Battery makers come begging

American lithium-ion battery makers, including giants like 3M, are banding together to try to extract a few billion dollars from Congress so they can build a shiny battery manufacturing plant that, for whatever reason, they aren’t willing to spend their own money on. This latest handout request is a fairly dubious idea* that is nevertheless likely to appeal to a lot of people on grounds of both economic nationalism and a vague aura of environmental goodness.

Whatever you think of the request, though, let’s at least all agree not to put up with this:

> “We don’t want to go from being dependent on Middle East oil to Asian batteries.”

> \- Jeff Depew, chief executive of Imara, a start-up that makes lithium-ion batteries

Oil is a viscous substance, finite in quantity, concentrated in hard-to-reach pockets in certain corners of the globe. These properties allow a relatively small handful of countries to exert some imperfect control over its supply. Batteries differ from oil in just about every important way.

Depew has an obvious interest in promoting American battery manufacturers. But surely savvy outsiders understand that a competitive, low-cost industry, whether centered in Asia or anywhere else, is good for everyone who needs batteries?

> Recently, Andrew Grove, former chairman of Intel Corp., began urging the chip maker to explore whether it could play a role in battery manufacturing. Mr. Grove and others say U.S. companies must step up efforts to produce advanced batteries for the country’s car industry or America will end up trading its dependence on foreign petroleum for dependence on foreign-made batteries.

Oh, well. The industry consortium is organized by Jim Greenberger, a lawyer specializing in clean tech. In case you’re not scared enough yet of the Asian battery menace, Greenberger spells it out:

> Yet car manufacturing will eventually move where the batteries are made, he said. “If we’re dependent on Asia, transportation and even defense will gravitate there.”

Roger that. Clearly the one thing our globalized economy has taught us is that all industry eventually clusters around the battery plant.

The government almost certainly can play a productive role in moving the battery industry forward, primarily by funding the sort of basic research that is fueling the explosion in domestic battery start-ups, from Imara to A123. The former is trying to commercialize technology developed at Stanford and funded by the Clinton administration. The latter is based on technology developed at MIT.

And who knows? Maybe America’s research advantage in will translate into manufacturing supremacy as well. But let’s not cloud the issue with scare talk about new forms of “dependency.” I for one welcome our new lithium overlords.

\* At first blush, the idea seems a lot worse than “fairly dubious,” but these are strange economic times, and I’m going to remain resolutely waffle-y on this.

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