Modern lithium battery technology got started in then US in the 1970’s. As with all emerging technology, cost was a secondary consideration to the opportunity to create improved energy density batteries. The potential, of course, was huge.
Everything from power tools to electric cars would be impacted by a new battery chemistry with less weight. The latest generation of light weight laptop computers is largely a result of light weight battery technology. Cell phones and various computer pad platforms are all impacted as well.
The new Chevy Volt will be one of the first production cars with a major lithium battery pack. And every major auto maker is poised to deliver and electric of some type in 2011. Volkswagen Electric Golf with an 85 mile estimated drive range, a Lincoln Fusion Hybrid with a 41 mile per gallon fuel efficiency. New power density levels makes possible a wide range of vehicle options from the modest all electric Think being manufactured in Indiana for the US market, to high performance sports cars like the Fiskar and Tesla cars.
Interestingly, much of the development work done on lithium battery technology was done in the United States. The initial supply of lithium was mined in North Carolina. MIT and University of Texas contributed significantly in the development, and Exxon owned the technology at one point.
But the mine in North Carolina is relatively small compared to the amount needed to supply the current demand. So where will all the lithium come from? Presently, most of it is coming from South America. Chile, Argentina and Bolivia have huge deposits of lithium that are currently developed and they are supplying to battery companies around the world. Interestingly, Afghanistan is supposed to have $1 Trillion worth of lithium, the largest deposits in the world. A great way to generate revenue for the Afghan economy instead of poppies.
If the lithium is coming from South America, where are the batteries going to be made? Presently A123 Systems is the largest US maker of lithium batteries with a major effort going in to the Detroit area to supply batteries to US auto makers. But A123 also touts their Asian supply relationships.
Yes, I get it. Lithium battery technology is still the most expensive part of the electric car. So price is still an issue if the electric car market is going to expand. So there is a lot of pressure.
With the existing market pressure for improved lithium in computers and cellphones, and the prospect of auto markets with hundreds of times more sales available, the R&D effort to improve the technology at the chemistry level is massive. Even the federal government has made billions of dollars available in the recent stimulus bill to fund improvement in the technology. This is a rare case where I agree with the role of government in supporting this technology. The US needs to be a world leader in lithium batteries, not just on a technology development level, but on a manufacturing level as well.
So why is Chevy sourcing the battery pack for the Volt from Korea? Isn’t there enough supply in the US? Not yet, but its coming.