75% cut in U.S. research money could lead to Chinese battery raid

Argonne National Laboratory

Leading U.S. battery researchers say a proposed 75% cut in federal funding could set back U.S. hopes to dominate the future of batteries and electric cars, and lead to a raid of U.S. talent by China and others in the technological race.

The mood is somber this week at an annual conference in Washington, DC, where hundreds of battery researchers from universities and U.S. federal labs are presenting their latest findings, and justifying millions of dollars in U.S. government funding toward the creation of super-batteries for electric cars and the grid.

In interviews, researchers said Congress will probably largely ignore President Donald Trump's proposal, and restore much of the 2018 funding. But, given the intensity of competition for industries expected to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in future sales, they said the best ideas could be wooed away by China, Japan, South Korea or others.

In the Trump administration's proposed Energy Department budget for next year, the funding for advanced battery research falls to about $36 million, from $140 million last year. The budget provides no funding for two showcase research programs _ a $20-million-a-year research hub at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, and ARPA-E, an incubator for high-risk, high-reward battery and other energy projects. "Cutting research budgets for technologies of the future puts us at a competitive disadvantage with countries around the world who are investing in their scientists and entrepreneurs," David Sandalow, a former undersecretary of energy, told Axios.

What's behind this: Trump's rationale is that the federal government is effectively subsidizing research that, if it's justified, companies should pay for and carry out. But energy and technology experts — noting that the federal government funded the early development of today's leading technologies, including cell phones, Siri, GPS and the Internet itself — say federal support is justified given the strategic economic nature of the industries, and the competition from rivals abroad.

A level deeper: Look for a fight in Congress. Claire Curry, a researcher at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, tells Axios that Asian companies are likely to continue dominating the manufacture of batteries. But government research has deep support in Congress, based on its merits and the hard politics that many of the government labs are spread across the country, and thus provide thousands of jobs. Oak Ridge National Lab, for example, is a core part of the Tennessee economy.