Chinese Scientist Pleads Guilty to Stealing Lithium Battery Technology From U.S. Energy Company

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers US, China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
November 13, 2019Updated: November 13, 2019

A Chinese scientist who was accused of stealing more than $1 billion in trade secrets from his former employer has pleaded guilty to his charges.

Hongjin Tan, 35, a U.S. legal permanent resident, was an associate scientist for an Oklahoma-based energy company from June 2017 to December 2018. He was assigned to work with a team to develop next-generation battery technologies for lithium-based battery systems.

Lithium batteries are widely used in electronic gadgets, such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

On Nov. 12, Tan pleaded guilty to theft of a trade secret, unauthorized transmission of trade secrets, and unauthorized possession of a trade secret, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tan admitted to intentionally copying and downloading research materials, without receiving authorization from his employer, according to his plea agreement.

According to the press release, Tan downloaded hundreds of files to a thumb drive on Dec. 11, 2018, and then submitted his resignation on the same day. The very next day, he returned to the company, claiming that he had forgotten to hand over the thumb drive, before leaving the company.

It was discovered that five files had been deleted from the thumb drive and a subsequent FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) probe showed that Tan had downloaded these same five files to his personal computer hard drive.

“Tan’s guilty plea continues to fill in the picture of China’s theft of American intellectual property,” said John C. Demers, assistant U.S. Attorney General for the National Security Division, in the press release.

Tan was arrested on Dec. 20 last year. The trade secrets Tan stolen were estimated to be worth roughly $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion, according to an affidavit filed by the FBI.

According to Tan’s LinkedIn account, he worked as a staff scientist at Phillips 66, a Oklahoma-based multinational energy company, since May 2017. In the job description, he wrote that he did research projects on “large-scale energy storage.”

Prior to his employment at Phillips 66, he spent over 15 years at the California Institute of Technology (also known as Caltech), earning his Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in material science. He then became a visiting scientist at the school. He received his bachelor’s degree in condensed matter physics and biophysics at China’s Nanjing University.

According to Caltech’s website, Tan’s Ph.D. dissertation focused on the study of lithium iron phosphate, an inorganic compound, as a material used for lithium batteries.

“China’s economic aggression poses a threat to America’s emerging high-technology industries. Industrial spies like Hongjin Tan engage in espionage to steal American trade secrets and intellectual property born out of the innovation that is innate in our free market system,” said U.S. Attorney Trent Shores for the Northern District of Oklahoma, in the press release.

Tam will be sentenced on Feb. 12, 2020. The Department of Justice did not specify the maximum penalty that Tam faces.

Federal prosecutors have indicted multiple Chinese researchers and scientists who allegedly stole or tried to steal trade secrets from their U.S. employers.

In August last year, a Chinese engineer was ordered to pay $66 million in damages after he was found guilty of stealing trade secrets from his employer, the U.S.-based LED maker Lumileds, and handed the proprietary information to his new employer in China.