Home' Technology Review : May June 2008 Contents FEATURE STORY
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW MAY/JUNE
It is the quickest electric motorcycle in the world. On a popular
YouTube video, the black dragster cycle nearly disappears in
a cloud of smoke as the driver does a "burn-out," spinning the
back wheel to heat it up. As the smoke drifts away, the driver
settles into position and hits a switch, and the bike surges forward,
accelerating to 60 miles per hour in less than a second. Seven sec-
onds later it crosses the quarter-mile mark at 168 miles per hour---
quick enough to compete with gas-powered dragsters.
What powers the "Killacycle" is a novel lithium-ion battery
developed by A123 Systems, a startup in Watertown, MA---one
of a handful of companies working on similar technology. The
company's batteries store more than twice as much energy as
nickel--metal hydride batteries, the type used in today's hybrid
cars, while delivering the bursts of power necessary for high per-
formance. A radically modified version of the lithium-ion batteries
used in portable electronics, the technology could jump-start the
long-sputtering electric-vehicle market, which today represents
a tiny fraction of 1 percent of vehicle sales in the United States.
A123's batteries in particular have attracted the interest of Gen-
eral Motors, which is testing them as a way to power the Volt, an
electric car with a gasoline generator; the vehicle is expected to
go into mass production as early as 2010.
In the past, automakers have blamed electric vehicles' poor sales
on their lead-acid or nickel--metal hydride batteries, which were
so heavy that they limited the vehicles' range and so bulky that
they took up trunk space. While conventional lithium-ion batter-
ies are much lighter and more compact, they're not cost e ective
for electric vehicles. That's partly because they use lithium cobalt
oxide electrodes, which can be unstable: batteries based on them
wear out after a couple of years and can burst into flame if punc-
tured, crushed, overcharged, or overheated. Some automakers
have tried to engineer their way around these problems, but the
results have been expensive.
A123's batteries could finally make lithium-ion technology prac-
tical for the auto industry. Instead of cobalt oxide, they use an elec-
WITH A NEW BATTERY
FROM A123 SYSTEMS,
COULD COME TO
DOMINATE THE ROADS.
By KEVIN BULLIS
trode material made from nanoparticles of lithium iron phosphate
modified with trace metals. The resulting batteries are unlikely to
catch fire, even if crushed in an accident. They are also much har-
dier than conventional lithium-ion batteries: A123 predicts that
they will last longer than the typical lifetime of a car.
The battery's promise has made A123 one of the best-funded
technology startups in the country, with $148 million in venture
capital investments so far. With the funding, A123 has been pur-
suing an ambitious business plan that calls for it to do everything
from perfecting the material to manufacturing batteries and sell-
ing them to customers in the auto and power-tool industries.
The A123 batteries for GM's Volt store enough energy for 40
miles of driving, enough to cover daily commutes. (On longer trips,
the small gasoline engine would kick in to recharge the battery,
extending the range to more than 400 miles.) GM plans to sell
the vehicles for around $30,000 to $35,000; the company thinks
it can sell hundreds of thousands at that price in the first several
years, and J. D. Power and Associates estimates that GM will sell
nearly 300,000 by 2014.
In early 2001, a 26-year-old Venezuelan entrepreneur named Ric
Fulop walked into the office of Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor
of materials science at MIT, without an appointment. "He just
showed up and knocked on the door," recalls Chiang. Fulop, who
had already founded three venture-backed companies, wanted
help starting a battery company, and he knew that Chiang was
conducting battery research involving nanotechnology. Chiang
himself had cofounded a successful startup in the late 1980s, but
he spent most of his time researching nanotechnology and the
chemistry of advanced ceramics.
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