Argonne transportation expert: U.S. leads world in PHEV battery R&D, lags in capabilities to make them

By Angela HardinFebruary 14, 2008

ARGONNE, Ill. (Feb. 14, 2008)—During opening testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Argonne's Don Hillebrand noted that while the United States is the dominant player in the development of battery materials and chemistries for hybrid vehicles and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) with the help of progressive research conducted at U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories, including Argonne, the nation lags behind the world in adopting capabilities to make such batteries.

Indeed, while "DOE battery research programs have spawned small businesses and pushed applied development of promising battery chemistries to a high level," Hillebrand pointed out that, "… many small American battery companies plan to build their factories in China." The reason, he explained, is that the United States does not have the high-volume battery manufacturing know-how. But that kind of capability can be developed over time, Hillebrand said.

Overseas battery makers "have marked advantages based on the large investments they have made in manufacturing," he explained. Toyota, for example, has made significant investments in acquiring the ability to develop and make batteries, and studies show that the Japanese automaker doles out one-third less for its batteries compared to U.S. companies, Hillebrand said. Japan's automakers dominate the hybrid market; they make and sell more than 80 percent of the hybrids now sold in the United States, he said.

Aside from manufacturing, the safety and cost of lithium ion battery technologies are of greatest concern, he said. Hillebrand is confident the safety issues can be resolved, but said that battery cost range — estimated to be between $3,000 and $12,000 for a 40-mile plug-in battery — is the limiting factor to PHEV introduction.

There is, however, a solution. "Battery costs can be lowered with increased funding for research and development of advanced materials, tax policies and R&D tax credits or incentives," Hillebrand, who was an automotive engineer with Chrysler for 20 years, said. Targeted battery manufacturing incentives could spark progress.

"Government should continue support for research and development, provide market incentives for conventional hybrids, and consider added incentives for plug-in hybrids," Hillebrand said. "Government R&D funding for advanced vehicles should better reflect the likelihood of success. A sustained effort to develop domestic battery manufacturing capability will be equally important. Ultimately, we have not accomplished much if we transfer a dependence on imported oil, for an addiction to foreign batteries."