The talk about US-based A123 receiving federal and Michigan taxpayer funding to ramp up American-made batteries for the plug-in electric – gas hybrid Chevrolet Volt seems to have been much ado about nothing. The AP (via Yahoo) reports that GM “has picked LG Chem of South Korea to supply the lithium-ion battery cells for its Chevrolet Volt.” Apparently mindful of its precarious political situation, GM makes a big deal about the South Korean cells being “assembled into battery modules and packs at a factory in Michigan.” In the mid-80s, I was a young engineer in Silicon Valley’s then booming semiconductor industry, and we outsourced the low tech, low value added final packaging and assembly offshore to places like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Back then, the high value added R&D and primary manufacturing still largely happened in the US. My how times have changed.
GM’s flag-washing continued with statements from its new best friend, LG Chem’s CEO Peter Kim. Kim said his “company may eventually build cells in Michigan; and anticipates that the company’s U.S. subsidiary, Compact Power Inc., will add to its 100 person work force in Troy, Mich.” GM is also quick to point at plans to build a new 31,000 square foot battery lab at the Warren technical center; just as soon as the taxpayer pays for it all, one must presume.
Politics aside, LG Chem won by having the better design: flat cells. A123’s cylindrical cells are said to have inferior power density and heat dissipation characteristics when compared to the LG Chem design. On that basis, it sounds like GM made a good choice. But how it will all play out remains to be seen. Assuming the Volt in production ever enters something approximating mass production.