April 14th, 2009
12:28 PM GMT
SEOUL, South Korea - I am in a van driving back to Seoul from LG Chem's car battery plant in Daejeon, south of the Korean capital, and I can't help thinking how the global auto industry might be transformed by 11 sheets of black paper wrapped in aluminum foil. At least that's what LG Chem's new car battery cell looked like to me.
The Korean company is making the cells for GM's new hybrid electric car - the Chevy Volt. The Volt is not yet in production, but the manufacturing lines are churning out cell after cell that LG Chem engineer Jeon Byong Hee says will go for rigorous testing at the company's labs and GM's facilities. If successful, the Volt could help breathe new life into the nearly defunct American automaker.
The LG Chem campus is huge and the car battery factory immaculate. Just to enter the building, you have to leave your shoes at the door - as if you're visiting a Korean home. To see the production lines, we had to put on protective clothing and a pair of clean slippers before our bodies were blasted with air to blow away any potentially polluting particles.
My favorite room was the cavernous "formation" room - what manager Ham Jae Gyung describes as "a mother's womb". Batteries, Ham explained to me, "breathe" and need to come to life - much like humans. In the "formation" room, fastidious engineers in pristine lab coats oversee rows of what look like towering floor-to-ceiling metal bookcases. These contraptions charge and discharge stacks of battery cells until the batteries begin to operate on their own. New car batteries are born here every day.
LG Chem's engineers are thrilled they are working on a project for GM. Volt project leader Shin Youngjoon said he was "happy" and "proud". Ham said winning the job validated his team's hard work. "We are a pioneer in this area," he told me. Developing batteries for cars is "new land" - land that can be conquered by anyone with the wherewithall to compete. "We are confident," Ham told me.
And the good engineers at LG Chem will need that confidence as their company invests in a shaken industry on the cusp of a new era.
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