Found an article in this week's Chemical and Engineering News on new-generation battery technology. It consists of a state-of-the-industry roundup and business analysis, so is a bit dry. But there may be some things in there some of you weren't aware of. The link is below, but it probably requires subscription, so I have attached the full text.
Thirst For Power
Investors bet on advances in battery technology for electronics and cars
Marc S. Reisch
MAKERS OF PORTABLE DEVICES ranging from the tiniest medical implants to full-size plug-in electric vehicles are on the lookout for lightweight, powerful, and safe energy sources. Along with venture capitalists and private equity funds, such device makers are powering up a host of start-up firms they hope will revolutionize the battery landscape.
Plugged Lithium-ion battery powers this plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius. A123Systems, a developer of lithium-ion batteries spun off from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has raised $102 million to date. Investors include OnPoint Technologies, a venture capital arm of the U.S. Army; Motorola; General Electric; and , maker of Duracell brand batteries. Zinc Matrix Power, a developer of silver zinc alkaline batteries, has raised $36 million from investors that include Intel and OnPoint.
Boston-Power, another lithium-ion battery maker, has raised $24.6 million from venture capital firms such as Venrock Associates, Gabriel Venture Partners, and Granite Global Ventures. Firefly Energy, a spin-off from farm equipment maker Caterpillar, has raised $18 million to date to develop its carbon-graphite foam battery. Among its investors are Caterpillar, British defense contractor BAE Systems, and Swedish lawn and garden equipment maker Husqvarna Group.
High-profile notebook computer battery failures have inspired the current crop of battery firms to redouble efforts to come up with energy-efficient and safe power sources. Apple, Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba, and other computer makers have already recalled millions of lithium-ion batteries following reports that some of the batteries overheated, burning computer users and starting fires.
Yet-Min Chiang, an MIT professor of materials science and engineering and one of three people who founded A123 in 2002, attributes recent lithium-ion battery problems to the confluence of manufacturing lapses with companies' eagerness to push energy-density limitations. But advances in battery materials and tighter manufacturing and safety controls can solve the problem, he maintains.
Chang says A123's batteries depend on cathode materials made out of nanoscale particles of lithium iron phosphate doped with metal ions. Combined with safe engineering designs, this advance makes powerful and lightweight batteries possible at a reasonable cost, he claims. A123 has successfully introduced a line of batteries for power tool maker Black & Decker and is now working with a number of big firms to refine its technology for use in advanced vehicles.
Just a few months ago, BAE Systems said it planned to offer A123's lithium-ion batteries in next-generation power trains supplied to vehicle makers such as DaimlerChrysler for hybrid electric buses. In addition, A123 acquired Hymotion, a fabricator of battery modules that have already been used to convert the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape vehicles into prototype plug-in hybrid electric cars. The modules fit in spare-tire compartments.
CONVENTIONAL HYBRID vehicles are propelled both by electricity stored in nickel-metal hydride batteries and by a gasoline-powered engine. A plug-in hybrid, in contrast, mostly runs on battery power until the battery nears exhaustion. Then, a gasoline engine kicks in, and the car operates as a conventional hybrid. Both types of hybrids offer substantial improvements in energy consumption.
"Version 1.0 of the hybrid electric battery is at hand now," Chang says. "We need to start using it and gather product experience." He says he isn't fazed by Toyota's recent decision to continue using nickel-metal hydride batteries in the 2008 version of its conventional Prius hybrid. He is confident that lighter weight lithium-ion batteries will ultimately be the battery of choice in all hybrid electrics.
The $102 million raised by A123 so far has allowed it to hire 300 employees, most of whom are involved in R&D. The money has also helped the firm to achieve "near self-sufficiency." Even so, Chang says he and his partners won't rule out going back to investors for more cash in the future.
Like A123, Boston-Power is a Massachusetts-based lithium-ion battery maker. The two-year-old firm has its sights set currently on providing batteries for use in notebook computers, although ultimately it hopes to power hybrid electric vehicles.
Chief Executive Officer Christina Lampe-Onnerud, a one-time partner at Arthur D. Little who ran the consulting firm's battery lab, said she started Boston-Power in her garage. A chemist with a Ph.D. from Uppsala University, in Sweden, Lampe-Onnerud claims that she and her colleagues, now numbering 30, have fine-tuned lithium-ion technology since the 1970s to yield a battery with slower kinetics and features intended to prevent the sort of thermal runaway problem that led to the recent battery recalls. "Assembling a lithium-ion battery is like conducting a symphony," she says.
