Why Start-Up Companies Are Rushing into Lithium Batteries

American companies are positioned to increase production tenfold -- and potentially control 40% of the global lithium-ion-battery market by 2015.

Published: 26-Mar-2010

In February, President Barack Obama told the crowd at a Henderson, Nev., high school that not so long ago, the U.S. made barely 2% of the advanced batteries used in the world's electric vehicles. Now, thanks to a multibillion-dollar federal investment, American companies are positioned to increase production tenfold — and potentially control 40% of the global lithium-ion-battery market by 2015. "We've created an entire new industry," Obama said.

Not quite, but certainly the beginnings of one. Demand for lithium-ion batteries is increasing dramatically as electric-car technology improves and prices drop. Nissan has introduced the all-electric Leaf, and this year Chevy will debut the long-anticipated gas-electric Volt. Those and future electric cars need battery packs, and at least a dozen American lithium-battery start-ups are competing with Asian companies such as Sanyo and Hitachi to provide them. "There's a tremendous amount of competition," says David Vieau, chief executive of A123 Systems, a Watertown, Mass., start-up powered by federal money that is vying for the business.

And it's a ton of business. The consulting firm Pike Research estimates that the global market for lithium-ion batteries could grow from $877 million this year to $8 billion by 2015. In North America, the market is expected to expand from about $287 million this year to $2.2 billion in 2015.

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