If the Tesla Roadster is being powered with 6,831 laptop batteries, the Chevy “Volt” may end up running on Black & Decker power tool batteries. That’s not quite accurate, but in both cases, a lithium ion battery with a proven track record in other consumer applications is finding its way into the next generation of electric cars.
VP Pack & Systems Business
Only a couple of months ago, on January 5th, 2007, two days before General Motor’s historic announcement that they intend to produce a series hybrid (or “E-Flex”) electric car, GM announced their choices for suppliers for the advanced battery systems these cars would use. One of their choices was A123 Systems, who had already cornered the market in powertool batteries. For three years now A123 has been supplying market-leader Black & Decker with 36 volt, 3000 watt lithium ion batteries that provide more power than you can get from a standard wall socket.
When I asked Ed Bednarcik, A123′s general manager of battery systems, about the company’s current products, he provided an interesting example of just how much energy is packed into these new lithium ion batteries. “Black & Decker’s old batteries had been designed to act as a counterweight to the motor on most of their power tools, but when we built our batteries, even at much greater capacity than the ones they had been using, they had to redesign the tools because our batteries didn’t weigh enough.”
Underweight battery-packs isn’t likely to become a problem in battery-powered automobiles, no matter how advanced these batteries get. But the new lithium ion batteries being developed by A123 Systems hold over triple the energy per unit of weight than lead acid batteries, and nearly double the energy per weight of the newer nickel metal hydride batteries. With this leap forward, a battery powered car, or a car that can run exclusively on batteries for most of its duty cycles before relying on a conventional gasoline or diesel engine, is finally possible.
Lithium ion batteries also hold great promise because they are now being designed – unlike many of the older laptop versions – so they won’t overheat, won’t release toxic gas or fluids in a crash, are heat and cold tolerant, and can last up to 100,000 cycles of charge and discharge. Also very important, lithium ion batteries are able to discharge at a wide range of rates, allowing the battery to provide surge power for acceleration as well as a sustained discharge at lower levels for normal driving. Lithium ion batteries, once manufacturing is scaled up, also will cost significantly less than the nickel metal hydride batteries in use on hybrids today.
“Today there are many lithium ion chemistries,” said Bednarcik, “eventually the industry will downselect to a few core materials.” In the meantime, competing with A123 to supply the automotive industry are Johnson Controls, Altair Nanotechnologies, Valence Technologies, Sanyo, Sony, Hitachi, and many others.
Whether or not the auto industry selects A123′s specific chemistry as these pioneering lithium ion batteries eventually become a commodity is anybody’s guess, but with a well-established market already established in power tools and the recent partnership with General Motors, they are certainly in the running.
A123 Systems currently has revenue of about $35 million per year, mostly through sales of lithium ion batteries for power tools, and they expect to be profitable in the second half of 2007. They are privately held, based in Watertown, Massachusetts, and they have 250 employees in the US, China, Taiwan and South Korea. They have raised just over $102 million in investment funding to-date.