US Hybrid Battery Companies Join Forces

By · December 21, 2008

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A group of US battery companies teamed up this week to boost American manufacturing of lithium ion batteries. The new alliance aims to compete with Asian companies that currently dominate the lithium ion battery market.

The production of affordable lithium ion batteries is viewed as the key to success for the next generation of hybrid and electric cars.

The newly formed National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture will create one or more manufacturing and prototype development centers in the United States, working with the Argonne National Laboratory as advisors. Members include 3M, ActaCell, All Cell Technologies, Altair Nanotechnologies, EaglePicher, EnerSys, Envia Systems, FMC, Johnson Controls-Saft, MicroSun, Mobius Power, SiLyte, Superior Graphite and Townsend Advanced Energy.

Johnson-Controls - Saft Factory

Workers check the production of lithium ion automotive batteries in the Johnson Controls - Saft Advanced Power Solutions' factory in Nersac, southwestern France.

Earlier this year, battery makers Johnson Controls of Milwaukee, and Saft Advanced Power Solutions of Bagnolet, France opened the facility, the world's first factory dedicated to advanced lithium ion batteries for electric and hybrid cars. Johnson Controls - Saft is now part of the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture, which hopes to build battery facilities in the United States.

The plan of the alliance is to replicate the success of Sematech, a government-industry collaboration of US semiconductor-makers that was formed in the 1980s to address the migration of semiconductor manufacturing from the United States to Asia. It has since evolved into a self-supporting trade association.

The new US battery group will face formidable competition from Japanese companies. Just this week, Panasonic decided to make a tender offer for Sanyo, the world's largest producer of rechargeable batteries. Sanyo is well positioned to capitalize on the auto industry's shift to hybrid and electric cars—and will be a battery powerhouse when aligned with Panasonic. Panasonic EV Energy Co., a division of Panasonic and an affiliate of Toyota, currently supplies nickel metal hydride batteries for Toyota hybrids as well as Chrysler’s Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen SUV hybrids. Sanyo provides similar batteries for Honda, and the Ford Escape Hybrid and its Mercury and Mazda versions.

Panasonic EV opened a new battery factory in a Sendai suburb last month—one month ahead of schedule. The company rushed the construction of the factory, putting hybrid cars at the core of its manufacturing strategy. In June, Toyota also set up a battery research department that develops next-generation batteries for electric cars.

The only US company currently providing batteries to production vehicles is Cobasys, which supplies batteries for the Saturn Vue and Saturn Aura hybrids, and the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. Mercedes recently sued Cobasys for failing to supply batteries for that company’s upcoming hybrids.

Other recent maneuvers in the global battery war:

  • Honda, which receives its nickel metal hydride batteries for its hybrids from Panasonic and Sanyo, announced a joint venture with GS Yuasa for developing lithium ion batteries.
  • Volkswagen and Sanyo are working on a joint venture for future lithium ion battery development.
  • Nissan is working with Japan’s NEC to produce lithium ion batteries for electric cars. NEC will also supply batteries for Subaru’s EV program.
  • Supplier Robert Bosch formed a joint venture with Samsung to develop lithium ion batteries.
  • Daimler established a joint venture for batteries with Evonik, but said it will use Johnson Controls-Saft batteries in its upcoming Mercedes S-Class hybrid.

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