back to article US-funded breakthrough battery tech just simply handed over to China

When US national laboratories develop a new technology, Uncle Sam is supposed to ensure it is commercialized in America. But that's not what happened with what's said to be a breakthrough battery design.  A vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB) design created at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has wound up in the …

  1. aerogems Silver badge
    FAIL

    That sucks and all

    But, big picture, as long as SOMEONE is making these new breakthrough batteries, we're all better off. Breakthroughs in battery tech, that are actually production ready, are pretty rare, so let's get cranking!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ... long potential lead times

    UniEnergy was unable to find any US investors. He said they were dissuaded due to the long potential lead times on returns.

    The reason they were dissuaded is because bulk liquid capital ready to invest and catch the next credit stimulus with millisecond precision give the best returns.

    That how worship of stock market indices as the altar of capitalism has conversely created a socialism of wealth funds, while destroying US manufacturing.

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: ... long potential lead times

      I don't understand how this can be a "Socialism". It's uber-capitalist. All that matters to the beancounters is short term investment that, yes, increases share value in the immediate term.

      Pure market economy. The centralised control of or in investment that would ensure long-term development is ensured is completely missing.

      1. Snake Silver badge

        Re: "socialism"

        It's "corporate socialism" because profits are privatized, kept, whilst losses are socialized, allowed to be written off or at the least as a deduction allowance.

        In the case of a VC venture, the C-suite decision makers are playing with someone else's money: if they win, they get a slice of the profits along with personal, EOY bonuses; if they lose the investors eat the loss...yet not a dime of previous profits or bonuses ever get a claw-back to help cover those losses to those who actually did the losing.

        It's win-win for Wall Street and corporations, pay-them-a-slice-of-your-pie or lose-completely for the investor with no other recourse. Why else do you think that so many young people end up in finance??

        1. M.V. Lipvig Silver badge

          Re: "socialism"

          "It's "corporate socialism" because profits are privatized, kept, whilst losses are socialized, allowed to be written off or at the least as a deduction allowance."

          Not exactly. Profits are taxes, and a limited amount of losses are deductible, but a large loss can be deducted over several years.

          Can't argue with the rest of your post though.

    2. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: ... long potential lead times

      Because at that early stage they needed VC money not stock market money, and VCs are looking for the next tech unicorn they can ride until IPO and cash out within a 24 month time horizon.

      They don't want to invest in companies that actually MAKE things, because it takes a decade to get mass production going, build a market, expand capacity, etc.

      With software they show the VCs a mostly finished product and all they have to do is put it on the app stores and if it becomes the next Tik Tok meme they can have 100 million customers overnight. Do you know how long it takes to build 100 million units of a physical object? How are you going to get rich overnight that way?

      1. fpx

        Re: ... long potential lead times

        Well that is not entirely true. There was a lot of money flowing into Theranos, and there is also funding for pie in the sky stuff like Boom (supersonic airplanes), never mind autonomous electric flying taxi gadgets. All of these technologies have long lead time, and a very high risk of not actually returning any profit, ever.

        There is plenty of money slushing around for high-risk, long-term endeavours. But maybe an incremental improvement in battery tech is not as sexy as a supersonic passenger jet.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: ... long potential lead times

          VCs tend to pile money into this stuff on the basis that 1-10% will show a return

          The bigger problem is that stuff which might show a return in the long term frequently gets dumped if there are hurdles in favour of the easier pickings

        2. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: ... long potential lead times

          They may have bet on those on the logic that retail investors would pile in after the IPO and they could cash out before they had to actually manufacture commercial quantities of do-it-all blood test kits, quiet supersonic jets, or electric robo hover taxis.

          Retail investors are more likely to flood in and overprice stocks for things targeted at them like Teslas or the aforementioned products. They are not going to do it for giant batteries that utilities buy. How are the Kardashians going to promote those on Tik Tok and make them go viral?

          But show them getting on a Boom jet and bragging about getting from NYC to LA in 3 hours and the stock price would triple by the end of the next trading day after they imagined all the airlines buying them.

