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Friday, March 1, 2024

Lithium leader Albemarle steps up R&D game

North Carolina’s prominence in the electric-vehicle sector got another jolt this week when Albemare Corp. said it would invest $180 million in a 200-employee R&D site in northeast Charlotte. The company says it will triple the number of its Ph.D. professionals because of the increased investment.

The mining company’s plan was aided by pledges of $7.2 million from Charlotte, $4.2 million from Mecklenburg County and $1.6 million from the state. The local investments still require approval, while the state deal hinges on meeting job and investment targets.

Albemarle moved its headquarters to Charlotte from Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2016, aided by $2 million in incentives. When it announced the move in 2015, its shares traded for about $45. They closed at about $250 yesterday, reflecting increasing demand for Albemare’s lithium, which is used in many sectors but most prominently automobile batteries. The company’s market value of $29 billion makes it one of the state’s most valuable companies.

Albemarle placed its headquarters in Charlotte’s SouthPark area in a building developed by Lincoln Harris. But the tech center will be near the UNC Charlotte campus in a building initially occupied by IBM. San Francisco developer Shorenstein bought the 400,000-square-foot building for $10.5 million in 2019 and planned an $80 million renovation, the Charlotte Business Journal reported.

Glen Merfeld

I asked Glen Merfeld, the company’s chief technology officer, about the move. With a doctoral degree in chemical engineering from the University of Texas, he worked for GE for many years before joining Albemarle in 2018.

Your company owns more than 2,000 patents and has hundreds more pending. How will this investment affect your scope of activity?

This represents a significant expansion in our research and development efforts.  We expect this to increase our intellectual property output and accelerate new process development and new product launches.

Albemarle spent about $64 million on R&D in 2021 and $59 million in 2020. Will that change significantly in 2023, onward? 

We plan to continue to grow our team of leading scientists and engineers and are actively hiring.

Where has most of the research been done to date?

Our Technology Center in Kings Mountain has been the site for much of our energy storage, focused lithium materials research and process development. At the same time, we leverage our global footprint, notably our specialty chemical expertise and manufacturing facility in Langelsheim, Germany.

Will much of the expanded research effort focus on your automotive-battery-related work? 

At the Albemarle Technology Park, our R&D efforts will span from mine-to-market and broadly include aspects of lithium extraction and purification processes, novel lithium materials, and new recycling pathways.  Our advanced lithium materials will help batteries of the future achieve breakthrough levels of performance.

After a lengthy career at GE, what has been your experience at Albemarle as it’s gained a central role in the lithium industry?

GE provided a great foundation for scientific excellence with focus on solving critical problems. At Albemarle, we’re in a terrific position to expand our leadership in technology differentiated processes and products. This starts at our resources and how we apply cutting edge methods to improve access to lithium and its sustainable recovery, extends into our conversion and manufacturing processes, and culminates in novel lithium materials that can enable breakthrough levels of battery performance. It was terrific to work for a technology leader like GE, it’s phenomenal to now help build Albemarle into a lithium technology leader.

Albemarle has many diversified customers, but is much of your research focused on automotive customers?

Our lithium developments are broadly relevant to all applications of lithium batteries including EVs, mobility, grid, and consumer electronics.  But with electric vehicles representing the highest growth and often the more demanding of higher performance (greater safety, faster charge, and higher energy density), much of our new product development will be closely aligned with the EV market.

 

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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