Upstart aims to redefine concept of start-stop driving

Sales of so-called microhybrid vehicles -- which enable the shutdown of gasoline engines in certain driving conditions -- could reach 37 million by 2020. With partners like BMW, Axion seeks to capitalize.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

I just finished writing up a piece from my SmartPlanet blog about automaker Ford's latest sustainability progress. One thing that really struck me was the company's continued focus on diversification as a means of cutting the carbon dioxide emissions that its vehicles produce. That is, it isn't just about hybrids or electric vehicles or alternative fuels or (for that matter) improved fuel efficiency for gasoline engines. It is about all of the above. That's the only way we can move toward a more sustainable transportation economy.

That train of thought reminded me of an alert I just read about the market for start-stop technologies, which show up in a class of vehicles that many people refer to as "micro-hybrids." Here's the idea: start-stop technologies are designed to turn off the gasoline engine if traffic is slowed or if it has stopped altogether. This practice can save approximately 5 percent to 10 percent, on average, in fuel consumption and in carbon dioxide emissions, according to a new report from Pike Research ("Micro Hybrid Technologies, Batteries and Ultracapacitors: Market Analysis and Forecast").

These vehicles have found a serious following in Europe -- where legislated fuel efficiency standards are more onerous (and imminent). By 2012, 65 percent of new cars must have an efficiency of at least 42 miles per gallon. But micro-hybrids are also gaining more of a following in the United States. Overall, Pike Research believes that the compound annual growth rate of sales for micro-hybrids and related vehicles will reach 32 percent between 2011 and 2020, hitting 37 million vehicles annually by end of the forecast.

What will it take to make microhybrids successful? For one thing: Far more robust batteries and starter systems than is found in your typical internal combustion engine. The snag is, however, that the market won't tolerate a huge price premium, which is proving to be a challenge.

That is not lost on upstart Axion Power International, a New Castle, Pa., company that makes a lead-carbon battery technology that it is pitching as an alternative to existing battery technologies. Tom Granville, founder and CEO of Axion, says his company's technology can withstand more charge-discharge cycles than traditional lead-acid batteries because it uses carbon electrode assemblies. According to Granville, this approach helps extend the battery life, plus the Axion battery can discharge and recharge more quickly -- which is a big deal if you are stuck in serious stop-and-go traffic.

Granville is very cautious about discussing his company's potential partners, citing non-disclosures, but the company already has one public ally for its approach, BMW. The two companies are testing micro-hybrid approaches and designs that use the Axion technology.

Incidentally, vehicles aren't the only place you are likely to find Axion technology in the future. The company just announced a deal with Envision Solar to test applications of its energy storage product, Axion Power Cube, as an extension to Envision's Solar Tree solar structures. Definitely a company to watch.

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