As most people must be aware, the element lithium plays a major role in battery technology, powering many of our technology devices and electric vehicles. But it also plays a key role in medical devices and Lydia DePillis writes that the US has been losing the global competition for lithium-ion battery manufacture to China, and that is part of the reason that it has not been able to adequately meet the demands due to the pandemic.
But the effort to establish a lithium battery manufacturing base in the U.S. largely failed, even after the Obama administration made it a keystone of its 2009 stimulus program, aiming to produce 40% of the world’s lithium ion batteries for advanced vehicles by 2015.
Today, that number stands at about 10%, largely because of Tesla’s battery plant in Nevada. Most of the batteries used in a plethora of U.S. products are shipped in from China or other foreign suppliers. Despite its economic nationalist rhetoric, the Trump administration has done little to revive battery-making, proposing deep cuts to alternative energy research and favoring fossil fuels at every turn.
She describes what happened to a company called A123 Systems that built a lithium-ion battery plant in Detroit a decade ago aided by generous funding from the Obama administration.
A123’s Romulus plant now sits quiet. Its giant floor has been for lease for more than a year, while expensive machines wait to be sold at auction, likely for pennies on the dollar. A sister plant and the company’s former headquarters, in nearby Livonia, is being repurposed as medical office space. A123, which did not respond to requests for comment, has only white-collar workers left in America; all its manufacturing is done in China and the Czech Republic.
When A123 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2012, it had used $132 million of its $249 million federal grant, and its Michigan hiring peaked at 1,000 employees.
Deepening the wounds, a Chinese industrial conglomerate called Wanxiang paid only $256.6 million for A123’s assets in 2013.
So far, the trajectory isn’t good. By 2024, Benchmark expects America to have 8.2% of the world’s lithium ion battery-making capacity, while China has 72.8% and Europe has 14.2%.
So why is the Trump administration so slow in responding to this need? Because it is beholden to the fossil fuel industry that views battery technology as a threat to their industry because batteries are a key component in the energy storage mechanisms that renewable energy sources need. Hence investing in battery technology is seen as part of the agenda for fighting climate change and thus not only not a high priority but something to be actively against.
So in yet another key area, the US is looking backward towards supporting a dying industry and not forward. It is not just the production of these batteries that is important. The nation that produces more of them is likely to also be the leader in making new discoveries and developing new technologies around them.