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The untold story of the lithium-ion battery’s roots in Boston

The batteries that power laptops, smartphones, and electric cars got an early charge in a converted truck garage in Hyde Park.

Nikola Marincic, founder of Battery Engineering, circa 1978.Courtesy of Lidija Ortloff

It’s an unlikely site for high-tech history: a squat, flat-roofed industrial building with a big garage door in front. From the street, it projects a distinctly low-tech air. The sign out front says, “My Grandma’s Coffee Cakes.”

But this converted truck garage at 1636 Hyde Park Ave. in Boston is also the place where the world’s first lithium-ion production battery was made. In 1986, the building was home to a company called Battery Engineering Inc., which, through a strange twist of fate, built the first of the cells that would later light the way to a $30 billion-a-year industry.

And through an even stranger twist of fate, the world would not learn of it for three decades. The global battery community has instead assumed that the first lithium-ion production cells came from Japan.

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How all this came to happen is an unusual story — one that places the lithium-ion battery among the ranks of some of technology’s great garage tales, such as those of Bill Hewlett and David Packard’s audio oscillator and Earl Bakken’s external pacemaker.

It’s fair to say that the rechargeable lithium-ion battery changed the world. It offered higher voltage and packed more energy into less space, and weighed less, than previous consumer batteries. Thus, it shrank camcorders, mobile phones, and laptops, making them more popular and profitable during the 1990s. Two decades later, it also became the power train of choice for electric cars.

But the battery was essentially still a chemistry experiment in June 1986, when two scientists from Asahi Chemical Corporation in Japan showed up at the converted truck garage in Hyde Park. They carried three jars of slurry with them. One jar was marked “positive,” another “negative,” and a third contained a liquid electrolyte with lithium ions in it. The scientists were there to see Nikola Marincic, the owner and founder of Battery Engineering.

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For the two scientists, Marincic’s expertise was critical. He had a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Zagreb in Croatia and was known as a practical man capable of building unusual batteries. As a consultant, he had created batteries for fighter jets at Hughes Aircraft, for pacemakers in the medical industry, for down-hole drilling applications in oil fields, and for US government missile silos. He did all this in the Hyde Park garage, where he had a few machines for winding and sealing battery cells, along with some welding equipment and a dry room — a place of low humidity for working with battery compounds. The building was hardly high-tech, however. Its bare walls were made of concrete block, and its floors were dusty and unfinished.

The two scientists from Japan wanted to know if Marincic could transform their three jars of slurry into a boxful of cylindrical cells, like the kind a consumer might buy at a grocery store. Incredibly, they didn’t know how to do that. Production cells were typically stainless cylinders, like the AA batteries used in millions of radios. Lab batteries were much different — crude assemblies that could be as simple as two beakers of liquid with metal electrodes in each and a voltmeter across them. Their battery worked in a lab but couldn’t be sold as a finished product. And Asahi Chemical of Japan was not a battery manufacturer.

So the scientists wanted Marincic to make one. Their only stipulation was that Marincic tell no one about their new chemistry. They even demanded Marincic record the weights of all materials going in and out, including the scrap, so that nothing could be stolen. “They said, ‘If you want to build the batteries, then don’t ask any more questions,’” Marincic, who still lives in the Boston area, told me. “They didn’t tell us who sent them, and I didn’t want to ask.”

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Marincic’s staff at the converted truck garage included some strong technical talent. At any given time, at least four of his employees had PhDs in chemistry or physics. His business partner, Jim Epstein, was a battery engineer, and the company’s staff included several more engineers, along with a team of assemblers who knew how to use their manufacturing equipment. Their task was to transform Asahi Chemical’s materials into so-called “jelly roll” batteries. Doing so involved laying out flat three-foot-long strips of metal foil, coating each with the ingredients of one of the jars, then layering them — with a separator material between them — and winding them up like a jelly roll, placing them in a stainless steel cylinder, and welding and hermetically sealing the resulting cylinder.

It took two weeks in the summer of 1986 for the Battery Engineering staff to complete the project. During that time, the Japanese visitors stayed in a downtown Boston hotel and traveled by cab to Hyde Park in the mornings. “They were there every day,” says Walter van Schalkwijk, a PhD-level researcher at the facility. “They periodically looked over our shoulders while we worked in the dry room.” When the batteries were finished, Marincic presented the visitors with a cardboard box full of 200 C-sized cells, and the scientists wrote a check for $30,000. They then brought the cells to another local company, NTS in Acton, for an engineering test, before flying their prized possessions back to Japan.

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To be sure, the Battery Engineering team in Hyde Park did not invent the lithium-ion chemistry. That credit goes to many. The battery’s basic concept was developed at Exxon Corporation in New Jersey in 1972; its positive electrode was invented at Oxford University in England in 1980; its negative electrode came from scientists in France and later Japan during the early ’80s; and the full battery chemistry was developed by Asahi Chemical and Sony Corporation in the mid-1980s. The Hyde Park contribution, which has been largely unrecognized until now, was the first production version of a cylindrical, stainless steel lithium-ion cell.

However, the scientists and assemblers in Hyde Park never knew precisely what they were building. Marincic was under strict orders to tell no one the details of the chemistry. And he kept the secret, even from his own employees. “He tried to tell us it was a Navy contract, but we just looked at him and laughed,” van Schalkwijk says. He added that he “had an inkling of what we were working on,” but he and other employees at the company did not know until two years ago that they’d participated in the manufacture of the first lithium-ion production cells. Battery Engineering worked on many projects with unusual materials, almost too many to recall. So by the time the lithium-ion battery reached the market five years later, the suspicions were forgotten.

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Marincic finally revealed the truth after one of the two Japanese scientists, Isao Kuribayashi, mentioned it briefly in a 2015 book, “A Nameless Battery with Untold Stories.” “I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it,” says Arden Johnson, a battery scientist and former employee of Battery Engineering. “But I’ve since talked to other people who were with the company before me, and they didn’t know about it, either.” Johnson says that the story was typical of Marincic — he kept his word.

Asahi Chemical, meanwhile, reaped due credit for its role in the development of the lithium-ion battery. In 2019, Akira Yoshino, a scientist with the Japanese company who is said to once have paid a visit to Battery Engineering, was one of three people to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry for his role. The other two were Stanley Whittingham, who patented the rechargeable lithium battery concept at Exxon in 1972, and John Goodenough, who invented the positive electrode for the first lithium-ion battery while at Oxford University in 1980. The early financial success went to Sony, which coined the term “lithium-ion” and began selling large volumes of the cells in 1991.

Today, the story of the lithium-ion battery in Hyde Park is still a bit of a mystery, even to those who helped assemble the first production cells. Looking back, they’re still surprised by it all. “I had always assumed,” van Schalkwijk recalled last year, that the first rechargeable lithium batteries “were built in a Japanese lab by a Japanese corporation, not by Battery Engineering.”

Charles J. Murray is the author of “Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car,” from which this essay is adapted. It is due to be published by Purdue University Press on Sept. 15.