A123 Systems puts recalls behind with battery breakthrough

The new battery technology promises better performance in extreme weather conditions, without requiring additional cooling or heating systems.

Lithium battery maker A123 Systems is touting a breakthrough this week in lithium-ion battery technology that was designed to extreme temperatures without additional thermal management systems.

This could have important implications both for transportation and telecommunications applications, and it comes at a time when the Waltham, Mass., company could use a bit of a positive PR boost.

A123 Systems, which got a $249 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy back in August 2009, is facing an investor class action lawsuit and was part of the battery recall that rained negative publicity down on electric vehicle maker Fisker Karma earlier this year.

The breakthrough that A123 Systems is announcing this week centers on Nanophosphate EXT, which would allow the company's batteries to perform more consistently in extreme weather conditions without requiring extra heating and cooling systems.

For example, cells built using the new technology would be able to maintain up to 90 percent of their capacity after 2,000 full charge-discharge cycles and 45 degrees Celsius (roughly 113 degrees Fahrenheit). The company is testing performance in cold weather. (The chart below offers a sense of how the technology performs relative to other formats.)

A123 Systems CEO David Vieau said in the company's press release:

"We believe that Nanophosphate EXT is a game-changing breakthrough that overcomes one of the key limitations of lead acid, standard lithium-ion and other advanced batteries. By delivering high power, energy and cycle life capabilities over a wider temperature range, we believe Nanophosphate EXT can reduce or even eliminate the need for costly thermal management systems, which we expect will dramatically enhance the business case for deploying A123's lithium-ion battery solutions for a significant number of applications."

A123 Systems is hoping that its new technology will give the company additional performance advantages to tout to makers of electric vehicles and micro hybrids. In particular, Nanophosophate EXT will improve the value proposition associated with the 12V Engine Start battery. Electric vehicle makers should, in theory, also be able to reduce or completely eliminate the weight associated with cooling systems that have been needed to keep electric vehicle batteries cool in the past.

Another application that A123 Systems intends to target avidly is solutions for telecommunications backup systems.

Because many existing cell towers exist off the grid, many rely on batteries and diesel generators to operate. A123 Systems' newest battery technology promises to charge more quickly, which could reduce the amount of diesel fuel needed to run the generators. The company figures that it could help telecos reduce the fuel costs associated with using the generators by up to 30 percent. The story gets even better when you consider extreme temperature conditions, according to A123 Systems. The company figures this could be a $1.2 billion addressable market opportunity by 2016.

Is this sort of breakthrough enough to help A123 Systems to put its recalls and class action lawsuit behind? It certainly will get people taking another look at the company's technology.


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