Companies Try To Jump-Start Battery Development

Greener cars of the future might run on things like fuel cells that convert hydrogen into water. But in the more immediate future, many of them are likely to rely on better batteries.

To power a car for long enough distances to make practical sense — 40 miles or more — a battery needs to be smaller, more powerful and safe. To date, none of the U.S. companies working on the technology has had enough resources — an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion — to build a manufacturing facility.

Last week, a consortium of 14 companies including Johnson Controls, 3M and Mobius Power formed a group called the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture. Together with coordination and research help from Argonne National Laboratory, the group is asking for about $1 billion in federal funds to build a manufacturing site for the next generation of high-powered lithium ion batteries. If successful, the companies would pool resources and, to some extent, technologies.

Proponents of the alliance say the U.S. needs to invest in projects to have a shot at energy independence in the future. Already, the leaders in lithium ion battery manufacturing are mostly in Asia, particularly in China.

"It is vital to the United States to have the manufacturing knowledge and capability to supply U.S. demand," said Jamie Garner, technical manager in 3M's battery unit.

But the technology still needs lots of development, said Mike Tracy, a Detroit-area consultant and engineer. Electric cars like the Chevy Volt are looking primarily at running on lithium ion batteries, a technology that packs much more punch than the current nickel metal hydride kind that powers gas-electric hybrids like Toyota's Prius.

"There is nothing simple about the advances that everybody is looking for in battery technology, which is why the scope of the dollar amounts are so large that everybody is after," Tracy said.

It is also not clear when or how the project might be funded. The alliance may seek funding from the Department of Energy's recently approved $25 billion auto loan money — or it may have to seek a federal grant, said James Greenberger, a Chicago attorney who helped put together the national alliance. Building such a facility could take 18 months to two years from the time it gets funded, he said.

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