    3. O RLY

      Re: ... long potential lead times

      “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”

      - P.J. O'Rourke

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In reality, this was never likely to be sited in the US.

    Dumb that we handed an advanced battery technology to China right before getting into a huge pissing contest with them (and not just the Pelosi thing, that's a drop in the bucket and a literal ego trip on her part).

    That aside the roadblocks to stateside manufacturing are such that it was always more likely to get set up outside the US. If it was it is still isn't likely to have amounted to much in the way of jobs in the long run, as we have seen in the battery and solar factories we stood up in the last decade. Both piloted plants here that leveraged the local talent pools for advanced factory automation, then when the kinks were worked out, started opening additional in other markets.

    This noise about US manufacturing is just an election year talking point and a smoke screen for the march of domestic job losses to process automation. It also distracts us from the mismanagement of technologies generated by taxpayer funded R&D. The government has a tendency to sell off such technologies for pennies on the dollar, allowing the company who acquires the license to a successful technology to reap the profits for decades instead of the taxpayers that funded it. Same for drugs discovered based government researchers work, then sold back to it at pirate's rates.

    We should be less afraid of owning and operating business based on these technologies in the public or national interest. It would be one way to start building a national wealth fund to offset the long term costs of government, which might also give our representatives less incentive to sell us out on the cheap.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: In reality, this was never likely to be sited in the US.

      The govt doesn't really sell the technologies for "pennies on the dollar" - that's what they are worth.

      The fact is that promising ideas are really just problems someone else has to solve. That's why you can't license good ideas out, except in exceptional cases. No one wants to do all the hard, slow, capital intensive work (which you wouldn't do), and then hand you the profits. It's just a fantasy of tech investors that it would happen.

      I've been in several tech businesses that began with the cute idea they would license the tech, someone else would make it (taking all the greif), and "my god how the money rolls in"

      Good on the Chinese who will do the hard graft and investment to make stuff, and do so at "pennies on the dollar" margins.

      The US business addiction to "dollars on the penny" business models is the issue here. When a US business that has invested billions, (looking at you google) doesn't make a river of gold, it just shuts the doors, on what in Asian hands would be considered a tidy little earner.

    2. gandalfcn Silver badge

      Re: In reality, this was never likely to be sited in the US.

      The Brits have been doing it for years, still are, but it has usually been the US that has jumped in and reaped the benefits, So it seems the USA is now replicating the decline of another empirie.

    3. pag12345

      Re: In reality, this was never likely to be sited in the US.

      Read my post about this technology. There is a place for VRFBs but not this specific technology.

    4. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: In reality, this was never likely to be sited in the US.

      "Manufacturing" (as politicians talk about it) is an illusion and jobs aren't ever coming back - they never really left, they just evaporated

      As an illustration:

      The 10,000 worker factory in Detroit became a 1500 worker factory in Sonora - 8500 jobs DIDN'T go to Mexico.

      If that factory moved back to the USA it would likely become a 400 worker plant in Kansas (including the gardener)

      What "killed jobs" wasn't outsourcing but simple lack of flexibility. Each new generation of technology needs fewer people to operate it

      "Full employment" hasn't existed for a long time. The demise of child labour and sweatshops owe as much to that as the improving social/economic conditions that came with better productivity/technologies.

      For the last century there have been all kinds of methods used to mask the issue (keeping married women out of the workforce, discriminatory practices, etc) instead of facing up to it and rejigging society to stop defining people's worth by their "job" and telling them it's their own fault if they can't find work

      Our schools exist to beat children into a mental shape that fits a factory floor and hours that simply don't exist anymore. Fundamental changes are needed

      1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

        Re: In reality, this was never likely to be sited in the US.

        "Each new generation of technology needs fewer people to operate it" and this results in fewer people understanding the new generation technical details. So we are losing our technical experts when the products move to other countries. Once upon a time when someone needed a little amplification in a device you could get a transistor and a couple of resistors, then we started replacing then with an op-amp ... and nowadays people go to Amazon etc to buy a device because they have no clues how to create one themselves.

