April 14th, 2009
12:28 PM GMT
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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.

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Bombardier13

    As a Canadian living in Korea, it's sometimes sickening to see these articles that depict Korea as a technological marvel. For all the buzz you see in the media about Korea, when you actually live here, it's another story altogether. What you are reading here is the American propaganda machine thumbing its nose at China and North Korea. You're trying desprately to show how enlightened are those who play ball with good ol' USA. you couldn't be further from the truth.
    Actually, most commercial buldings in South Korea have no heat in the winter, and rely on electric fan heaters aimed directly at your feet. They have never heard of insulation, or even of closing doors, let alone solar or wind energy (except a token project on Jeju Island). Now, hybrid electric cars? Are you kidding me? They're happy to build parts for them for Europe or America, who have the luxury of caring about the environment, but don't kid yourselves. Koreans could not care less for the environment. They are 100% sold on the american dream, which is turning out to be an ecological nightmare. If you ever spent a day here, watching how people throw trash on the ground, and how corporations here scoff at the virtually non-existent environment protection laws, you would think twice about marveling at how Koreans take off their shoes to go into the factory. They do this because of how disgustingly dirty they have made it outside with their environmental pollution, pools of urine and vomit on public streets due to rampant alcoholism, and general disregard they have for their environment, themsleves, and for others.

    April 14, 2009 at 5:14 pm |
  2. Manuel Vilhena


    Good news to a country that I believe has been doing its best for a long time, South Korea.

    Good news also for GM that has the opportunity to work on hybrid cars.

    Best regards,

    Manuel, Coventry, UK

    April 14, 2009 at 7:41 pm |
  3. Peter A. Jacoby

    Could this be "the end of the beginning"?

    April 14, 2009 at 11:00 pm |
  4. ricky


    April 15, 2009 at 2:07 am |
  5. dan in Tucson

    Don't kid yourself. GM will not keep the Volt, just like the EV that was put out already and squashed by the automaker due to the reason that they realized there was too little profit to be made in an 'engineless' vehicle. They cannot produce a vehicle that has a long life or doesn't need frequent maintenance or their profits will die. The main goal now is to see how they can design in planned obsolesce so you have to buy another one in 3 years. If they can't do it, they won't sell it.

    April 15, 2009 at 3:38 pm |
  6. Bola ogah

    The korean company helping them out sounds really good, but i still wonder why the US government wouldnt bail them out.

    April 16, 2009 at 6:29 pm |
  7. Christopher Meisner

    Will the production of the GM Volt it revolutionize the American auto sector? You bet it will.

    My question is, why is LG manufacturing the components needed for this vehicle in S.Korea and not the United States? Why is there not an American company who can produce these power cells?

    April 17, 2009 at 12:27 pm |
  8. Rob Ho

    Saving GM? How about someone proposing to GM Management and US government that GM try to sell/merge with an upcoming Auto Company like BYD from China. It is likely the Dealerships and GM brands would be attractive for potential buyers who would probably only need to pay $5 Billion for GM. Its better than Bankruptcy.

    April 19, 2009 at 6:31 am |
  9. Phil, Heidelberg, Germany

    Terrific news, not only are the Koreans working to get GM back on its feet and make good for their own country, but GM is finally putting something out that will effect the entire auto industry. Boy, do we need that. Good work Korean people. Thank you, thank you....

    April 20, 2009 at 8:31 am |
  10. Propertycashpointsite

    It sounds like these guys take battery making very seriously.

    April 20, 2009 at 5:12 pm |
  11. Sachin Sampat

    Battery powered cars are the way to go and all that talk abt battery cells being too expensive are all crap. its high time we stopped paying 40$ per hr to the american auto workers and get the same job done for 5$ elsewhere. hybrid cars are the future. oil will be over in the next 50 years. are we ready to pay 4$ per gallon for gas again in 2 years ?

    May 20, 2009 at 5:15 am |
  12. Ram

    Oh boy, America and the Americans are suffering from a total lack of confidence and self-esteem. Batteries to be made from Korea and that Korea is a leading technology country which cares deeply about the enviornment, or the purse? Is making batteries such a daunting task that America cannot do it, particularly when so many trillions are poured in to the bottomless pit of the banking and auto industry? Where is the foresight of the leadership, who would not think it fit to invest couple of billions in to pioneering technologies? I find it amusing for even few Germans praising the Koreans superior technology! Why is that VW or BMW or Merc do not go after the Koreans, extolling Korea's superior technology? Surely, you are allowed to walk in to any of the Bavarian factories with your shoes, yet, you always get the most superior product time and again! America needs self belief and focus more inwards than outwards. Time is running out

    May 23, 2009 at 2:18 pm |
  13. Quakeulf

    As a future car buyer, the Volt will not sell me over at all. I try my best to think of the environment and spend as little as possible on travelling. I know the deal with fuel cells is supposed to help the environment, but what does it take to manufacture them? They're not exactly sprouting from the ground, are they?

    May 26, 2009 at 3:06 pm |
  14. Allen

    We must try to avoid polluting the environment. We can do this by
    changing our behaviour and the way we live.
    By using less cars.

    June 8, 2010 at 7:16 pm |

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