OCHANG, North Chungcheong Province -- An automated assembly line at chemical and battery firm LG Chem’s Ochang Plant 1 here was busily ferrying a long battery separator sheet attached with positive and negative plates.
Along the assembly line, the sheet was folded, or rather rolled, in layers and then cut and packaged to turn into square, thin pouch-type battery cells.
The lithium-ion battery cells will later be mounted on electric cars of around 20 global automotive makers, including Ford, Volkswagen and Hyundai Motor.
LG Chem CEO Park Jin-soo
Since 2009 when LG Chem started manufacturing rechargeable batteries for U.S. carmaker GM’s electric vehicle Chevrolet Volt, the Korean firm‘s production capability for EV batteries in Ochang Plant 1 has increased six times to 50 million battery cells a year, which can power 10,000 gas-electric hybrid Sonata sedans by Hyundai Motor.
The number falls short of the firm’s previous target at 60 million for 2015 due mainly to a slower-than-expected growth of the global EV market.
As Chinese and other governments are implementing stricter emission regulations and making a push for environmentally friendly cars, it is anticipated that the global EV market will prosper in the next five years.
In order to respond swiftly to increasing demands of EV batteries, the LG Group’s battery unit is ramping up the production of EV batteries while mulling a plan to build an additional overseas production base, possibly, in Europe. The company operates plants for lithium-ion batteries in Holland, Michigan in the U.S. and Nanjing, China.
Vowing to lead the global EV battery market, LG Chem CEO Park Jin-soo said the company would soon roll out batteries whose driving range can outrun the Model S of U.S. electric car firm Tesla. The Model S can drive 450 kilometers on a single full charge.
“LG Chem has the upper hand in technical competitiveness, such as high energy density, and it will collaborate with global auto companies to make electric cars with a longer range in the coming years,” Park said at a press meeting held at the Ochang industrial complex last Friday.
He added that customers can see EVs that can travel more than 500 kilometers up and running in as early as 2019.
The company has developed batteries for electric vehicles that can run more than 320 kilometers and is working on developing new ones for longer-range EVs in collaboration with global carmakers.
LG Chem workers check the pouch-type lithium-ion battery cells manufactured at the firm’s production lines at Ochang Plant 1, in Ochang, North Chungcheong Province. (LG Chem)
Touching upon the current difficult business environment, which he said is worse than during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis, he emphasized the importance of taking “preemptive changes for future growth.”
“Like a tree that can live hundreds of years, a business should swiftly adapt to external environments and pursue constant and sustainable changes,” said Park, who has led the chemical and battery firm for more than 14 years.
He said the lithium-ion battery is the best option among other battery peers available out on the market. But the CEO said LG Chem is bracing for the unforeseeable future, conducting research and development projects for new battery technologies -- for example, lithium-air and lithium-sulfur batteries, which are considered possible replacements for lithium-ion.
Around 1,100 researchers are now working for the Seoul-based battery maker, up from merely 50 in 1998 when the firm first jumped into the secondary battery business. The annual R&D investment of the firm for secondary batteries stands at 250 billion won ($209 million), up from 10 billion won during the same period.
Global market research firm B3 forecast that the world’s electric car battery market will grow to 18.8 trillion won in 2020 from 6.4 trillion won in 2015.
CEO Park said the company will also accelerate its efforts to bolster the businesses for water filters and energy storage systems.
LG Chem, which acquired U.S.-based water filter firm NanoH20 in 2014, has invested 40 billion won to build a production line for water filters in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province.
Some market research firms expected that the world’s ESS market would grow to up to 18 trillion won in 2020 from the current 2 trillion won.
By Kim Young-won (email@example.com