  4. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Sounds familar

    original license specifying that a certain number of batteries had to be sold in the US, which had to be "substantially manufactured" domestically as well

    Congress allowed ULA to buy Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V on the condition that ULA start manufacturing the engines here, with a promise of funding.

    Said funding was not approved, so we're launching American spysats using Russian engines.

    Now that Russia has turned off the flow of engines (several years ago) Congress panicked and the result is Blue Origin supposedly developing BE-4 engines for Vulcan Centaur which is the successor to the Atlas V. Those engines are now 5 years late.

    So yeah, another American own-goal. At least in the space arena, we have Elon Musk, who might not be that competent, but he's got a lot more done than any one else.

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Sounds familar

      Yes, sounds VERY familiar...

      https://www.theregister.com/2022/07/07/fbi_and_mi5_china_warning/

      *facepalm*

    2. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Sounds familar

      "At least in the space arena, we have Elon Musk, who might not be that competent, but he's got a lot more done than any one else."

      I would suggest that in terms of space flight Musk has demonstrated more competence than basically anyone else in recent history.

      He has been pretty ruthlessly focussed on a single long term aim, and SpaceX has developed (almost as sideline technology en route to his vision) an incredibly successful launch vehicle, which is much more reusable than any previous vehicle (oh how people laughed when they started trying to land F9 boosters), and now has multiple orbital class boosters which have flown 10 times or more, and they are launching more flights per year than everyone else combined.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Sounds familar

        "He has been pretty ruthlessly focussed on a single long term aim,

        hahahahahahahahahaha. Elon focussed? Ever seen a graph on his Twitter usage. He flits from one thing to the next faster than a small rodent on meth.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Big deal!

    Nearly every single leading US university lab or research institute is chock full of Chinese employees so all the information of any note is fed back to the Middle Kingdom, regardless of licensing agreements.

    1. gandalfcn Silver badge

      Re: Big deal!

      Paranoia is treatable you know,

      Stupidity? Maybe.

      1. localzuk Silver badge

        Re: Big deal!

        Not exactly paranoia, China is a hotbed of IP theft. Partly through this sort of behaviour, and partly through everyone sending everything to be built there.

        1. Lordrobot

          Re: Big deal!

          LOOKS like the US stole this battery IP from Australia

          Here is the patent...

          M. Skyllas-Kazacos, M. Rychcik and R. Robins, in AU Patent 575247 (1986), to Unisearch Ltd.

          1. Snake Silver badge

            Re: Here's the patent

            And here's the North American / Europe / Africa licensing agreement

            https://eepower.com/news/vrb-signs-final-agreement-with-pinnacle-vrb/

      2. katrinab Silver badge
        Alien

        Re: Big deal!

        Is it paranoia to suggest that people go to university to learn things?

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Big deal!

      Full of chinese employees who happen to be coming up with the ideas too

      China was THE powerhouse of intellectual delevopment (philosophical and manufacturing) until only a couple of centuries ago. They're not backwards, just catching up again

    3. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: Big deal!

      If people would stop playing Cold War 2 for five minutes they'd realize that these 'employees' are just people like you and I. They'd also know that the "Middle Kingdom" doesn't exist the way that propaganda writers portray it for the rubes. The bald facts about China and Chinese are simple -- there's a lot of them, some of them are off the scale clever, they're mostly industrious sorts and they tend to be entrepreneurial. In fact, model American citizens.

      The problem with US corporations, like UK ones, is that they're too capitalist. They money's not in developing technologies for the long term, its in buying up houses and apartments and putting the rent up. Its not a new phenomenon -- British industry was killed off decades ago by this mindset (so the money people had to resort to fire sales of public property to make a fast buck/pound -- lots of stored value got transferred from the public. All that's happened is the same mindset has taken over the US. (The Gilded Age Robber Barons would have been horrified to see this.)

