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Battery Maker A123 Systems Says It’s Not The Next ‘Solyndra’


A123 lithium-ion cells

A123 lithium-ion cells

Despite unveiling what it says will be a revolutionary new vehicle battery last week, Massachusetts-based firm A123 Systems is fighting skepticism that it will become the “next Solyndra,” the California solar company that went bankrupt in August 2011 after receiving a $550 million loan guarantee from the U.S. government.

“There are many differences between us and Solyndra,” said Andy Chu, A123’s vice president of marketing and communications, in a phone interview. “We’re very confident about our future, and we believe we’ll be around for the foreseeable future.”

Indeed, A123 Systems [NSDQ:AONE] is quite distinct from the ill-fated solar manufacturing company that its been compared to lately by many in the media, not least of all because it is involved in a completely different industry: making advanced lithium-ion batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles using its proprietary nanophosphate material.

But A123 has suffered a string of major setbacks in the past few months—including an undefined number of defective batteries that had to be recalled, costing $67 million, a $125 million quarterly loss to start the year, delays in construction of a new factory, layoffs and lower-than-expected hybrid and electric vehicle sales.

Add to that the fact that A123 has received a $249 million grant from the Energy Department and has been openly praised by President Obama and Nancy Pelosi [D-CA], it’s no wonder that the company’s announcement Tuesday of a new battery it says it is its best yet was met with skepticism from the press and right-leaning advocacy groups.

“We did have a few manufacturing issues that cost more than we expected to spend,” Chu told TPM. “We’re adjusting our fundraising to account for that.”

Chu said A123 was looking to raise more capital, despite already being a public company that’s seen its stock tank from an IPO price of $19.60 to around $1.00, a proposition again greeted with skepticism by auto-industry analysts.

Still, the company is confident that its new battery technology, Nanophosphate EXT, will set it on the right track. “We think that this technology will be a very significant part of new vehicles going forward,” said Chu.

A123 Nanophosphate EXT battery performance vs. unamed competitors [source: A123 Systems]

A123 Nanophosphate EXT battery performance vs. unamed competitors [source: A123 Systems]

Enlarge Photo

A123 says iits Nanophosphate EXT technology is expected to produce a “20 percent increase in power” of vehicle batteries at cold temperatures compared to the current industry standard, as well as maintain its life-cycle of 2,000 full-charge discharges at 113 degrees Fahrenheit, without the need for a separate temperature-control system.

The company released the chart at left showing how its new battery performs against unnamed competitors. It shows the discharge capacity, or battery life, over the number of complete charge-discharge cycles.

Currently, Chu said, most lithium-ion vehicle batteries struggle to maintain a balance of providing reliable performance at cold temperatures and battery life at high temperatures. So if Nanophosphate EXT performs as planned, it would be a huge boon for the industry. But that’s a big “if.”

Chu pointed to the fact that A123 had its new technology tested by an independent third party, Ohio State University, and to analyst projections that the microhybrid car market would reach 39 million vehicles by 2017.

Reassuringly, the company’s high-profile clients—GM, which is counting on the company to provide the batteries for its forthcoming all-electric Chevrolet Spark, and Fisker, which suffered major embarrassment when its A123-powered Karma died during a Consumer Reports test in March—are hanging on.

“We continue to have very good relationships with Fisker, GM, and all of our other customers,” said Chu. “GM is actually getting very good results with the road tests it's conducting on the Chevy Spark EV right now.”

This article, written by Carl Franzen, was originally published on TalkingPointsMemo, an editorial partner of GreenCarReports.

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Comments (4)
  1. Anything the right wing conservatives discount, I'll put my faith in. I think A123 will pull out of its slump and become the top battery manufacturer in America.
     
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  2. Is it known if the upcoming Chevy Spark EV will use the A123 EXT batteries or will they be the A123 batteries currently used in the Fisker Karma?
     
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  3. Calling the new A123 battery "revolutionary" is incorrect. Economically, it cannot hope to compete against the WSU super battery (or even Prieto Co battery, which offers 40% greater capacity, rapid charging and no degradation over time). We all should know by now that battery prices are THE main obstacle to electric cars and this "revolutionary battery" will do nothing in that regard. In fact, I heard a quote from a company rep that the company is planning to sell these batteries for military applications, not autos. Apparently, they believe the WSU battery is for real (or at least the Prieto battery).
     
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  4. The nays need to read Amory Lovins "Reinventing Fire" and listen to his lecture on This Week in Ted. Some folks are fighting to be the next typewriter company or Kodak. Even if American cannot see the end of the hydrocarbon era, the rest of the world is heading in that direction.
     
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