By Jeffrey Ball | The Race to Build a Better Battery | Fortune | June 2019
At first glance, all seems serene on a spring morning at the research-and-development campus of SK Innovation, one of Korea’s biggest industrial conglomerates. The campus sits in Daejeon, a tidy, planned city an hour’s high-speed-train ride south of Seoul that the national government has built up as a technology hub. Dotting SK’s rolling acres are tastefully modern glass-and-steel buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in a glossy architecture magazine. One contains a library, its tables stocked with rolls of butcher paper and Post-it notes to spur creativity. Another houses an espresso bar where engineers queue for caffeination. A cool breeze blows. Birds chirp. Pink cherry blossoms bloom.
Then Jaeyoun Hwang, who directs business strategy for SK’s R&D operation, steers the Kia electric car in which he is driving me around the campus to a stop at the top of a hill. In front of us looms K-8, a seven-story-tall cube of a building sheathed in matte silver siding and devoid of any visible windows. Its only discernible marking is, at the top corner of one wall, a stylized orange outline of a familiar object: a battery. K-8 appears whimsical, almost a bauble, until Hwang explains that four other buildings on the campus, plus another one under construction, also are for battery research—an activity at SK that employs several hundred people and counting. When I ask to go inside K-8 for a look, Hwang says it’s out of the question. When I raise my camera to take a picture, he stops me. “In this area,” he says, “photographs of the buildings are prohibited.”
SK has a sprawling R&D campus because it has a storied technological pedigree—as Korea’s oldest oil refiner. Now the petrochemical company is hitching its future to electric cars. It has inked deals 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 Automotive 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 moving by 2025 to balloon its battery production, 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 processing 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 suddenly 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 between the U.S. and China.
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