The Race Is on to Build a Better Battery

At first glance, all seems serene on a spring morning at the research-and-development campus of SK Innovation, one of Korea’s biggest industrial conglomerates. The campus sits in Daejeon, a tidy, planned city an hour’s high-speed-train ride south of Seoul that the national government has built up as a technology hub. Dotting SK’s rolling acres are tastefully modern glass-and-steel buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in a glossy architecture magazine. One contains a library, its tables stocked with rolls of butcher paper and Post-it notes to spur creativity. Another houses an espresso bar where engineers queue for caffeination. A cool breeze blows. Birds chirp. Pink cherry blossoms bloom.

Then Jaeyoun Hwang, who directs business strategy for SK’s R&D operation, steers the Kia electric car in which he is driving me around the campus to a stop at the top of a hill. In front of us looms K-8, a seven-story-tall cube of a building sheathed in matte silver siding and devoid of any visible windows. Its only discernible marking is, at the top corner of one wall, a stylized orange outline of a familiar object: a battery. K-8 appears whimsical, almost a bauble, until Hwang explains that four other buildings on the campus, plus another one under construction, also are for battery research—an activity at SK that employs several hundred people and counting. When I ask to go inside K-8 for a look, Hwang says it’s out of the question. When I raise my camera to take a picture, he stops me. “In this area,” he says, “photographs of the buildings are prohibited.”

SK has a sprawling R&D campus because it has a storied technological pedigree—as Korea’s oldest oil refiner. Now the petrochemical company is hitching its future to electric cars. It has inked deals to make batteries for some of the world’s largest automakers, notably Volkswagen AG, which, following a crippling scandal in which it was found to have deliberately and repeatedly violated pollution rules in producing its diesel vehicles, has pledged a green corporate rebirth, shifting much of its lineup to cars that run on electricity rather than oil. SK has made huge deals with VW and other automakers, including Daimler AG, which says it will sell 10 pure-electric car models by 2022, and Beijing Automotive Group, or BAIC Group, China’s largest maker of pure-electric cars. SK is racing to build massive battery plants in China, Europe, and the United States, including one an hour’s drive from Atlanta. It is moving by 2025 to balloon its battery production, mulling investing some $10 billion in the effort over that span. That’s a serious number even for a behemoth that in its various corporate incarnations, has spent more than a half-century processing black gold sucked from the ground. “These days,” Hwang says of SK’s battery business, “the order volume is huge.”

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Today’s global battery race has two main heats. One, already well underway, is for batteries for electric cars, whose market value the energy-data firm Wood Mackenzie projects will jump to $41 billion in 2024, from $13 billion in 2017. This is the market that has prompted Elon Musk’s Tesla to build a massive battery plant—what Tesla calls a “gigafactory”—in Nevada. This is the market that’s pushing essentially every global automaker—embarrassed by Tesla in the electric-car market and adamant not to be embarrassed anymore—to lob massive orders at SK and other major battery producers, almost all headquartered in Asia. It’s also inducing them to invest in startups promising technological leaps.

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