American Fork, Utah / Tucson, Arizona

CEO Zhenfang “Jim” Ge is building a cutting-edge battery gigafactory in Arizona, with plans for several more on the horizon.

Since 2016, Ge has served as chairman of the board for Utah-based Lion Energy. That company’s problems sourcing batteries led to the startup of American Battery Factory in 2021. “We found a need for U.S.-made battery cells to supply the energy storage industry,” he says.

Now in pre-production mode, American Battery Factory (ABF) plans to move from Lion Energy’s base of American Fork, Utah, to Tucson, Arizona, when the first phase of its manufacturing facility in the latter city is operational in 2024.

And it’s not just any facility: Ge says it will be the country’s largest gigafactory for the production of lithium iron phosphate (LFP) battery cells at nearly 2 million square feet, to be located on 267 acres at Pima County’s Aerospace Research Campus. The project is expected to total an estimated $1.2 billion in capital investment, with a $3.1 billion in economic impact to Arizona.

“We are in the process of doing the infrastructure and architectural planning,” says Ge. “Once the building is done, we’ll fully move out there.”

Thanks to modular construction techniques, the Tucson factory will be operational “in 12 to 16 months,” says Ge, creating 300 high-paying jobs for the first phase of the factory. That number will scale up to 1,000 cumulative jobs in operations, manufacturing, R&D, automation, leadership, and other positions.

“The State of Arizona is very business-friendly, and the environment, because of the dry climate, is very helpful for battery cell manufacturing,” says Ge of the rationale behind site selection. “Also, the workforce — the University of Arizona and Pima Community College have been very friendly and helpful to supply qualified engineers.”

From the raw materials to delivery of finished batteries, the Tucson facility will be a turnkey operation, says Ge. “The factory will be a very long building. The entire production line from start to finish will be close to 800 meters.”

He also points to “onshoring of the supply chain,” noting, “Besides the manufacturing, we will actually have an R&D center, the American Battery Foundry, which bridges the industry with academia.”

But Tucson is just the beginning. “We are building a network of gigafactories,” says Ge. “The Arizona site will have 16 gigawatts of capacity, and the first phase is three gigawatts. . . . We are open to options. We’re looking at Georgia and other states. We’d like to build factories where our customers are.”

The Tucson facility will supply Lion Energy and other customers to start, says Ge, who served as the chairman of ABF before taking over as the company’s CEO in early 2023.

He sees the mission dovetailing into major paradigm shifts in energy. “We call it the three Ds: decarbonization, decentralization, and digitalization,” says Ge. “For decarbonization, you have to use as much renewable energy as possible, but the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine, so energy storage is really the solution to utilize clean energy. When you do decentralization, the microgrid is also going to be heavily relying on energy storage. With storage, digitalization can be implemented, so you can use software to control and to visualize how energy is being produced, stored, and used.”

Challenges: “For the first year or two, the largest challenge will be coming from supply chain,” says Ge. “We just don’t have an established supply chain in the United States. We are not only just building the cell factory, we are also building up the supply chain.”

The plan is to source as much raw material from North America as possible, he adds. “The cathodes will be a little bit of a problem in the beginning, but we are trying to build a cathode factory with partners on the ABF site. The anode is not a problem — we already have a supplier to supply the anode.”

Opportunities: Ge sees opportunities from the residential market all the way up to the grid. “The market is so big, it’s almost unlimited,” says Ge. “For 12 hours of storage [in the U.S.], we need 5.5 terawatt-hours of capacity. Right now in 2022, the entire United States has built about 9.6 gigawatt-hours of battery storage [or .0096 terawatts]. You see the disparity.”

“Every building in America, from residential to commercial to government buildings, eventually needs energy storage,” he adds. “Right now, electricity is only 15 percent of all energy consumption. . . . Ultimately, that will be six, seven times what it is right now. Besides utilizing more renewable energy, making energy more efficient — less wastage — should be a big portion of it. Energy produced goes into battery storage, then using as much as you need, instead of the current situation: You produce and you use, and more than 60 percent of it is being wasted.”

He adds, “There’s also a national security issue. We don’t want to depend on the foreign supply of batteries made in Asia and other parts of the world. We want those battery cells made in the USA.”

Needs: Capital and about 300 employees to launch the first phase. “We are doing a Series B right now,” says Ge.

Photos courtesy American Battery Factory

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