Officials from Argonne National Lab, GM Ventures and LG Chem announced today that they had reached a licensing agreement that will allow the two businesses to use a special cathode technology for lithium batteries, and, especially, that will allow the introduction of a safer, more energy-dense product in the second generation of GM’s Volt.

As far as I can tell, though dressed up as somewhat of a thing a technology announcement, today’s news was more about the completion of some complex business deal that most of us writers struggled to comprehend.

I am pretty sure the material that is key to the cathode is a manganese-rich layered-layered composite announced by ANL back in 2007. Here’s how it was described back then:

Argonne’s strategy uses a two-component “composite” structure – an active component that provides for charge storage is embedded in an inactive component that stabilizes the structure.

In recent tests, the new materials yielded exceptionally high charge-storage capacities, greater than 250 mAh/g, or more than twice the capacity of materials in conventional rechargeable lithium batteries.

That’s virtually the same description used today.

From what I recall, the concept behind a layered-layered approach is that worst case scenario for typical lithium-ion batteries is that the single active layer loses lithium, collapses, releases oxygen and a thermal runaway can occur. Thus, the layered-layered approach is safer.

Another plus is that at the cell operating voltage level (don’t get this confused with charging voltages), batteries made of this stuff can operate at higher levels.

In addition, this composites deliver a greater energy density. As mentioned back in 2007, it is going to have roughly twice the energy density as current Li-ion battery packs, such as those GM is putting in the first generation of Volts.

That’s a better energy density number, but, as GM Ventures President Jon Lauckner noted in today’s news conference, these batteries “will still be well short of energy density of gasoline, but it moves [batteries] a step closer.”

What to do with all this added energy capacity? Lauckner seemed to indicate that it could either provide greater range for electric vehicles or smaller, cheaper batteries. He seemed to indicate that GM was leaning in the latter direction.

Back to issue of licensing ANL technology (a great example, by the way, of how DOE-funded basic and applied science research can provide broad payoffs for business and consumers) GM and LG Chem kept emphasizing that the license involves a very broad suite of patents covering both old and future technical developments. When asked, none of us seemed to get a clear answer about how it could cover future unspecified technologies, and the parties repeatedly made it clear that they were not prepared to discuss any details related to the licensing agreements and payments.

My reading of the situation is that GM and LG Chem have already been testing batteries using the special cathodes. Each company may be working on different approaches to the anodes and electrolytes they would use, but LG Chem is opening a new battery facility in Holland, Michigan employing 400 that will build batteries for the Volt, and both companies indicated that they thought they could be putting the next-gen batteries in Volts in 2012.

Although LG Chem is playing around with similar materials in project in South Korea, the licensing deal only covers their work in the U.S.

ANL and the DOE go to great pains to point out that these are not exclusive licenses and that deals with other manufactures are at least in discussion stage.

As a side note, U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, (R-Ill.), a senior member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, announced at the news conference that she would be reintroducing legislation to support electric vehicle superstructure development in six yet-to-be-announced cities with the idea of developing parking meter-type street level charging stations.