When America’s national laboratories develop new technology, Uncle Sam must make sure it is marketed in America. But the supposed speed battery design did not happen.
A vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB) design developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) wound up in the hands of a Chinese company, which has since become the world’s largest producer of VRFBs. The US, which owns the patent, has poured $15 million of taxpayer dollars into the development, and reportedly has no domestic production space for the new VRFBs.
That’s not to say that VRFBs aren’t manufactured in the U.S.—some companies do—but the PNNL battery design is different.
In six years, PNNL scientists have developed a unique mixture of acid and electrolyte that is twice as powerful as other vanadium-based batteries, doesn’t degrade like other batteries, and can be discharged and charged indefinitely. 30 years. Refrigerator-sized batteries can be installed in homes attached to solar panels and reduce demand on the power grid.
From the laboratory, directly to the middle kingdom
PNNL’s VRFB research began in 2006, and in 2012 the project’s lead scientist, Gary Young, applied for a license to manufacture and sell the design. The license was granted, which led to the creation of UniEnergy Technologies, which renamed the battery ReFlex.
According to NPR, which Young spoke to for an investigation, UniEnergy has not been able to find any American investors. In his reply he said it was rejected due to long lead time. Yang found a ready investor in a company called Dalian Rongke Power Co, Ltd, located in Dalian, a peninsula in the Yellow Sea between Beijing and South Korea, and turned to China.
In the year In 2017, Yang sublicensed PNNL to Rongke to manufacture VRFBs in China, although the original license stipulated that a limited number of batteries must be sold in the U.S. but must also be “mass-produced” domestically, according to NPR.
In an interview with NPR, Yang didn’t do that, selling only a few batteries in the U.S. They’re all made in China. The license was later transferred to a Dutch company called Vanadis Power, which plans to manufacture Reflex batteries in China and later in Germany, and may expand to the US in the future.
U.S. laws make it clear that transferring a U.S. government license requires approval from Uncle Sam after officials confirm manufacturing won’t move overseas, and that’s where NPR made the Energy Department’s biggest mistake: After a few emails and an hour-and-a-half course, a U.S. government employee transferred the license from Uni Energy to Vanadis.
“During that hour and a half, neither the manager nor anyone else in the lab or the Department of Energy made any effort to verify that Vanadis Power was an American company or intended to manufacture in America,” NPR reported.
Too little, too late?
The DOE declined to comment on the investigation, though a letter the news agency sent to the department with a timeline linked to Rongke appears to have prompted the suspension.
“If DOE determines that a DOE-supported patent or downstream licensed contractor is in violation of U.S. manufacturing obligations, DoE will explore all legal remedies,” the department told NPR.
It is unclear whether the DOE’s issuance of Rongke’s permit will cause it to stop building the batteries, or Vanadis’ permit status. The record A government department has been approached for clarification.
Issuing the permit at this stage may have little effect: In May, a blog post by German power company RWE revealed that China is developing an 800MWh lithium-free battery farm in Dalian, which is being built by Rongke and other VRFBs called by Vanadis partner Bolong New Materials. The Vanadis website describes Bolong as the sole manufacturer of mixed-acid electrolyte used in reflex batteries.
Vanadis continues to announce on its website that it has exclusive rights to sell the Reflex battery “in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.” What’s less clear is whether it has the right to build and sell VRFBs in Asia, or if the U.S.’s issuance of a license to do so will change anything. ®