Remarks from Primet’s CTO Larry Thomas before the Defense Energy Security Caucus (DESC)

Defense Energy Security Caucus
03 November 2011

Advanced Batteries for Energy Security

Larry Thomas, President & CEO
Primet Precision Materials, Inc.
Ithaca, NY

Good afternoon. My name is Larry Thomas. I’m the President and CEO of Primet Precision Materials, a company in Ithaca, NY that applies nanomanufacturing technology to lower the cost and improve performance of lithium ion batteries.

I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today about advanced batteries and the critical role they play in energy security for the Department of Defense. We must ensure that the US Military maintains :

  • a significant tactical advantage for war-fighters
  • a dependable domestic supply chain for advanced batteries
  • while promoting billions of dollars in domestic investment and job creation

When we talk about advanced battery technology today, we’re talking about lithium ion batteries. These are the smallest and lightest batteries among the major rechargeable battery chemistries. Lithium ion batteries were introduced in the early 1990s, they’ve become the standard in almost all consumer handheld devices and are quickly becoming the standard in electric vehicles as well. As the US military continues to add electronic capabilities at the front lines, lithium ion batteries will provide the highest energy in the smallest and lightest package that soldiers can carry.

Further advances in lithium ion batteries are critical for the military to continue to improve the size, weight and performance of batteries. Advances in lithium ion batteries can:

  • Reduce the burden on our soldiers, who can be weighed down by 20 pounds or more, and up to 70 batteries in a mission package.
  • Reduce fuel demand at the front lines by enabling hybrid vehicles with improved gas mileage. DOD estimates that 3000 American soldiers or contractors were killed in fuel supply convoys between 2003 and 2007 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Extend mission time between fuel re-supply. Remote power generation with wind and solar only works if advanced batteries are available to store it.
  • Extend the range of unmanned aerial vehicles to increase their time over target, and reduce the number of missions that soldiers need to make into hostile territory to recover a drone that ran out of power.

Primet CEO Larry Thomas with typical warfighter gear, where higher energy density
battery materials can significantly reduce battery weight carried into the field.

It’s equally important that the US have a domestic supply chain for advanced batteries. This is a technology that’s critical both to the security of our military and to key civilian industries including automotive, electronics and our national electric grid.

Today, we don’t have a domestic supply of advanced batteries. Over 95% of the world’s lithium ion batteries are made in Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan. That trend isn’t reversing any time soon – even with recent construction of our first large US battery plants, the Asian manufacturers continue to expand capacity at an equal or greater rate. So it’s not surprising when military and civilian leaders say “We don’t want to trade dependence on foreign oil for dependence on foreign batteries.”

The irony is that advanced batteries were largely invented here. Scientists like Stan Whittingham at Binghamton University, Mike Thackeray at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, and John Goodenough at the University of Texas made the seminal discoveries in battery materials and developed the first lithium battery cells. And the most important advances in lithium batteries continue to come out of their labs, and from other US labs staffed by the students they trained.

There’s no doubt that the US Departments of Defense and Energy are the two most important sponsors of advanced battery research in the world. There’s no doubt that the work they sponsor is producing the highest-impact advances in battery technology.

US Leadership in Advanced Battery Research

So why is it, if the technology was and continues to be invented here, that the production of those batteries, the jobs and investment associated with that production, and the security of the supply chain that the US military and industry needs is in Asia?

The answer has nothing to do with where the basic minerals are located. The world’s largest sources for the minerals we use in batteries like lithium and cobalt are in Chile, Argentina, Australia, and Congo. But those countries don’t produce any of the advanced materials based on those ores, nor do they produce a single commercial battery cell among them. Mineral wealth does not translate into an advanced battery industry.

Unfortunately, neither does materials discovery. DOD and DOE have done a tremendous job to sponsor research into the discovery of advanced materials and advanced cell designs to improve the performance of batteries; few would argue that they’ve done the best job at that of any institutions in the world.

Global Lithium Ion Battery Infrastructure

Source: Duke University: Center on Globalization Governance & Competitiveness. Lithium Ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles, October 2010

And so it’s clear that the chemistry, the materials, the basic design principles of advanced battery cells were largely invented here. But the process technology to make those materials and build those cells on an industrial scale was largely developed in Japan and Korea.

The most important processes are the ones that convert basic minerals into the advanced materials that go into the battery, and the processes for combining those materials to make the batteries themselves. Advanced materials and batteries have no value unless they can be made on an industrial scale at low-cost and with high performance.

So while US universities and national laboratories might get the headlines in the scientific journals, and their tech transfer offices collect royalties on the compositions that they’ve discovered, the vast majority of the investment, jobs and supply chain security took place in Asia, where the process technology was developed and deployed.

As long as the leadership in process technology remains in Asia, the US military and industry will be relying on imported batteries, and will lack the domestic security, supply chain, investment and jobs associated with large-scale manufacturing.

From a policy stand-point, I’d ask you to ensure that there’s a balance in R&D funding between materials discovery and materials manufacturing process technology; between battery cell designs and battery manufacturing methods. If the process technology is developed and owned by US industry, it will be deployed here, resulting in construction of domestic plants employing US workers to meet the needs of the US military and civilian economy.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that the government underwrite construction of those plants, which would require billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 was very successful in providing enough funding to jump-start that process. While further such programs would be of value, it’s unrealistic in the current environment.

Instead, I’d suggest that much smaller amounts from existing R&D budgets can also have a significant near-term impact. My company has been working with the Army Research Lab and CERDEC on two such programs. We’re leveraging what we’ve learned from those programs to design new plants with lower costs that will provide higher-performance batteries to our soldiers in the field in the near term.

This kind of funding for manufacturing process technology is critical at all Technology Readiness Levels from basic research through to deployment.

This just the first of many steps that DOD can take to ensure creation of the dependable domestic supply base of advanced batteries that our soldiers need.