Lithium Ion Battery Makers Have Trouble Marketing Them After Boeing Incidents

Federal stimulus money has helped cut the high cost of lithium-ion batteries, but not nearly enough to make electric cars affordable. Now there's an abundance of advanced battery manufacturers and not enough major companies to buy them. Many plants in the United States, South Korean, Japan and China that got government subsidies aren't producing many batteries, if at all. Three years ago Michigan's governor touted the state as the new battery capital of the world. There were five new advanced battery plants in the works, all of which were to get major tax breaks and some federal grants. But most of these plans have not worked out.

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This next segment is about a fundamental of flight: The airplane battery. The battery is the latest problem for Boeing's Dreamliner. All of those jets have been grounded since January, after reports of battery smoking or even catching fire. Boeing says it hopes to have a permanent fix by the end of the month. Now, this is not the first time the aviation industry has struggled with batteries and we'll have more on that in a few minutes.

But first, Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith tells us more about this current complication for the makers of lithium ion batteries.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: Check out the battery in your cell phone. Chances are it's lithium ion. So is the battery in your laptop or tablet, cordless power tools. But there are several kinds of lithium ion batteries. The ones in the Dreamliner aren't the same as the one in your cell phone.

SAM JAFFE: We're in the middle of a horse race. And right now, lithium ion is far in the lead of that horse race.

SMITH: That's Sam Jaffe. He's an energy storage analyst with Pike Research. He says lithium ion batteries are beating traditional batteries because they can store a lot more energy in a much smaller space. They charge up fast and they're more durable over time but trying to store energy safely is always a challenge. And that's been a problem with the batteries in the Dreamliner.

JAFFE: When you have incidents where it's not done correctly it makes everybody in that industry look bad. And that is going to be an issue going forward.

SMITH: Jaffe says the high cost of lithium ion batteries is another critical issue facing the industry, especially when it comes to electric vehicles, which he says is the next big potential market for lithium ion batteries. Governments in China, South Korea, Japan, and the United State have all subsidized lithium ion battery plants. Their hope is that it will help producers make cheaper batteries and boost demand for electric cars.

In 2009, the federal stimulus package dumped $2 billion in battery plants but the results have been mixed. One company, A123 Systems, went bankrupt. It's still making batteries but now it's owned by a Chinese company. LG Chem, a South Korean company, got millions to build a battery plant in Holland, Michigan, but so far it's sitting idle and hasn't made any batteries.

JAFFE: The very act of incentivizing these factories is one of the reasons why they're not running it at full or, in some cases, any capacity.

SMITH: Jaffe says the problem is sort of a classic catch-22 situation. Batteries can't be made super cheap because the demand isn't high and the demand isn't high because the cars aren't very affordable. But he sees that balance shifting over the next few years. And not all investment in battery plants have been failures.

SHELLY MACIEJEWSKI: So, I'm Shelly Maciejewski. I'm the plant manager here at Meadowbrook and I have the pleasure of leading this team as we embark on this new market.

SMITH: Johnson Controls' Meadowbrook plant got the biggest chunk of the stimulus money that went to battery makers. Johnson Controls sells these new batteries to several different customers in different industries. It's a huge global company with lots of capital. And it already has lot of experience making other kinds batteries. It makes more lead acid batteries than any company in the world. Those are the batteries used to start regular cars and trucks.

And so, maybe it's no surprise this lithium ion battery plant is doing well.

MACIEJEWSKI: We've already put our second shift in place and we're already looking to hire our third shift. So we're currently going into production and we're doing our system build for a major European manufacturer.

SMITH: And the U.S. government's investment in battery technology hasn't stopped since the stimulus package. Johnson Controls is a partner in a new federally-funded project that could completely transform the battery market and the science behind it. The research team wants to build a new battery, in five years, that holds five times the energy as lithium-based batteries, but can be produced at one fifth the cost.

Jeff Chamberlain is deputy director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research in Chicago.

JEFF CHAMBERLAIN: That's what needs to be achieved in order to have the impact on society. Or to put it another way, to pay back the investor - the investor is the taxpayer. We believe what we're going to do may even have impact on lithium ion in the short run.

SMITH: Chamberlain concedes it's an ambitious goal. But for taxpayers, the pay-off for this research could be much better than their investment to subsidize battery plants, especially ones that are still sitting idle and not making any batteries at all.

For NPR news, I'm Lindsey Smith in Grand Rapids.

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