ELYRIA — Inside the new BASF cathode materials plant, a more than $50 million investment in the technology of electric mobility, a complex labyrinth of machinery soon will start churning out products many hope will jump start Elyria’s economic future.
Tuesday morning, nearly 300 employees, dignitaries and city officials witnessed the ribbon cutting of the Pine Street facility that is the product of a
$24.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and more than one person said it could just be what Elyria’s manufacturing base needs.
Not since William Harshaw opened Harshaw Chemical Co. more than a century ago has that portion of the city been filled with so much promise. BASF, a global conglomerate with sales in 2011 of $73.5 billion, acquired the property in 2006.
While no one spoke specifically about the ancillary businesses that could sprout in the city based on the desire to be close to the largest facility of its kind in North America, the expectation is clear that it will spur the city’s economy.
Hans Engel, BASF chairman and CEO, said he needs only to look at the way the industry is going to see the potential for Elyria. By 2050, there will be
9 billion people on the planet using about three times what Earth can sustain. At its core, BASF is dedicated to creating chemistry for a sustainable future.
“Electric mobility will play a large role in what we see in mobility in the future leading to a smaller footprint on this planet,” he said.
The Elyria plant will strive to be a key driving factory in that push, Engel said.
Mayor Holly Brinda said her administration is already thinking in those terms. In recent weeks, her office along with City Council has created a job creation incentive program and took the first steps toward starting a property-assessed clean energy financing program. Those two programs, combined with the city’s existing alternative energy and energy conservation loan fund, should make Elyria attractive to businesses interested in sustainability, she said.
“I believe Elyria will benefit from the multiple effect and will be able to attract more high-tech companies, and this facility positions Elyria and Lorain County for the green jobs of the future,” she said.
With so much on the line, Frank Bozich, president of BASF’s Catalysts Division, jokingly told the crowd that he expected the project to exceed expectations now that the facility was ready for commercialization, using a process developed by Chicago-based Argonne National Laboratory.
Bozich said Elyria was the perfect fit for the new process line because many of its existing 160 employees already are working in a process that closely mimics what is needed to produce the battery components.
The new four-story, 70,000-square-foot plant uses state-of-the-art production technologies and is expected to create approximately 25 new jobs. Tuesday, the plant was largely idle as small groups toured the facility and received a crash course in the logistics of making the “guts” of lithium batteries.
From the ceramic saggars that hold the fine particle raw materials as they careen up and down conveyor belts and into super-heated kilns to the end point where the products are packaged for shipping, the facility largely uses an automated process that only requires operators to step in when operation parameters fall outside of normal ranges.
The products that will come out of the BASF plant will not go directly to automobile manufacturers, said Zach Weyand, a chemical engineer who moved to Northeast Ohio just to work at the Elyria plant. Rather, the products will be sold to manufacturers of battery cells that will then work with the auto industry to power vehicles with cleaner, more energy efficient lithium-based batteries. From there, lithium batteries can be used in a number of different applications.
The Elyria plant right now is geared to run one production line but could expand to up to four lines based on industry demands.