Summary:

GM and LG Chem are licensing a broad suite of patents from Argonne National Laboratory to develop lithium-ion battery cells and packs for next-generation electric cars. LG Chem will use the IP to make cells in Michigan starting next year.

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General Motors is turning to a national lab for battery technology that will be crucial for its push to peddle electric cars. The company on Thursday announced a licensing agreement with Argonne National Laboratory for the lab’s composite cathode material.

Argonne is granting a worldwide licensing of its composite cathode material, a combination of  lithium and manganese oxides, for making lithium-ion cells. The license isn’t exclusive and covers only GM vehicles, though Argonne officials declined to name other licensees. GM plans use the intellectual property to develop battery packs that will last longer, as well as be safer and possibly cheaper, said Jon Lauckner, president of GM Ventures, on a conference call with reporters.

“We believe this will give us access to cutting-edge technology not for current vehicles, but rather future electrified vehicles,” Lauckner said.

LG Chem, a battery cell supplier to GM, also licensed the cathode material to make lithium-ion cells for the Chevy Volt, the plug-in hybrid electric car GM launched late last year. The agreement with LG Chem only covers the U.S. market, and LG Chem can use it to develop cells for customers other than GM.

The Korea-based battery cell maker does plan to use the cathode material in the cells it will produce at its new factory in Michigan starting in 2012, said Mohamed Alamgir, research director of LG Chem Power, during the conference call. Cells from that factory will end up in the Volt.

A battery is made up of anode on one side and cathode on the other, with electrolyte in between. Lithium ions travel from the anode to the cathode through the electrolyte, creating a chemical reaction that allows electrons to be harvested along the way. Argonne is licensing a set of patents to the two companies, and some patents dated back to a decade earlier.

Argonne’s cathode material promises to prolong the battery’s operating time and its overall life span. It also will allow higher-voltage charging in the cells, which means denser energy storage, as well as improve the battery’s safety. But officials from GM, Argonne and LG Chem couldn’t provide specific comparisons showing how the new technology can produce better cells. Eric Issacs, director of the Argonne, did say the cells should be able to store twice the energy, as measured by weight. But the new cathode material won’t enable battery cells to achieve the same energy density as gasoline.

The reluctance to provide concrete examples didn’t seem to only come from a desire not to divulge technical details. For GM, Argonne’s intellectual property forms the basis for research and development efforts to commercialize it, and that will take years, Lauckner said. He also noted that GM will be improving the anode and electrolyte materials as well, so it’s difficult to say for now how much better or cheaper new batteries will be with technology from Argonne.

The licensing deals give the U.S. Department of Energy a chance to brag about the research it has funded. The federal government has awarded billions of dollars in the past two years to spur the development and commercialization of electric cars. Companies that have benefited from the largess include GM, LG Chem, Ford, and a host of other businesses, universities and national labs.

LG Chem is building a $303 million factory in Michigan with a $151.4 million grant from the DOE.

The licensing agreements show “the benefit of investing in science and innovation, “said Cathy Zoi, acting under-secretary of energy at DOE, during the conference call. Late last year, Zoi’s boss, Secretary of Energy Steve Chu, warned that the United States is losing its innovation edge quickly because it lags other countries in investing in science and technology.

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