U.S. Firms Join Forces to Build Lithium Ion Batteries for Cars

The group will set up manufacturing and prototype development centers

Fourteen U.S. technology companies, laying down the gauntlet in a field dominated by Asia, announced last week that they have formed an alliance to manufacture lithium ion batteries for electric cars.

3M is among the companies which have joined forces in the venture with the Argonne National Laboratory, a Chicago-based developer of new battery technologies, the alliance said.

Developing the capability to mass manufacture advanced battery cells is expected to require investment of one to two billion dollars over five years, it said, most of which is expected to come from the federal government.

The National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture said lithium ion batteries "are anticipated to replace gasoline as the principal source of energy in future cars and military vehicles."

"Today, United States automobile manufacturers and defense contractors depend upon foreign suppliers -- increasingly concentrated in Asia -- for lithium ion battery cells," it said.

The alliance said it will seek to develop one or more manufacturing and prototype development centers in the United States.

"A small, fragmented battery industry will not long survive in the face of determined Asian competition," battery manufacturer consultant Ralph Brodd was quoted as saying. "Other countries are investing heavily in the manufacture of lithium ion cells," he said. "Those countries understand that whoever makes the batteries will one day make the cars."

The U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne lab will "serve in an advisory role as the alliance begins operations," it said, adding that "additional battery developers and materials suppliers are anticipated to join the alliance."

It said U.S. truck and carmakers are "expected to play an important role in the alliance" and would be invited to serve on its board along with representatives of the Department of Defense.

The founding members of the Alliance include 3M, ActaCell, All Cell Technologies, Altair Nanotechnologies, Dontech Global, EaglePicher Corporation, EnerSys, Envia Systems, FMC, MicroSun Technologies, Mobius Power, SiLyte, Superior Graphite, and Townsend Advanced Energy.

In announcing the alliance, Argonnne drew comparisons to Sematech, the government-supported collaboration with private industry in the 1980s to make U.S. manufacturers competitive in semiconductor technology. "Sematech played a key role in improving manufacturing in the US semiconductor industry," said Sanford Kane, a former director of Sematech. "Batteries will be to automobiles what semiconductors were to computers."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008

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