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What's Next For Chinese-Owned Battery Maker A123?

 
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Lithium Ion Phosphate Auto Battery cell

Lithium Ion Phosphate Auto Battery cell

When battery maker A123 Systems went bankrupt, it seemed to be just one in a long line of failed energy startups--albeit one with some high-profile customers.

Stalled battery production after A123's bankruptcy is considered one of the main catalyst's for Fisker's litany of struggles, while electric-car enthusiasts wondered what would happen to cars like the Chevrolet Spark EV, powered by A123 batteries.

Now, are things different under Chinese ownership?

If it ain't broke...

The upturn in A123's fortunes started back in March when the bankrupt company was subject to bidding for its assets.

Several companies expressed interest but in the end only two came away with the spoils--Chinese group Wanxiang won through with a $256.6 million bid. A123's military business was sold separately to Navitas Systems.

That was good news not only for A123's employees, but also the companies whose electric and hybrid vehicles depended on its batteries.

One of those was the highly-rated Chevrolet Spark EV, while BMW fits A123 batteries in its 3-Series and 5-Series hybrids.

A123's customer base is actually quite wide--Daimler, Chinese firm SAIC and Smith Electric Vehicles also buy A123 batteries for various applications.

But since the takeover, inside the company, little has actually changed.

In an interview with Charged EVs, A123 spokesman Jeff Kessen outlines the company's past, present and future, and reveals how the company's partnerships and even much of its management is the same as before--save for a few top-level executives drafted in from Wanxiang.

A123 still manufactures in the U.S--at Romulus and Livonia in Michigan--and Kessen dispels any notions that the whole company would be shifted to China.

There's little incentive--A123 has those two manufacturing plants up and running, largely funded by U.S. government grants. It makes sense to use them, in other words. U.S. production also cuts down on transportation costs, since several of A123's customers are U.S-based.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV - First Drive, Portland, July 2013

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV - First Drive, Portland, July 2013

Enlarge Photo

As for Fisker's collapse, A123 looks to have had less part in it than many believe.

Originally, Fisker's halted production was believed to be a result of A123's bankruptcy--but according to the interview with Kessen, A123 had actually fulfilled "every order that was received" from Fisker before the battery firm went under.

Dismissed too is the idea that A123's high-profile battery recall led to its bankruptcy. That was instead put down to a "confluence of factors", including slower than average market growth.

Future technology

Aside from supplying batteries to existing firms, Kessen says that A123's next focus could be on improvements to regular 12V batteries in cars.

That's partly because the market for "micro hybrids"--cars with stop-start systems and basic brake energy regeneration--is expected to increase. The new generation of lithium-ion batteries are better suited to the constant cycles required by such technology, and A123 has found that four cells in series can replace a lead-acid unit without requiring any changes to a car's electronics.

The concept has actually been around for a while--Porsche offered it way back in 2009--but as more cars are expected to harvest energy under braking over coming years, such batteries could spread to many more vehicles.

It could develop further. Charged EVs brings up A123's Nanophosphate EXT technology revealed last year--a battery chemistry that can operate at extremes of temperature without thermal management.

This sounds ideal for electric vehicles--no more wilting Leafs, for example--but Kessen says this too is better suited to 12V battery replacement--suggesting it isn't clear "that we’ll be able to fully eliminate a thermal management system from a high-voltage pack".

The future then looks much brighter for A123 than it did just one year ago--and its plans seem refreshingly realistic.

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