  6. Kev99 Silver badge

    So what else is new? TVs, CDs, transistors, refrigerators, cars, the list goes on. America invents it and the corporate know-it-alls give it away to Asia so their bacl pockets can get fatter gaster.

    1. Sampler

      CDs - Netherlands 1979

      Refrigerator - Germany 1876

      Cars - Invented in Germany & France in the 1800's

      I'll give you the TV (San Fran 1927), so, you know, America's as culpable as others in taking others inventions and running with them..

      1. gandalfcn Silver badge

        John Logie Baird demonstrated the world's first live working television system on 26 January 1926.

        1. werdsmith Silver badge

          John Logie Baird demonstrated the first transmission of moving images. But his contraptions made of bicycle parts and spinning wooden disk was not ever going to become a TV. He quickly abandoned his method and copied the US one.

          1. gandalfcn Silver badge

            Yes dear. So he was the first.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Well no. He implemented a Nipkow disc (1885) system. What Baird made had zero chance of being improved into a functioning television, it was a gimmick.

              It was Farnsworth who invented, and implemented, functional television, and he got the whole shebang working, in a remarkably short time. He was truly a genius.

      2. Alan Brown Silver badge

        AT&T might have demonstrated the point contact transistor first, but the technology we actually use is based on the thick film transistor Philips demonstrated a few weeks later and that was in widespread use whilst AT&T were still trying to get workable yields on the point contact design (let alone generally consistent devices)

        (there was a race to produce the first working one once the theory was established)

        1. MachDiamond Silver badge

          "AT&T might have demonstrated the point contact transistor first, but the technology we actually use is based on the thick film transistor Philips demonstrated a few weeks later and that was in widespread use whilst AT&T were still trying to get workable yields on the point contact design (let alone generally consistent devices)"

          Anybody that works at the forefront of science and engineering knows that these thing emerge when it's their time to emerge. This often means that it can look like an invention or discovery was made in different places only separated by days. A good read that shows a bunch of example is "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. The same concept is a key point in "Raising Steam" by Terry Pratchett and is also mentioned in "Outland" by Dennis E. Taylor. There are also many stories that stem from the race to discover all of the elements suggested by Mendeleev's Periodic Table.

    2. gandalfcn Silver badge

      Transistors? Dubious.

      How about radar systems, the foundation for the US electronics industry, antibiotics, Maurice Wilkes’ pioneering efforts in developing the first commercial application of the computer and Frank Whittle's jet engine? All Brit but exploited by the US.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Unhappy

        And LCD's were invented at RSRE Malvern

        As it was then.

        But they tried to license the tech and the Japanese thought it too expensive.

        They developed their own. It was inferior at first

        They got better.

    3. Warm Braw Silver badge

      Not to mention that the US in the 19C was ripping off European intellectual "property" right left and centre. The rules are intended to protect the interests of incumbents and the only way emerging economies can emerge is to ignore them.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        The British stole both silk and tea from China earlier on too. It's one of the many stolen technologies that helped them build their trade

        1. Lis

          I’ll just leave this here

          https://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2018/07/30/ip_theft_is_what_once_helped_make_america_great_103367.html

  7. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Trollface

    "Whether the manager or anyone else at the lab or Department of Energy thought to check"

    Welcome to modern management.

    It's only after the horse has bolted that they think of closing the gate.

    Thank God we have all those MBAs.

  8. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    FAIL

    I wonder who OK'd this?

    And did the people looking for the license understand the serious amount of money involved?

    And did the person doing the license understand that?

    Of course we should not ascribe to malice what simple incompetence would explain.

    But woundn't there be an SOP covering this situation to be worked through?

    1. John 104

      Re: I wonder who OK'd this?

      Follow the money...

