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Lithium-ion battery war worth billions reaches U.S.

Bolivia's lithium riches (Luca Galuzzi/Creative Commons)

Two European industrial giants have settled one of the biggest, most arcane and potentially lucrative patent disputes in lithium-ion batteries. As a result, Belgium's Umicore — the loser — can legally export its battery formulation into the United States, but has had to buy a license and pay royalties to Germany's BASF.

Why now? By settling, the companies clear away their bitter, years-long dispute on the cusp of what many experts believe is a coming global boom in the sale of mainstream electric cars. This makes way for the formulation in dispute — known as NMC — to go to battle with the other major lithium-ion battery type racing for domination of this expected new electric car age.

This rival, used by Elon Musk's Tesla, is known as NCA, which Panasonic makes and he puts in all his cars. Most other carmakers use NMC, including GM and BMW. Many experts think one will win command over most of the coming market, with the potential for billions of dollars in profit. Most of the betting is on NMC.

BASF — which sued for patent infringement along with Argonne National Laboratory, the inventor of NMC — said that, as a result of the settlement, it is withdrawing its US federal lawsuit. Tim Weekes, a spokesman for Umicore, told me that the decision "provides clarity for our customers, and on balance a settlement was in the interests of all parties."

For battery fanatics, the case revolved around the obscure atomic-scale features of the NMC cathode, which I wrote about when the case was filed in 2015.

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