(Bloomberg Businessweek) —
If President Joe Biden gets his way, this year will kick off a bonanza of battery manufacturing across the US.
Dozens of companies have announced plans to open factories devoted to electric vehicle battery production, spurred by federal incentives and a growing market for cleaner cars. Under the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature climate policy, Uncle Sam will start giving new tax credits in January for making critical technologies in the country. That’s many extra carrots for carmakers already plotting ways to “onshore” more of their supply chain after being hobbled by the pandemic and the trade war with China.
It also means an entire domestic industry must develop, basically from scratch. “This much lithium-ion batteries are produced on US soil,” says Aaron Bent, chief executive officer of 6K Inc., holding his fingers in the sign for zero.
Bent’s business is one of those trying to change that. Based in Massachusetts, 6K makes materials for the cathode in lithium-ion batteries, the primary energy source for EVs. The company touts what it calls a unique approach that uses plasma machinery—Bent compares it to an 8-foot-long lightsaber—to forge the materials for a workable battery, dramatically reducing the water, waste and money required. “It’s clean. It’s green. And it’s lower-cost than Asia,” he says. “It sounds like magic.”
At a 100,000-square-foot facility in the Southeast, 6K plans to start performing this magic later in the year. (The company is still determining the location.) Several other battery upstarts with novel approaches, such as using recycled material or solid-state technology, have vowed to spend millions of dollars on plants in Arizona, Michigan, Tennessee and other states. Giant carmakers including Ford, Hyundai, Tesla and Toyota have made similar commitments alongside plans to produce millions more electric cars in the US.
Since 2009 there have been 882 battery manufacturing projects started or announced in the US, primarily aimed at electric vehicles, representing $108 billion in investment, according to data from BloombergNEF. About a quarter of the projects were unfurled in 2022.
State governments, including many whose congressional representatives voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, have been scrambling to attract projects. Georgia has announced 30 factories related to electric cars and batteries since 2020. “It’s just exploding,” says Joe Britton, executive director for the Zero Emission Transportation Association, an industry lobbying group.
Before breaking ground on factory sites, the auto industry is waiting to see how the government incentives shake out. In December the US Department of the Treasury issued its initial guidance for the coming electric vehicle credits, some of which will require automakers to use parts made in either the US or nations that have free-trade agreements with the US. But on some finer points—such as where critical minerals for EV batteries could come from—the Treasury postponed its decision until March. Building a new battery supply chain won’t be easy. Even with the expected boom in domestic manufacturing, most battery materials are processed in China with ingredients from other countries.
Bent says the 6K plant will produce 10 million kilograms (about 22 million pounds) of cathode material a year. He estimates that the US needs 50 times that amount to meet the vehicle demand by 2030. Battery makers are struggling to set up plants because of endless hiccups in supply chains and labor markets. Less than a tenth of the battery sites that BNEF is tracking are up and running so far.
And the auto industry is lobbying to shape the Treasury’s interpretation of the climate law. “All this stuff is super high-stakes for the sector,” Britton says.
The uncertainty isn’t slowing investment. For instance, 6K has raised $350 million. Redwood Materials, a startup making battery materials from recycled cells, has announced two separate $3.5 billion facilities in Nevada and South Carolina.
Ashwin Shashindranath, a partner with Energy Impact Partners, which invested in 6K, is on the lookout for businesses that can mine the critical materials for batteries, such as nickel and lithium, more sustainably and perhaps more cheaply. “We think that’s actually the real story in the next five years,” he says. His fund hasn’t found any companies to back yet.
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