North America and Europe must develop different battery technology to compete with dominant companies from east Asia, according to Bob Galyen, a leading battery expert and former executive at CATL, the world’s largest battery manufacturer.

“My advice to them is to come up with a leapfrog technology that allows them to jump over the Asians,” he tells fDi in an interview, highlighting the predominance of electric vehicle (EV) battery manufacturers from China, Japan and South Korea. 

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Mr Galyen, who spent seven years as the chief technology officer of CATL before stepping down in December 2019, witnessed first-hand how China became the world’s leader across the battery supply chain. By 2030, China is set to have more than twice the capacity to produce lithium-ion batteries than the rest of the world combined, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

“I think we need to move quicker in both North America and Europe for the sake of global ecology,” says Mr Galyen, who since retiring from CATL has been working with the US federal government to “help spur the movement of electrification” in North America.

Ambitious targets

The Biden administration has set an ambitious target of making half of all new US auto sales electric by 2030. More than $7bn of federal funding has been earmarked for innovation and facilities in the US battery supply chain as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in November 2021. 

Mr Galyen says that the development of the EV supply chain in North America and Europe “will probably manifest in a different way” to China, which had “a very unique roadmap” that started 20 years ago with batteries for consumer electronics. 

“One could argue that one of the reasons that China was so successful was its timing,” he says, adding that four key elements enabled the country to accelerate ahead of the rest of the world in the battery industry. 

These factors included government support to encourage companies to invest in factories and consumers to adopt EVs, readily available private equity capital and investments made into the materials, machines, workforce and technology needed to produce batteries.

Don't focus on China rivalry

Mr Galyen says other countries could “use some of the strategies that China did to become the biggest and best in the world of battery technology”. But he believes that too much focus is placed on rivalry with China rather than broadly beneficial technological development.

“As a global society, why don’t we take advantage of the knowledge that’s already been gained by the Chinese and amplify it?” he asks, adding that “it’s not about China winning, it’s about the world winning” in the path towards electrification.

The “right strategy” for countries around the world is to develop their own battery technology and “advance the global knowledge base”, says Mr Galyen, rather than focus on competition with east Asian manufacturers of lithium based batteries. 

“I would implore everyone ... to not totally focus on lithium, because it’s not the only electric chemical system out there,” adds Mr Galyen, highlighting that lead, nickel-zinc and flow batteries are very good for certain applications.

As an example, he says that nickel-based chemistries are excellent batteries for high-power applications, such as military applications for launching projectiles or storing energy that require a high-power pulse.

“They’re really good for server farms, because as soon as the system detects there’s a fluctuation in the grid, you can turn nickel-zinc batteries on and they just emit enormous amounts of power to support,” says Mr Galyen, who adds he is working on “no less than seven” different battery technologies today with various companies.