  9. pag12345

    Multi-acid design

    This is the mixed acid design which adds hydrochloric to the usual sulfuric acid which has been used in VRFBs for a while. Adding the hydrochloric allows for roughly doubling the energy density of the electrolyte. Of course you still need twice the dissolved vanadium so the primary advantage is being able to make the battery system smaller. However, this comes at a cost in two ways. One, HCL is significantly more corrosive to seals than just H2SO4 so it is actually quite an engineering challenge to make a system which doesn't leak for a decent amount of time. Remember that what leaks is extremely hazardous so any battery must have secondary containment to be able to hold at least 110% of the volume of contained electrolyte. The second problem is that adding HCL adds chlorine to the system so under certain circumstances the battery can emit chlorine gas which is highly toxic. You better be darn sure of the design of such a battery put in your house. Are you absolutely SURE the vent (and these all need to be vented for expansion and contraction) is outside and the wind won't blow the gas into your house? I was in this industry and engineered a commercial system which made it to market. I *may* be convinced to place a sulfuric acid based system (they all contain small amounts of phosphoric acid) in my house but would never place one with HCL near my family. So sure we "gave" the technology to China or wherever but I would say, let them have it so long as they don't go installing it in the USA.

    1. low_resolution_foxxes Silver badge

      Re: Multi-acid design

      Thank you for this explanation. Appreciated

      Soooo, usual toxic sludge huh? No wonder they moved the manufacture to Asia. There was probably too much paperwork and regulatory barriers to build in USA...

  10. low_resolution_foxxes Silver badge

    These kind of articles really need to state the original patent. Given that the "original work" took place 2006-2012, the patents probably expire in 2026-2032.

    Evaluating a patent is hard because you need to understand the protected patent claim, figure out any obvious workarounds, the context, whether a patent could be thrown out due to prior art/obviousness etc.

    Vanadium flow redox basically requires vanadium oxide and sulphuric acid. If their patent is "they developed a special mix of acid and electrolytes that they claim is twice as powerful" I'm dubious what they actually patented? Did they just find a way to stack chemical tanks to make them bigger and more powerful?

    1. Irony Deficient Silver badge

      These kinds of articles really need to state the original patent.

      Agreed.

      If their patent is “they developed a special mix of acid and electrolytes that they claim is twice as powerful” I’m dubious what they actually patented?

      See below for my guess of which is the relevant patent — a link to that patent can be found on the page which that comment links to.

  11. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge
    Facepalm

    It's unclear if DoE's withdrawal of Rongke's license will stop it building the batteries

    Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

    [pauses for breath]

    Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

    Behave! This is firmly beyond the DoE's reach now, and ever shall be. Uncle Sam could protest diplomatically, it might even put Rongke's leadership on watchlists so they are arrested on spurious charges if they pass through US territories, but that horse has long since bolted.

    1. low_resolution_foxxes Silver badge

      Re: It's unclear if DoE's withdrawal of Rongke's license will stop it building the batteries

      What would be interesting to check is whether the DoE applied for just EU/USA patents

      Remember, "USA patents" do not cover Chinese sales unless there is a valid Chinese patent.

      It wasn't that common to patent tech in China back in 2006.

      They wouldn't be able to sell it in the USA...

  12. Auntie Dix Bronze badge
    Stop

    Traitorous IP Giveaway to Communist China

    "By 2017, Yang had granted Rongke a sublicense to manufacture the PNNL VRFBs in China despite his original license specifying that a certain number of batteries had to be sold in the US, which had to be 'substantially manufactured' domestically as well... Yang acknowledged he didn't do that, selling few batteries in the US, all of which were made in China."

    Gary Yang appears to be an unpunished criminal and traitor.

    His deliberate words and actions constitute circumvention of U.S. law. Governmental ineptitude does not excuse his misappropriation of taxpayer-funded trade secrets.

    Mr. Chinese Surname deserves at least life in prison (if not execution, in my book), depending on court findings. Maybe, he could get work release in a U.S.-based VRFB factory.

    1. Lordrobot

      Re: Traitorous IP Giveaway to Communist China

      Looks like the US STOLE the AUSTRALIAN PATENT!

      M. Skyllas-Kazacos, M. Rychcik and R. Robins, in AU Patent 575247 (1986), to Unisearch Ltd.

  13. Smeagolberg

    Infinite? Really?