Charging Ahead Small lithium-sulfur cell is both lightweight and energy dense.Boston-Power is now making batteries in Shenzhen, China, and hopes to introduce them for laptop computer use at the end of the summer. It says its batteries can achieve an 80% charge in 30 minutes, versus one hour for current batteries. More important, current batteries lose performance after 300 charge/discharge cycles, whereas Boston-Power claims its batteries can go though 1,000 charge cycles with no loss in performance.
Lampe-Onnerud says the nearly $25 million her firm has raised so far "leaves us very well-funded." She says it hasn't been difficult to attract investors. For now, she says, "it would be unwise to say we won't need more money, but we have no plans to raise additional funds."
Although Boston-Power and A123 have found investors eager to provide a surge of cash for their development, the money doesn't come out of the goodness of the investment community's heart. Device makers such as Intel or GE may invest for insight into and access to new technology, but "venture capital firms want to invest in fast-growing industry leaders to get a good return for their investment partners," says John Chen, a senior associate at venture capital firm Battery Ventures. As a general rule, he says, venture capitalists look for a return of 10 times their original investment over a seven- to 10-year period.
Investments in battery start-ups are riskier than investments in software firms, says Chen, who has a Ph.D. in materials science from MIT. Compared with software, new batteries enter a mature business where reliability and safety are a must, he says.
Chen points out that many entrepreneurs believe they can introduce a new anode or electrolyte and quickly bring to market a battery that performs better than existing power packs. But that is not as easy as updating a computer program. Battery makers "typically underestimate the requirements for battery reliability and manufacturing scale-up," he warns.
Despite its name, Battery Ventures has only one battery investment, in Lion Cells, a secretive Menlo Park, Calif.-based developer of lithium-ion battery technologies. Press reports say the firm is working on a battery capable of storing twice as much power as most lithium-ion cells do today. Chen says Lion has a good business and technology team and that he expects the firm will introduce samples in the next six to nine months.
Not all investments in new battery technology have gone to lithium-ion systems. Zinc Matrix Power has raised funds to develop silver zinc batteries, which boast twice the power density of lithium-ion batteries but have poor charge/discharge capabilities, CEO Ross Dueber says. The 11-year-old firm, which has 50 employees, including 10 Ph.D. chemists, is working on improving the charge-cycle performance of the battery, he says.
Zinc Matrix is building a pilot battery production facility in Southern California and plans to have Berwyn, Pa.-based Tyco Electronics manufacture batteries for mobile electronic devices when they are ready for full-scale production. Ultimately, Dueber says, the firm hopes to be able to bring its batteries to the hybrid-vehicle market. Investors have put $36 million into Zinc Matrix so far, but Dueber notes, "We'll need additional funds to take us into production."
BELIEVERS in the traditional lead-acid battery that has been in cars and trucks for a century still have a few innovations to roll out. For example, four-year-old Firefly Energy is substituting lightweight carbon-graphite foam for the heavy lead in the positive and negative plates of the traditional battery. CEO Edward F. Williams says Firefly's batteries can be as much as 30% smaller and 50% lighter than comparable lead-containing batteries.
The carbon-graphite foam eliminates sulfation on the negative terminal and corrosion on the positive side. As a result, Firefly's batteries may be capable of "tens of thousands" of charge/discharge cycles at one-quarter to one-fifth the cost of lithium-ion batteries, Williams says, making them ideal for hybrid vehicles. To convert that possibility into a reality, he says he'll have to raise additional funds from investors in the next 12 to 18 months. After that round, he hopes the 35-employee firm will turn its first profit.
Mark Jost, executive vice president of Sion Power, envisions a future for lithium-sulfur cells. The 13-year-old spin-off from Brookhaven National Laboratory has attracted investments from venture capital firms such as Topspin Partners and Khronos, but its biggest backer is James H. Simons, a mathematician who now manages the private investment firm Renaissance Technologies. Thanks to Simons' confidence, Sion has not had a problem with financing, Jost claims.
For Sion, the challenge in developing lithium-sulfur cells has been to improve both energy density and charge/discharge cycles, Jost says. About 50 employees are working at the firm on high-energy, lightweight batteries for use in unmanned military vehicles and ultimately in electric vehicles.
As is almost always the case for a league of companies on the forefront of a technology, some of these contenders to supply next-generation batteries are likely to fail before they come up to full power. But investors who bet on the ones that click with consumers should get a payback many times their original investment.
Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2007 American Chemical Society