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Batteries help recharge the economy

The race for better batteries has spurred venture capitalists.

By Jennifer KhoContributor for The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 2009

Chinese shoppers browse laptop computers at a digital products shopping mall. Hewlett-Packard, the world’s largest PC maker, is recalling 15,000 laptop computer batteries sold in China because they can overheat.

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If you’ve ever felt the frustration of trying to send an e-mail, make a call, or snap a photo only to realize that your laptop, cellphone, or camera has gone dead, you understand the need for better batteries. But while there’s no question that batteries are important, they’re rarely described as “exciting.”

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Lowly, hardworking batteries have routinely received little or no attention, while the devices they power grab the spotlight.

“When somebody sees a Bentley, they don’t say, ‘Oh my God, that’s got a good battery inside,’ ” says Brian Fan, senior director of research at the Cleantech Group headquartered in San Francisco, which tracks venture-capital investments in North America, Europe, Israel, China, and India.

In the economic downturn, that could be changing.

The Cleantech Group’s numbers show an uptick in venture-capital funding for batteries in the first quarter, even as overall US venture investments fell to the lowest level since 1997, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

Spurred by federal cash, electric cars, and demand for ever more powerful gadgets, investment in advanced batteries has bucked the recessionary slump and, energy analysts say, could help the economy recover.

Cleantech tracked $94 million in advanced-battery investments in the previous quarter, up substantially from a recession-affected $29 million in the last quarter of 2008 and up slightly from $90 million in the first quarter of that year.

Sara Bradford, a principal consultant for global research firm Frost & Sullivan, predicts that North America could be facing a renaissance in battery manufacturing.

In March, she wrote that the US battery industry “is humming with revived confidence” as a result of the federal stimulus package, which opens up $2 billion in loans for advanced batteries, among other incentives.
A move toward greener cars helped fuel this growth. Hybrids, plug-ins, and electric vehicles are “the big goal” of next-generation batterymakers says Kent Furst, an analyst for research firm Freedonia Group in Cleveland.

Another factor is renewable energy. Wind and solar power are “intermittent” sources – they only collect energy during blustery or sunny times of the day, not necessarily when people need it most. To continue serving communities even during weak moments, some in the energy industry have called for grid batteries that could store the green energy and dispatch it on demand.