Scientist sentenced to 2 years behind bars for stealing next-generation battery tech secrets

The intellectual property had an estimated value of $1 billion to the US company it belonged to.

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A Chinese scientist has been issued a prison sentence of two years for stealing next-generation battery technology from his US employer. 

The former associate scientist, Hongjin Tan, has also been ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution and will spend three years on supervised release, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) said on Thursday

The 36-year-old used to work for an unnamed US petroleum company. Tan worked with other researchers to develop next-generation technologies for flow batteries and energy storage purposes. 

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However, on December 11, 2018, Tan downloaded hundreds of files relating to the work, handed in his resignation, and was then removed from the premises a day later. 

On December 12, Tan returned the storage device, claiming that he had simply forgotten to do so earlier. However, an examination of the flash drive revealed unallocated space and clues that documents had been stored before deletion. 

The FBI then became involved on behalf of the Oklahoma-based employer. 

A warrant was issued and the scientist's home was searched, leading to the discovery of an external hard drive containing the trade secrets. Tan maintained the information was simply there to access at a later date. 

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"Further accessing the material would have been financially advantageous for Tan but caused significant financial damage to his Oklahoma employer," prosecutors say. 

Tan was arrested in November 2019 and secured a plea agreement, in which the scientist admitted to intentionally copying and downloading research without authorization. 

US prosecutors appear to believe the trade secrets were destined for China. 

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Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said the case was "another instance of China's persistent attempts to steal American intellectual property."

"Unscrupulous individuals like Hongjin Tan seek to steal American trade secrets to take home to China so they can replicate our technology," added US Attorney Trent Shores for the Northern District of Oklahoma. "United States Attorneys from coast stand ready to combat China's economic aggression that criminally threatens American industry."

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