A Chinese national has pleaded guilty to stealing trade secrets from United States petroleum company Phillips 66, where he worked on the research and development of next-generation battery technologies, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said.
Hongjin Tan, 36, stole information regarding the manufacture of a “research and development downstream energy market product” that is worth more than $1bn, the DOJ said in a statement on Tuesday. It identified the company where he worked as Phillips 66 in court documents filed in Oklahoma.
Tan was a staff scientist at Phillips 66 in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, from May 2017 until December 2018. The company said in December it was cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a probe involving a “former employee at our Bartlesville location”, but declined to comment further on Tuesday.
An FBI affidavit said Phillips 66 called the agency in December 2018 to report the theft of trade secrets, around the same time that Tan told a former co-worker he was going back to China. Tan was arrested before he could return.
“Tan’s guilty plea continues to fill in the picture of China’s theft of American intellectual property,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers.
“The department launched its China Initiative to battle precisely the type of behaviour reflected in today’s plea – illegal behaviour that costs Americans their jobs and we will continue to do so.”
In his plea agreement, Tan admitted to intentionally copying and downloading research and development materials without authorisation from his employer.
Tan will be sentenced on February 12 and the DOJ said it agreed a prison sentence of up to two years would be appropriate as would $150,000 in restitution to Phillips 66.
Tan was responsible for research and development of the US company’s battery programme and developing battery technologies using its proprietary processes. Phillips 66 told the FBI in 2018 it had earned an estimated $1.4bn to $1.8bn from the unspecified technology.
The FBI found an employment agreement from a Chinese company that has developed production lines for lithium-ion battery materials on Tan’s laptop.