enable cars to travel twice as far as batteries do now, allowing the cars to be used the way internal-combustion-engine-driven vehicles are. Her firm is developing prototypes to deliver to automakers later this year. Sastry's 20-employee firm, based in Ann Arbor, has generated millions of dollars in government grants and considerable buzz but so far no juice.
Automakers, meanwhile, are developing their own battery capability. Ford, for one, believes that designing its own lithium-ion battery packs will help streamline the development of its electric vehicles and reduce the cost. Design experts will be brought in-house, says Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of global electrification. By developing battery packs, Gioia says, "we get the volume and scale of more than 1 million units on our battery-management systems. Our suppliers aren't in a position to do that yet."
While they wait for the U.S. electric-auto market to develop, some new suppliers are looking toward consumer electronic goods and markets outside the U.S. to keep their plants busy and improve quality until the big orders come in. "We're in the early stages of what will be a significant run-up," says A123's Vieau. "There's a lot of business out there." Sastry echoes that view, saying many automakers rely on engine suppliers. "If the dream I and others have is realized, we'll see batteries being treated like engines," she says. Job engines, no less.