A New Battery Takes Off in a Race to Electric Cars
By JASON PONTIN
VROOOOM! Or, rather, much more softly: brmmm.
A123Systems, a start-up in Watertown, Mass., says it has created a powerful, safe, long-lived battery. If the cell fulfills the ambitions of its maker, that softer sound will be the future of automobiles.
To date, all-electric vehicles have failed because their batteries were inadequate. General Motors’ futuristic EV1 car of the late 1990s was doted upon by environmentally conscious drivers who admired its innovative engineering, but because the car used large, primitive nickel metal hydride batteries, its range was limited, its acceleration degraded as the batteries weakened with age, and its two-seat layout was not very comfortable for big, corn-fed North Americans.
“The problem came down to usability,” said Nick Zelenski, G.M.’s chief vehicle engineer. “You had to plan your life around when you were going to charge the EV1.” G.M. built only 1,117 of the experimental cars because it believed that American drivers would not buy such an affront to the national ideal of the open road.
Now, G.M. is planning two plug-in hybrid vehicles. Like the Toyota Prius and other available hybrids, the G.M. models will supplement their electric motors with power from internal combustion engines. What’s different is that most of the power for daily commuting will come from battery packs that can be recharged from ordinary household sockets. The new models are expected to have a range of at least 40 miles without using their gas engines. While that is less than the range of the all-electric EV1, the hybrid nature of the new models will give them far greater total range.
G.M. says that the extra cost for the battery packs mean that plug-in hybrids will sell for thousands of dollars more than comparable, non-electric vehicles. But the average driver, going 40 miles a day, would also save $450 a year if gasoline were $2 a gallon. Because the median daily travel of the average American car is 33 miles (well within the new model’s electric range), the cars would achieve 155 miles to the gallon, and many drivers would fill up with gasoline only every few months.
G.M. hopes to begin selling the first car, a plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn Vue sport utility, as soon as 2009. The second, the Chevrolet Volt, which exists only as a concept-model prototype, is a startling departure from traditional automotive design. The Volt’s internal combustion engine is not attached to the drive train as current hybrids are. In the case of the Volt, it is used only to recharge the vehicle’s batteries. In short, the Volt would function as a true electric car, with the insurance of an internal combustion engine — and not coincidentally it is also designed as a recognizably conventional American compact, seating five, which could drive hundreds of miles to Mother’s at Thanksgiving.
“The real breakthrough is with the new batteries, which offered us energy density — which in turn provided us with a reliable, high-powered package in a relatively small space,” Mr. Zelenski said.
G.M. selected A123Systems (along with its partner Cobasys) to develop batteries that might be used for the Saturn Vue, he said, and it is considering awarding A123Systems a similar contract for the Volt concept car, to take advantage of the company’s remarkable new rechargeable lithium batteries.
Rechargeable lithium batteries have been used in laptop computers and mobile phones since the early 1990s. (Their common name, “lithium ion batteries,” is a tautology, since all batteries conduct electric current by allowing the passage of ions between two electrodes.) But despite their lightness, rechargeable lithium batteries — which often use a compound of highly reactive cobalt oxide — have hitherto been thought impractical for transportation because they are insufficiently powerful and might, if pierced, jarred or overheated, explode or burst into flames.
A123Systems batteries are different. Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor of materials science and engineering at M.I.T. and a co-founder of A123Systems, described their advantages: “Used in a hybrid vehicle, our batteries deliver faster acceleration than any other batteries of the same size,” Professor Chiang said. “And the chemical stability of the cathode material greatly improves safety as well as extending battery life.”
The history of A123Systems offers a lesson in entrepreneurial adaptability. When Professor Chiang and two others founded the company in 2002, it was devoted to a radical business proposition: it hoped to develop a technique where component materials would “self assemble” into a practical lithium battery. “Imagine sprayable batteries, conforming to the shape of a device or an appliance,” Professor Chiang said. “They could also be deposited in very small volumes to power micro and nano devices.”
But self-assembling batteries, despite their intriguing potential, proved intractably hard to develop — or, at least, more expensive and less sure than the immediate commercial possibilities of a rechargeable lithium battery with novel applications. “It just wasn’t working,” said Bart Riley, another of the co-founders, and A123’s vice president for research and development. (The third co-founder is Ric Fulop, now vice president for business development, who has also participated in the start-up of five other companies.)
By late 2003, the company had abandoned self-assembly for another, less alchemical but still dramatic technology. In place of cobalt oxide, it used a commonplace substance, iron phosphate, but assembled it in a novel, nano-structure — the particles used were 100 times smaller than conventional oxides and eight orders of magnitude more conductive than conventional phosphates. The new combination offers high power, stability and longevity.
Shifting to the new technology seems to have been a wise, if hard, decision. Today, A123Systems, a privately held venture, has raised more than $102 million in funding from a variety of investors including Sequoia Capital, Motorola and General Electric. It has 250 employees in China, Taiwan, South Korea and the United States. Apart from its developmental work with G.M., it manufactures the batteries that drive Black & Decker and DeWalt professional power tools.
According to David Vieau, A123Systems’ chief executive, the company enjoys “hundreds of millions of dollars” in contracts.
The former commitment to self-assembly is preserved only in the company’s nerdy name, derived from an equation called the “Hamaker force constant,” which is used to calculate attractive and repulsive forces at nano-dimensions, and which begins “A123...”
While A123Systems still hopes to return to self-assembling batteries one day, it remains focused for now on the future of transportation. In this, the company’s founders and senior officers mix business acumen with a kind of millennial fervor: they sincerely believe that their rechargeable lithium batteries could reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
These plug-in hybrids “will cut gasoline demand over 70 percent for most drivers, and carbon emissions by 50 percent, which will have a significant effect on the environment,” Mr. Vieau said. Driving a plug-in hybrid powered by batteries from A123, most drivers would seldom use their gasoline engines. And while the electricity that charged the batteries would derive mostly from carbon dioxide-producing power plants, burning gasoline is the most polluting transportation energy of all, according to a 2005 study by the Argonne National Laboratory.
A123Systems’ ambition is to apply a new technology, born from original science, to solve a difficult problem. The company’s chairman is Gururaj Deshpande, the entrepreneur who also is a co-founder and chairman of Sycamore Networks. As he explained: “This company can play a role in reducing our dependence on oil and in cleaning up the environment. Any company that gets to contribute to those efforts in whatever measure would have done good in the world.”