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Williamston battery company shoots for growth

By Mark Bashore, WKAR News


East Lansing, MI –

A Williamston company is expanding its niche in Michigan's rapidly growing battery sector. Many manufacturers and policymakers are enthusiastic about the potential of lithium ion batteries to power everything from motorcycles to city lighting systems. WKAR's Mark Bashore visited the offices of U.S. United Energy Systems. With one battery already in production and other projects about to be launched, he found a company hoping to grow its green energy footprint.


Stepping into David Sterrett's cluttered office at U.S. United Energy Systems is like walking into an industrial designer's dreamscape. There are schematics of cutting edge vertical windmills, and photos of the latest municipal lighting systems. The large metal parts of a kit for converting a car's electrical system from gasoline to lithium batteries are spread on a nearby table. Most prominently, a pair of 11-pound lithium batteries--one green, one yellow--sits on the desk of the 53-year old General Motors retiree. The scene captures his company's dual mission: to sell new lithium battery products on the market, and to sell their merits to the public.

"I see mass energy storage and high capacity batteries as the next industrial revolution for the whole world," Sterrett says.

State officials have made clear their desire to put Michigan at the center of the green battery landscape as it moves toward electricity to power vehicles. A year ago, 12 in-state projects received a total of 1.3 billion dollars in Department of Energy grants funded by the Recovery Act to support advanced battery and electric vehicle development. That was more than all other states combined.

Now, after three years researching products and applications, Sterret's battery is in production. Within 60 days, they expect to introduce a new solar panel. And by the first of the year, they expect to start producing a lithium-powered motorcycle. Its battery could end up driving boat engines and autos. With all of these products, Sterrett feels his company's biggest selling point is the progress it's making in its Battery Management System, or BMS. That's a unit that monitors a battery's "vital signs;" its temperature, power input and output -- making important adjustments along the way.

"The battery management system makes everything work and interface into the world," says Sterrett. "And from there we go to vertical windmills, solar systems, electric vehicle conversions, control systems for electric vehicles, boats, motorcycles "

But for all the media wattage generated by Michigan's emerging battery sector, a small, opinionated group of skeptics exists. Some point to potential shortages of lithium. Automaker Mitsubishi, which is about to enter the electric car market, fears demand could outpace supply in under 10 years. Jeff Sakamoto is an Electrical Engineering professor at Michigan State University who studies advanced battery technology. Though he favors the trend away from petroleum, he admits the new technology poses challenges. One of them is safety.

"They're going to get hot," Sakamoto says. "The auto industry is very, very aware of this and they've gone to great lengths; I know in the Chevy Volt in particular, they go to great lengths to make sure the thermal management onboard those electric vehicles is appropriate, to keep them safe."

Sakamoto says the industry is addressing these challenges and the transition will be worth it. Many others observers agree.

"You look at Michigan, we use five billion gallons of gasoline a year," says James Clift, the policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council. "And that is having a major impact on our climate, our economy and all sorts of things. We view this move toward electrification as nothing but positive."

Meanwhile, David Sterrett and his partners at U.S. United Energy Systems are thinking big. In addition to product development, they're advancing a couple of splashier ideas including a race at Michigan International Speedway for alternative energy vehicles. They've also begun exploring the feasibility of more green technology ventures in Williamston. They hope city officials will agree to a plan to survey the community on the idea.

reWorking Michigan
For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan

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