In early 2009, Barack Obama’s Administration wished for a U.S.-based advanced battery manufacturing industry, both to create jobs and to usher in a new age of electrified transportation. In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama took stock: “In three years, our partnership with the private sector has already positioned America to be the world’s leading manufacturer of high-tech batteries.”
That partnership included major grants to some firms from the Department of Energy as part of spending from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 (C&EN, July 27, 2009, page 24). Battery makers are now in position to power a new generation of electric vehicles; their factories are built or nearly completed. Yet they also find themselves uncomfortably out in front of their biggest customers—the automakers—and in need of other homes for their products while they wait for the coming electric vehicle revolution.
The rollout last year of the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, the first major-market cars to use lithium-ion batteries, was supposed to make 2011 a banner year for advanced batteries. However, slow sales—and safety concerns with the Volt battery—are leading many observers to question whether American consumers will ever adopt vehicles with the technology.
What’s clear is that leading U.S. battery manufacturers such as A123 Systems and Dow Kokam will be operating well below capacity for the near term. Battery maker Ener1 just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Its troubles began in early 2011 when a major automotive customer, Norway’s Think Global, stopped production.
David M. Pankratz, Dow Kokam’s vice president of operations, says it felt good to have President Obama single out the high-tech battery industry, but he adds that his company faces a tough road. “We’re not only a start-up company, but we are a start-up industry,” Pankratz says. “The challenges are magnified in a start-up industry with a whole new kind of technology.”Presumably, electric cars will, at some point in the future, take off. Problem is, the economy is simply not good enough for people to purchase new vehicles. The average car in the US is about 11 years old, which is the oldest it's been in a long time. (The average age of vehicles in the Chemjobber household is 15.5 years, but we do not represent the average American car buyer. [And it will continue to be high if I have anything to say about it!!! -- CJ's budget.]) It will take a very long time before lots of people are going to feel flush enough to risk their down payment on an electric car.
I tend to agree with Mr. Pankratz -- being in a nascent industry, inventing an advanced technology that's simply waiting for more people to buy it, that has to be a very difficult thing. Good luck to the materials scientists and chemists who are working on this -- one hopes they've got good marketing folks.