    'infinitely discharged and recharged for as long as 30 years'

    If your take on 'infinite' is right vast edifices of mathematics and everything built on them will come crashing down.

  14. Lordrobot

    As I recall Dr Demming was rejected by the USA and went to JAPAN...

    " UniEnergy was unable to find any US investors." So without investors, the battery never would have been built.

    I feel like RONCO late at night.... But there's more...

    US patents only apply to the USA. They do not apply in Europe or Asia. Separate patents must be filed. Wait there's more....

    This crap wasn't invented in Murica.... YOU don't say... NOPE... AUSTRALIA by a WOMAN.... HOLY CRAP!

    M. Skyllas-Kazacos, M. Rychcik and R. Robins, in AU Patent 575247 (1986), to Unisearch Ltd.

    Maria Skyllas-Kazacos presented the first successful demonstration of dissolved vanadium in a solution of sulfuric acid in the 1980s. Her design was patented by the University of New South Wales in Australia in 1986. WHAT THE HE...LL?

    That's right Murcia stole the Australian IP and did one of the usual Walk over patents so common in the USA.... "Well we changed the electrodes ... see the dimples we put into the tips?

    While I am talking about patents let me talk about one US PATENT... called a blocking Patent. This venerable lawyer patented a wire through a fabric. And when the wearable fad broke briefly, this chap sewed everyone that pushed a wire through a fabric to get to a 5 volt battery effectively blocking designs until he was paid. Splendid.

    This article is just another in the long list for your reading pleasure to be filed under the "CHINA STOLE MURICAN TECHNOLOGY CUZ THE GOV OFFSHORED IT!"

    1. Irony Deficient Silver badge

      M. Skyllas-Kazacos, M. Rychcik and R. Robins, in AU Patent 575247 (1986), to Unisearch Ltd.

      In 1986, the term of an Australian patent was sixteen years. Thus, this Australian patent expired in 2002.

      US patents only apply to the USA. They do not apply in Europe or Asia. Separate patents must be filed.

      Absolutely correct — and analogously, Australian patents only apply within Australia. Did the University of New South Wales also apply for patent protection for this invention in other countries?

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: M. Skyllas-Kazacos, M. Rychcik and R. Robins, in AU Patent 575247 (1986), to Unisearch Ltd.

        Good point. But in any sane jurisdiction, you can't patent something which has already been invented and patented so long ago the patent expired. If so, then maybe I can patent the wheel. Mine won't actually be round. It'll simply have many thousands of flat bits made into an almost round shape. My patent, of course, will include any and all possible numbers of flat bits so once I set my expensive lawyers and physicists loose, you'll find to your cost that when taken to the extreme, there are no round wheels in existence so they all infringe my new patent.

        1. Irony Deficient Silver badge

          Re: M. Skyllas-Kazacos, M. Rychcik and R. Robins, in AU Patent 575247 (1986), to Unisearch Ltd.

          in any sane jurisdiction, you can't patent something which has already been invented and patented so long ago the patent expired.

          Judging from the list of patents from the Institute of Integrated Catalysis at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the patent in question is not something that had already been invented; my guess (given that I am completely without skill in this field) is that the relevant patent is US 9123931, which covers supporting solutions for this type of battery rather than the battery itself. This patent cites (among others) US 4786567, by Skyllas-Kazacos, Rychick, and Robins (for which Unisearch Ltd was the assignee), which is the US analogue of AU 575247.

          maybe I can patent the wheel.

          Best of luck to you with that.

        2. katrinab Silver badge
          Trollface

          Re: M. Skyllas-Kazacos, M. Rychcik and R. Robins, in AU Patent 575247 (1986), to Unisearch Ltd.

          That's OK, I'll just visit my local transport museum, find a vehicle that was made before you were born that also infringes your patent, and use it as proof of prior art.

  15. Tron

    Climate change will not stop at national borders.

    Any tech that gives us an edge in mitigating climate change should be released to all comers without restrictions, the inventor being paid from a single global fund.

    No nation, including the US, should be allowed to hog such tech.

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