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U.S. battery makers see electric car opportunity

December 20, 2008|Washington Post

WASHINGTON — U.S. battery manufacturers are taking steps to raise the industry's profile, a move that backers hope will speed commercialization of high-tech, American-made car batteries.

A coalition of 14 companies this week announced the creation of an alliance aimed at promoting domestic production of lithium ion batteries, which automakers hope to use in next-generation hybrids as well as plug-in electric cars.

Industry consultants say U.S. companies are losing a race to commercialize the technology to rivals in Asia and Europe. General Motors has said it might use foreign-produced batteries in the Chevrolet Volt, the plug-in scheduled for production in 2010.

The coalition -- known as the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture -- is based in Chicago. The Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago has also signed on to the project.

The alliance includes battery giant Johnson Controls and smaller players such as ActaCell, Altair Nanotechnologies and Dontech Global.

James Greenberger, a Chicago attorney who is leading the alliance effort, said the group would seek to establish one or more manufacturing and prototype development centers in the United States. The centers could carry a total price tag of between $1 billion and $2 billion over the next five years. The group hopes to get much of the money from the federal government.

"We think this is the most effective way that government can leverage public money to both establish lithium ion battery manufacture in the United States and revitalize the automotive industry in the long term," Greenberger said.

Alex Molinaroli, president of Johnson Controls' power solutions division, said the alliance could help promote the industry as a source of new high-tech American jobs.

"I don't think it's good enough that the American consumer is going to have a vehicle that's electrified or have hybrid capabilities," he said. "It doesn't help us if we have no capability in the U.S."

The alliance took its message to Congress this week, as staffers from at least four House members from Illinois took part in a conference call with the group. A staff member from the office of Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) also participated in the call. Greenberger said he had been working to inform aides to President-elect Barack Obama as well.

Battery executives and industry consultants say governments in Japan, China, South Korea and Germany are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into production of lithium ion batteries, which have chiefly been used in cellphones, laptops and other electronics.

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