A Silicon Valley congressman Monday toured the new Chattanooga plant of battery materials maker Novonix, calling its work "one of the most important things for the nation."
"We're so dependent on China," said U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, Calif. "I don't think the ordinary American realizes the vulnerability."
Khanna, who helped shepherd the recently passed Chips and Science Act that allots about $50 billion to U.S. semiconductor research and production, suggested during an hourlong visit to the plant that President Joe Biden needs to come to Chattanooga and see for himself the production of synthetic graphite used in electric vehicle batteries.
"It's a colossal failure of policy of the last 30 years that we're dependent on China," he said in an interview, citing China's domination in exporting battery materials. " What (Novonix) is doing is the first concrete steps to have us self-reliant on graphite."
Novonix, which is headquartered in Australia, plans to invest about $160 million and employ 300 workers at its new facility in the former Alstom turbine-manufacturing plant on Riverfront Parkway and eventually produce 10,000 tons of product annually.
Daniel Deas, president of the company's anode materials division, said in an interview that the company is up to 81 employees so far at the 400,000-square-foot plant and expects to hit 100 workers by the end of 2022.
He told Khanna, who was in the city at the invitation of Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, that about 90% of graphite is imported from China. Deas said a recent bill passed by Congress that extends tax incentives for EVs will boost demand for synthetic graphite.
"It will make demand really go up," he said, adding there's "no other supplier of this kind in the U.S."
Deas said Novonix is looking at building another plant to produce 30,000 tons and employ 1,000 more workers. He said the company is eyeing a greenfield site rather than retrofitting an existing facility such as the former Alstom facility.
Deas said the Chattanooga area is in the running among other locations.
Joda Thongnopnua, Kelly's chief of staff, told Khanna that "we're fighting hard for it."
Kelly termed Khanna "one of our nation's preeminent voices on creating clean, sustainable jobs."
"Sustainability is at the core of Chattanooga's DNA, and it's thanks in part to our strong relationships at the local, state and federal levels that we continue to punch above our weight," the mayor said in a statement.
Khanna, who also toured EPB's facilities and Volkswagen's Chattanooga assembly plant, said the U.S. is "very behind" when it comes to battery materials such as graphite.
"We've been more complacent in dealing with countries to acquire materials," he said.
Novonix put its plant at the 121-acre former Alstom property renamed The Bend after Chattanooga developers Jimmy White and Hiran Desai bought the parcel from GE Power for $30 million in 2018.
In 2019, after a lengthy planning effort, the company revealed other possibilities for the tract, including housing, hotels, offices, a canal, a food hall, a music venue, child care center and more.
"We're creating a beautiful campus to live, work and play," White said in an interview at the time.
Contact Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.