What Happens if the U.S. Lets Publicly Developed Technology Just Walk?

By Matthew McMullan
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Sometimes, a NPR investigation shows, emerging tech is commercialized elsewhere because the federal government doesn’t follow its own rules.

We’ve talked often about technologies and products developed in the United States that, through a series of policy choices, let slip to be manufactured overseas only to have the industry offshore. Shout out to the Chinese solar panel industry!

Well, bad news, because NPR has got the story on another one: The vanadium redox battery. These things are pretty big, but they can hold enough to power a house, are rechargeable, and last decades. Its development took years and millions of taxpayer dollars in a federal research laboratory in Washington state. And they’re largely made outside the United States. American manufacturers are even having trouble getting a license.

Today the world’s largest maker of these batteries is Chinese. Here’s a very recent article about how it built an absolutely enormous vanadium battery and connected it to the local power grid. But it didn’t get its hands on this American-made tech not because of any of the unfair trade practices we typically write about like forced technology transfer, industrial espionage, or joint venture requirements.

No, it got it because the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) gave it the okay despite rules meant to control where the manufacture of products licensed to the U.S. government takes place.

From the NPR story:

Department of Energy officials declined NPR’s request for an interview to explain how the technology that cost U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars ended up in China. After NPR sent department officials written questions outlining the timeline of events, the federal agency terminated the license with the Chinese company, Dalian Rongke Power Co. Ltd.

“DOE takes America’s manufacturing obligations within its contracts extremely seriously,” the department said in a written statement. “If DOE determines that a contractor who owns a DOE-funded patent or downstream licensee is in violation of its U.S. manufacturing obligations, DOE will explore all legal remedies.”

The whole story is gobsmacking. Read it here.