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Life’s Lessons of a Veteran Li-Ion Battery Developer

Executive Summary

If you’re going to produce Li-ion batteries, go big, Electrovaya’s top executive advises.

ARGONNE, IL – Tiny Electrovaya Inc. has carved out a reasonable, if not profitable, niche in the rapidly emerging lithium-ion battery market, so all ears were on co-founder, Chairman and CEO Sankar Dasgupta as he offered advice to suppliers, auto makers and researchers at an industry conference this week on the future of the technology.

It also didn’t hurt that after a daylong session filled with statistics, formulas, test results and eye-straining line graphs, Dasgupta punctuates his blunt talk with a high-energy delivery and dash of humor.

Electrovaya is based in Mississauga, ON, Canada, where it has its primary manufacturing operation. It also has joint ventures calling for future production in Norway and India and operates a U.S. headquarters in Malta, NY.

Publicly traded since November 2000, the 12-year-old company generated revenues of $2.3 million in 2007, while posting a loss of $4.6 million.

But like a lot of the developers in attendance at the U.S. Department of Energy/Argonne National Laboratory-hosted confab here, Dasgupta remains bullish about Li-ion’s long-term future.

To date, the supplier’s list of secured contracts includes a deal to deliver Li-ion batteries for a 5-car test program by electric-vehicle builder Miljobil, a subsidiary of Statoil Hydro in Norway, and an order for engineering design work and hardware production from California-based Phoenix Motorcars, a low-volume maker of electric SUVs and sport/utility pickups.

In addition, the company is collaborating on plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle development with powertrain developer FEV Inc. for an unnamed auto maker and has been involved in several hybrid bus and commercial-van programs.

Working with the U.S. Golf Assn., Electrovaya will participate in making the 2009 U.S. Open a more environmentally friendly event, with battery-powered maintenance equipment used to manicure the Bethpage Black course in Farmingdale, NY.

“I guess that puts us at the cutting edge of green technology,” Dasgupta quips.

Li-ion batteries have a better future than other oil-free alternatives such as hydrogen-powered fuel cells, the Electrovaya CEO says, because there’s much more energy in lithium.

“No energy limit of lithium has been found yet,” he says. “We are nowhere near the dynamic end of lithium energy.”

He predicts Li-ion batteries delivering 270 Wh/kg in energy density will be possible in about two years. That’s roughly twice the density rating expected for the batteries General Motors Corp. will use in its upcoming Chevrolet Volt due in 2010.

But Dasgupta says there’s still resistance to electric vehicles among auto makers.

“A pure-electric car is a disruptive technology,” he says. “Auto makers don’t like us,” because EVs eliminate many traditional parts found in a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.

“What’s left is a chunk of metal with some seats in it,” he says. “So don’t try to sell an auto company on (EVs).”

That said, Dasgupta provides seven “lessons” he has learned in the last 12 years to help developers speed commercialization of Li-ion cells:

  • Try to get as high an energy density as possible; don’t just focus on high power. That way “the battery gets smaller, lighter and arguably cheaper.”
  • Pay close attention to thermal design on both a cell and module basis. One of the biggest concerns with Li-ion is the heat they generate. “Cells are finicky,” Dasgupta sums up.
  • Make big batteries, not just those for consumer devices such as cell phones and laptops. “If you’re going to make (Li-ion batteries), make them large,” he says.
  • Develop intelligent battery-management systems to ensure durability and reliability. “You need technology that will phone your Blackberry and say, ‘I’m getting weak.’”
  • Design the electronics and electric systems holistically. “You can operate at any voltage you want, but make sure you don’t electrify the whole car.”
  • Realistically evaluate cycle life for batteries in development. “Everybody shows great cycle life – I’ve never been shown bad cycle-life data at a conference,” he says. “But we’ve found lab data is a poor indicator of a system’s (actual) cycle life.”
  • Unique, low-cost manufacturing processes are a must. “It doesn’t matter what price you sell to auto makers, they will want it cheaper. Focus a lot of time on improving your manufacturing.”

Dasgupta predicts major growth for Li-ion battery utilization will come in 2009. “And hopefully profits” will follow, he adds.

“New players outside of the legacy (suppliers) will evolve,” he says, “because they have less baggage and don’t have to carry (the) low-margin operations” that have been a financial drag on many existing parts makers.


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