A123 … huh?

Posted By on November 3, 2005

A123 BatteryA123 is a “geek-name” that comes from a mathematical formula describing the interaction between nano-scale materials. It was then used to name a company based out of Watertown, MA founded by an MIT professor. A123 Systems has developed new lithium-ion battery that is more powerful and has a lighter weight than existing batteries; perhaps only 20% of the weight of current lithium-ion batteries. Current products have a high cost, but the potential huge.

Black and Decker has been an early adopter of this new battery and has introduced it in a new line of 36 volt power tools under the DeWalt brand (see 36 volt tools). “It was the first thing we saw that could meet all our needs, particularly on durability and run time,” commented Christine Potter, DeWalt’s cordless-product manager according to WSJ reporter William Bulkeley. “In DeWalt tests, drills with the new batteries bored 200 to 300 holes through a two-by-four on a single charge versus 100 holes with the 18-volt model.” Who knows when this technology will makes it way to other products including hybrids?

The company, A123 Systems was founded in 2001 by MIT professor Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials scientist, who’s technology is improving batteries by coating an aluminum electrode with nano-scale particles, a few hundred atoms in size, of lithium metal phosphate. The actual research and production details are not public, but suffice to say, they have been impressive enough for A123 System’s to be able to raised $32 million from investors. Motorola Inc. and Silicon Valley’s Sequoia Capital are a couple of the names believing in this new technology. (Sequoia Capital backed Google and Yahoo) Dr. Chiang says the phosphate is safer than the oxide-based chemistry used in lithium-ion batteries today and that when compared with the same weight of larger particles, the nano-scale particles release more ions, thereby freeing electrons to create an electric current. “Research in batteries is very seductive,” says Dr. Chiang as his company competes for the ‘latest and greatest’ against Germany’s Robert Bosch GmbH, Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. (a unit of Hong Kong’s TechTronics Ltd), and Taiwan’s E-One Moli Energy Corp.

The Department of Energy is working with A123 Systems to develop and test a battery package for vehicular use. They have provided $850,000 in early funding towards this development and are studying whether it can replace the 100-pound batteries in hybrid vehicles with lithium-ion batteries lighter than 20 pounds … now that would be interesting. Imagine a hybrid vehicle with 100 pounds of the A123 batteries offering 5 times the range under electric power of today’s hybrids? Couple that with the capablility of nightly plug-ins at home? The potential petroleum savings for daily commuting would be huge!

EDIT: The Wall Street Journal did a podcast (11/5/2005) after news of this advancement in battery technology. Click to listen to WSJ.mp3 audio file.


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