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Batteries help recharge the economy

The race for better batteries has spurred venture capitalists.

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“It seems like the lithium-ion-phosphate [chemistry] is winning the race,” Furst says, pointing to plans by A123Systems, Johnson Controls–Saft, and another lithium-ion startup, Boston-Power, to build large battery factories in Michigan. “But it’s hard to say right now, because everything is in such a development phase.”
The race is certainly far from over.

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Manganese-based cathode materials – such as those EnerDel in Indianapolis and E-One Moli, which is working on a phosphate-based battery, are developing – also show promise, Bradford says.

So do the new anode (the positive counterpart to a cathode) materials. British startup Nexeon Ltd., which raised about $13 million in venture-capital funding in February, is developing a silicon-based anode.

Meanwhile, Boston-Power in Westborough, Mass., is taking a different approach. Instead of using a brand-new material, the company – which raised $55 million in January and provides batteries for Hewlett-Packard laptops – says it has improved the lithium-ion battery with “unique chemistry formulations” as well as a mechanical and electrical design that increases energy density and reliability. The company claims its batteries don’t degrade for three years (most laptop batteries begin to fade after just three months) and can recharge 80 percent in 30 minutes.

Battery innovation isn’t confined to ithium-ions, of course. Swiss-based zinc-air battery startup ReVolt Technology raised about $13 million in January. Carbon-fluoride battery startup CFX Battery in Azusa, Calif., closed $11 million the same month. Nickel-zinc batterymaker PowerGenix in San Diego and lead-acid company Firefly Energy in Peoria, Ill., are developing very different chemistries that they believe will target the vehicle market.

Even with all the advancements so far, however, it’s clear that batteries still have a long way to go. Bradford says lithium-ions cost around $1,000 per kilowatt-hour today, which is far from being viable for vehicles. “It has to be much less than that,” she says.

Frost & Sullivan projects that the batteries will reach $200 per kilowatt-hour, in automotive and other large applications, by 2020. Expect to see more startups, new technologies, and investments crop up as the industry strives toward that goal.