Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it was awarding PolyPlus a grant for nearly $9 million to develop advanced manufacturing capabilities for its next-generation lithium batteries. Specifically, the grant is supporting a pilot project in collaboration with Johnson Controls and Corning Inc. to manufacture PolyPlus’s innovative electrode, which is used in its lithium-air, lithium-water, and lithium-sulfur batteries. The development is significant for two reasons. First, if successful, PolyPlus is taking a big step forward in producing – at scale – its advanced lithium batteries, which could be one of the first to market. Second, the project is another example of the important role manufacturing plays in the development of innovative, new technologies and the important role government policy can play to support it.
As ITIF has noted, PolyPlus previously received funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and has validated that investment by making particularly impressive progress in its development of its advanced lithium batteries. This includes a lithium-water battery that’s non-rechargeable, but has a record setting energy density and lifetime, making it perfect for underwater robotics and marine sensing. More important to the clean energy sector is the fact that PolyPlus’s lithium-air battery would be rechargeable, have a very high energy density, and be a fraction of the cost of today’s lithium batteries used in electric vehicles.
What makes PolyPlus a truly notable clean tech company is its focus on not just developing the technology for someone else to make it, but ensuring that manufacturing is a key part of their future success. According to MIT Technology Review, “its business model is different than most”, as “it’s only taken money from investors with a long time horizon and it wants to make manufacturing, not just material science, a core skill.” And while this strategy is key for the overall success of PolyPlus in the global market, making manufacturing a central link in the overall innovation ecosystem is key to U.S. competitiveness as well. ITIF Senior Analyst Stephen Ezell makes this point in summarizing the 2011 ITIF report The Case for a National Manufacturing Strategy:
It’s impossible for large economies to remain competitive without a viable manufacturing sector for five key reasons: (1) manufacturing plays a vital role in helping countries achieve balanced terms of trade; (2) manufacturing provides large numbers of above average–paying jobs; (3) manufacturing is the principal source of an economy’s R&D and innovation activity; (4) the health of a nation’s manufacturing and services sectors are complementary and inseparable; and (5) manufacturing is essential to a country’s national security.
The third point is especially essential for a domestic clean tech sector that depends on rapid technological development. “Where manufacturing goes, innovation inevitably follows,” as ITIF President Rob Atkinson quotes Dow Chemical CEO Andy Liveris as saying, which is why PolyPlus should be a model for other burgeoning companies in the industry.
For his part, PolyPlus CEO Steven Visco has pledged that all components of the company’s batteries will be made in America; the DOE-funded pilot production line will be installed in Berkeley, California by the end of the year and PolyPlus plans on bringing the batteries to market (lithium-water first, followed later by the lithium-sulfur and lithium-air models) within the next two years. Hopefully, the actions of DOE and PolyPlus can help set a positive example for bringing breakthrough technologies to market and strengthening domestic advanced manufacturing at the same time.
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