Computers and Technology

America Makes Great Battery Discovery, Then Hands Technology Over To China

When a group of engineers and researchers gathered in a warehouse in Mukilteo, Washington, 10 years ago, they knew they were on to something big. They pulled out the tables and chairs, cleared the parking lot for experiments, and got to work.

They were building a battery, a vanadium redox flow battery technology, based on a design developed by two dozen American scientists in a government laboratory. The batteries were the size of a refrigerator, had enough energy to power a home, and could be used for decades. Engineers envisioned people plugging them into their air conditioners, installing solar panels alongside them, and everyone living happily ever after off the grid.

“It was more than promised,” said Chris Howard, one of the engineers working there for UniEnergy, an American company. “We were seeing it work as expected.”

But it didn’t happen. Instead of batteries becoming the next great American success story, the warehouse is now closed and empty. All the employees working there were fired. And more than 5,200 miles away, a Chinese company is hard at work making batteries in Dalian, China.

The Chinese company did not steal this technology. It was given to him by the US Department of Energy. First as part of a sub-license in 2017, and then as part of a license transfer in 2021. An investigation by NPR and the Northwest News Network found that the federal agency allowed technology and jobs to go overseas, violated its licensing rules and intervened on behalf of American workers on multiple occasions. I failed.

Now, China has stepped up, investing millions in cutting-edge green technology that was supposed to help keep America and its economy ahead.

Energy Department officials declined NPR’s interview request to explain how the technology, costing American taxpayers millions of dollars, ended up in China. When NPR sent written questions to department officials outlining a timeline of events, the federal agency said the Chinese company, Dalian Rongke Power Co. Terminated license with Ltd.

“DOE takes America’s manufacturing obligations within its contracts very seriously,” the department said in a written statement. “If DOE determines that a DOE-funded patent or downstream licensed contractor is in violation of its U.S. manufacturing obligations, DOE will seek all legal remedies.”


Several US Companies Have Tried To Obtain A License To Manufacture The Batteries

According to the release, the department is now conducting an internal review of the licensing of vanadium battery technology and whether this license, and others, violated US manufacturing requirements.

Forever Energy, a company based in Bellevue, Washington, is one of several U.S. companies trying to get a license from the Department of Energy to make batteries. Joanne Skievaski, Forever Energy’s chief financial officer, has been trying to get a license for more than a year and called the department’s decision to allow foreign manufacturing “mind boggling.”

“This is technology built with taxpayer dollars,” Skiwaski said. “It was invented in a national lab. (Now) it’s being implemented in China and it’s being done in China. To say it’s disappointing is an understatement.”

The idea for this vanadium redox battery began in the basement of a government laboratory three hours southwest of Seattle called the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. It was 2006 and more than two dozen scientists began to suspect that a certain mixture of acid and electrolyte could hold extraordinary amounts of energy without depletion. Turns out they were right.

It took six years and more than 15 million taxpayer dollars for scientists to discover what they believe is the perfect recipe for a vanadium battery technology. Others had made similar batteries with vanadium, but this mix was twice as powerful and didn’t seem to degrade cell phone batteries or even car batteries. The researchers found the batteries capable of being charged and recharged for up to 30 years.

Gary Yang, lead scientist on the project, said he was excited to see if they could make batteries outside of the lab. The lab encourages scientists to do just that: to bring important new technologies to market. either. The lab and the US government still hold the patent, as US taxpayers paid for the research.


In 2012, Yang Applied To The Department Of Energy For A License To Manufacture And Sell Batteries

The agency issued the license and Yang launched UniEnergy Technologies. He hired engineers and researchers. But soon he ran into trouble. He said he could not persuade any American investors to come on board.

“I talked to almost all of the big investment banks; none of them wanted to invest. In batteries,” Yang said in an interview, adding that the banks were weighing their investment on batteries compared to batteries. Want a quick refund. earn profit.

He said that a fellow scientist told him A Chinese businessman named Yi Liu and Dalian Rongke Power Co. Ltd., his parent company, got in touch with him and took the opportunity to help them invest and build batteries. .

Initially, UniEnergy Technologies handled most of the battery technology assembly in the warehouse. But over the next several years, more and more manufacturing and assembly began to shift to Rongke power. Chris Howard said. In 2017, Yang formalized the relationship and Dalian Rongke Power Co. Ltd, a government sub-license, allowing the company to manufacture batteries in China.

Any company can choose to manufacture in China. But in this case the rules are very clear. Yang’s original license requires him to sell a certain number of batteries in the U.S., and he says those batteries must be “substantially manufactured” here.

In an interview, Yang admitted that he did not. UniEnergy Technologies sold some batteries in the US, but not enough to meet their needs. The ones it sold, including one case to the US Navy, were made in China. But Yang said that in all those years, neither the lab nor the department asked him any questions or raised any issues.

Then in 2019, Howard said, UniEnergy Technologies officials brought all the engineers together in a meeting room. He said supervisors told him he would have to work for four months straight at Rongke Power Company in China.

“Certainly for me and other engineers. It wasn’t clear what the plan was,” said Howard, who now works for Forever Energy.

Yang admitted that he wanted his American engineers to work in China. But he says it was because he thought Rongke Power could help teach him critical skills.

Yang was born in China but is a US citizen and holds a Ph.D. At the University of Connecticut, he said he wanted to make the entire battery in the U.S. But the U.S. didn’t have the supply chain they needed. China is more advanced when it comes to utility-scale battery manufacturing and engineering, he said.

Yang said that in manufacturing, and engineering, China is ahead of the United States. “A lot of people wouldn’t believe it.”

He said he did not send the battery and its engineers overseas to help China. It said engineers in that country are supporting its UniEnergy Technologies employees and helping them build its batteries.

But the news at the time suggested that these measures were helping China. The Chinese government has launched several large demonstration projects and announced millions of dollars in funding for large-scale vanadium batteries.

As the battery technology took off in China, Yang faced more financial problems in the U.S. And made a decision that would prevent the technology from ever being in the U.S again.

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