(Chris Devlin) #1

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ment,” he tells me. “Every one of us
wants to be the first.”
Hu has arrived at our 7:30 a.m.
meeting in Woburn a few minutes
late, a massive travel mug of tea
in hand. Both are understand-
able, given that he has just driven
3.5 hours to the office from his
home in New Jersey, a commute he
makes weekly.
He’s wearing rumpled blue
chinos and dusty work boots—and
he’s wearing an identical outfit
a week later, when I meet Hu in
Shanghai to tour the factory that
Solid Energy is building there, in
Jiading, a district that also houses
major auto factories. Trailing
Hu as he walks through the site,
the air heavy with the fumes of
still-fresh paint, are representa-
tives of several of the investors
who in total have poured about
$90 million into Solid Energy.
They include SAIC Motor, China’s
largest automaker, which is based
in Shanghai; and Tianqi Lithium,
a Chinese company that’s one of
the world’s largest producers of
lithium, a material that is mined.
Among Solid Energy’s other inves-
tors: GM and SK.
That many big companies pop up
repeatedly across the battery-start-
up landscape indicates how urgent
the technological quest has become.
Back on SK’s Korea campus, in the


R&D buildings that Hwang, the
strategist, won’t let me see, they’re
focusing, he says, on improving the
cathode and on engineering a sepa-
rator that’s thin but still safe. SK
feels the competitive heat, which is
why it’s hedging its bets by backing
startups such as Solid Energy. “If
we develop things all by ourself,”
Hwang says, “it has some risk.”
VW, one of the world’s biggest
automakers, agrees. That’s why it
announced last year it was invest-
ing $100 million in yet another Sil-
icon Valley battery startup, called
QuantumScape, an investment
that augments VW’s contracts
with SK and other huge battery
makers. As part of its green remak-
ing, VW says 40% of the vehicles
it sells will be battery-powered by


  1. “We need to make decisions
    right now—who and where is the
    partner—to secure this enormous
    quantity of batteries,” says Stefan
    Sommer, VW’s head of procure-
    ment. “It’s the only way to ramp
    up this huge capacity in this short
    period of time.”
    And that points to a messy
    yet fundamental reality about
    the battery race. Despite mount-
    ing chest-thumping in national
    capitals that individual countries
    must dominate it to safeguard
    their national security, in practice
    the battery sector is an increas-
    ingly global web. More and more
    battery firms embody an interna-
    tional mix of intellectual property,
    investors, and suppliers, to say
    nothing of customers. Whether
    these firms are American, or
    Chinese, or something else is less
    and less clear. In so many ways,
    the battery race appears unlikely
    to stay within established lanes.
    For consumers and the planet,
    that may be a very good thing. For
    policymakers, investors, and the
    corporate giants of the fossil-fuel
    era, it will make the race increas-
    ingly hard to navigate.


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