(Chris Devlin) #1

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FORTUNE.COM // JUNE .1 .19


to make batteries for some of the world’s
largest automakers, notably Volkswagen
AG, which, following a crippling scandal
in which it was found to have deliberately
and repeatedly violated pollution rules in
producing its diesel vehicles, has pledged a
green corporate rebirth, shifting much of its
lineup to cars that run on electricity rather
than oil. SK has made huge deals with VW
and other automakers, including Daimler
AG, which says it will sell 10 pure-electric
car models by 2022, and Beijing Automo-
tive Group, or BAIC Group, China’s largest
maker of pure-electric cars. SK is racing
to build massive battery plants in China,
Europe, and the United States, including
one an hour’s drive from Atlanta. It is mov-
ing by 2025 to balloon its battery produc-


tion, mulling investing some $10 billion in the effort over that span.
That’s a serious number even for a behemoth that in its various
corporate incarnations, has spent more than a half-century process-
ing black gold sucked from the ground. “These days,” Hwang says of
SK’s battery business, “the order volume is huge.”
For years, the race to build a better battery was contained to
consumer electronics. It was a growing business, but it wasn’t going
to reorder capitalism. Now, amid an onslaught of electric cars on
the road and renewable electricity on the power grid, the race is
gearing up into a corporate and geopolitical death match. It sud-
denly has the dead-serious attention of many of the planet’s biggest
multinationals, particularly auto giants, oil majors, and power
producers. Having historically dismissed affordable energy storage
as a pipe dream, they now view it as an existential threat—one that,
if they don’t harness it, could disintermediate them. It also divides
the world’s major economic powers, which see dominance of energy
storage in the 21st century as akin to control of coal in the 19th
century and of oil in the 20th. One clear sign: Battery-technology
competition is deeply woven into the ongoing trade tensions be-
tween the U.S. and China.
Even Jeffrey Chamberlain, a battery geek, finds today’s shift
breathtaking. For years he worked at Argonne National Labora-

FORTUNE 500


MANO A NANO


An Amprius machine that applies gases to
metal to produce “silicon-nanowire” anodes.