CARLSBAD — The race for lithium, which helps power everything from cell phones and laptops to digital cameras and electric vehicles, is the modern era’s gold rush.
And Carlsbad-based American Lithium Energy, or ALE, hit paydirt after receiving two grants totaling $13.2 million on March 2 from the California Energy Commission.
The high-performance lithium battery producer will receive $10.2 million from Zero-Emissions Transportation Manufacturing for electric vehicle batteries to help meet state emissions goals and $3 million from the California Realizing Accelerated Manufacturing Production program in April 2023.
The company also received independent matching funds from private equity partners, according to William Hadala, business director for American Lithium Energy.
Jiang Fan, who founded ALE and holds a doctorate in solid state chemistry from Arizona State University, said the discovery of lithium deposits near the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley (now called “Lithium Valley”) had prompted a rush to mine the valuable mineral.
Increased domestic access to more lithium will give Fan’s company and other U.S. manufacturers a competitive advantage when assembling cells to consolidate into battery packs for electric vehicles or EVs.
“By the end of this project, not only will we provide product to the market like the military space, but we will also work with EV battery companies,” Fan said.
The lithium deposits also help the Department of Defense, which has relied heavily on lithium-ion batteries in numerous applications, from drones and vehicles to wearables for warfighters.
“Northrop Grumman has collaborated with ALE on the development of advanced Li-ion battery cells for use on prototype aircraft, which have high-specific power and energy requirements,” said Jeff Knowles, an electrical engineer at Northrop Grumman, in a recent release. “ALE’s industry-leading battery cell technology affords both expanded voltage range and useable capacity, as well as pulsed power capability that are enabling features for advanced aircraft.”
From a national security perspective, Fan said “Lithium Valley” plays a vital role in securing a U.S.-based supply chain, protecting the U.S. market if “bad actor” states in Asia cut off supply chains due to a political conflict or military confrontation.
The Carlsbad company started with contracts through the defense and energy departments, with the former focused on high-grade technology for warfighters. However, over the years, ALE has evolved into other sectors along with mastering its technology and chemistry.
With the current grant from the state, the company can scale production to approximately 1.5 million battery cells per year. And as the push for more electric vehicles grows, Hadala said the company has a long-term production goal of 50 million to 100 million cells annually.
According to Hadala, manufacturing automation will allow for faster production, starting at 20 cells per minute and eventually ramping up to producing a cell every second.
The company’s annual cell-production goal of 1.5 million battery cells, a relatively small amount compared to companies like Samsung and LG, will allow ALE lead time to eventually hit those larger numbers.
“As a result, the company is now moving from research and development and engineering and prototypes to full-scale production,” Hadala said. “This grant will allow us to go from making tens of thousands of cells per year to our target of 1.5 million cells per year in the next 18 months.”
There is a missing component and that is that the batteries need to be designed to be recycled. Redwood Materials, which is already recycling lithium, should be consulted.