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Worldwide race to make better batteries

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“We’re entering an exciting new phase for the automotive industry where we increase the electrification of vehicles, reducing consumption of gasoline through advanced batteries,” David Vieau, president A123Systems in Watertown, Mass., said in a statement this month announcing its plan to build the nation’s first lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant.

Yet the US is entering the race late. It must move fast to catch Japan, Korea, and China. Each is pouring billions into lithium research and each already has manufacturing plants.

Still, there are signs the tide may be turning. A123Systems has applied for $1.8 billion in funding from the US Department of Energy to build a lithium battery factory in Detroit big enough to supply a half dozen auto companies and employ 14,000 workers.

Last week, the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture, a consortium of more than a dozen US battery developers, announced it was seeking up to $2 billion to fund a major lithium battery manufacturing facility.

“We cannot allow ourselves to become dependent on foreign sources of lithium-ion battery cells as we have become dependent on petroleum from the Middle East,” says James Greenberger, the National Alliance’s director.Now add the Obama administration’s plan to spend $25 billion for new energy programs. All of which is good news to battery researchers like Sadoway, who have long toiled with slender funding as research dollars sluiced to fuel cells, nuclear power, and others with more buzz and backers.

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