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A123 Systems announces cold/hot weather battery breakthrough amid financial woes

A123's new Nanophosphate EXT technology offers better performance in cold and hot weather, reduces the need for thermal management systems, and is a breath of good news following months of difficult times at A123 Systems.


Amid worries that A123 Systems might be unable to continue as a going concern, the company announced today a battery technology breakthrough, which the company calls Nanophosphate EXT, allowing batteries to "operate at extreme temperatures without requiring thermal management." The breakthrough would "significantly reduce or eliminate the need for heating or cooling systems," reducing complexity of products utilizing A123 cells, and improving the effective energy density of those products. By itself the breakthrough would enable electric vehicles to be usable in a wider range of temperature zones, and a few percentage points increase in effective energy density, but this comes at a time when the company desperately needs some good news to counter-act the bad news circling around A123.

"We believe Nanophosphate EXT is a game-changing breakthrough that overcomes one of the key limitations of lead acid, standard lithium ion and other advanced batteries. By delivering high power, energy and cycle life capabilities over a wider temperature range, we believe Nanophosphate EXT can reduce or even eliminate the need for costly thermal management systems, which we expect will dramatically enhance the business case for deploying A123's lithium ion battery solutions for a significant number of applications," said David Vieau, CEO of A123 Systems.

When an electric vehicle or grid energy storage system is designed, the battery pack design consists of the cells, and other equipment designed to keep the cells within appropriate operational characteristics. A box is required because the cells might expand during charge or discharge, and to reduce the chance of damage in case of collision. A battery management system is required to balance the state of charge in each cell, and to prevent when cells from being discharged below a voltage where the cell can be damaged. Finally, thermal management systems are required to prevent damage when cells are overheated, or to keep cells warm enough in cold weather to operate well. All these systems add to the weight, complexity, and battery pack costs.

A123's announcement addresses the last of those, thermal management. The company's Nanophosphate EXT technology is designed to maintain long cycle life at extreme high temperatures and deliver high power at extreme low temperatures. Testing at The Ohio State University's Center for Automotive Research (CAR) shows A123's Nanophosphate EXT, when the cells are charged/discharged at over 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius), that they retain 90% of capacity even after 2000 charge/discharge cycles. Testing in cold temperatures has just begun, but the company expects that at -22 degrees F (-30 degrees C) the cells will deliver 20% more energy than other cells which lack the Nanophosphate EXT technology.

This means Nanophosphate EXT battery packs can operate for long periods of time in hot weather without damage, and are less susceptible to cold weather.

"Based on our analysis, the performance of A123's new Nanophosphate EXT at high temperatures is unlike anything we've ever seen from lead acid, lithium ion or any other battery technology," said Dr. Yann Guezennec, senior fellow at CAR and professor of mechanical engineering at the Ohio State University. "Nanophosphate EXT maintains impressive cycle life even at extreme high temperatures without sacrificing storage or energy capabilities, especially as compared with the competitive leading lithium ion technology that we used on our head-to-head testing. If our testing also validates the low-temperature power capabilities that A123's data is showing, we believe Nanophosphate EXT could be a game-changing battery breakthrough for the electrification of transportation, including the emerging micro hybrid vehicle segment."

The news comes shortly after A123 announced doubts of its ability to continue as a going concern, coupled with a plan to raise more capital through investments. A recent filing with the SEC disclosed the company was offering $66.4 million worth of securities, had sold $50 million from that offering, leaving $16.4 million to sell. The dire financial situation is the due to expenses stemming from an expensive battery pack recall following a series of problems discovered by Fisker Automotive and other customers. Last week news began circulating that the company had hired 400 workers for its Livonia and Romulus Michigan plants. With the new round of funding in place, reports are that A123 sees enough opportunity to add new employees, or more precisely to replace the employees laid off following the problems earlier this year.

The company has contracts with at least Fisker Automotive, Smith Electric Vehicles, General Motors and BMW for automotive batteries, and continues to sell megawatt-hour size systems for grid energy storage projects. A123 spokesman Dan Borgasano told CBS Detroit that the "going concern" warning "was an acknowledgement at a point of time, but we are digging out of that recall, and we have secured $50 million and funding, and we're doing a few other things on that front to make sure we have liquidity to go forward. The demand is there and we plan to grow in transportation and our other markets."

A123 sees the Nanophosphate EXT battery as offering a new potential market for the company, to provide battery systems for micro-hybrid vehicles. Because of increased power at low temperatures, Nanophosphate EXT is expected to improve the cold-cranking capability of the company's 12V Engine Start battery. This would eliminate the remaining historical advantage of lead acid batteries, and position A123's 12V Engine Start battery as a longer-lasting alternative to lead-acid batteries.

The Nanophosphate EXT technology is scheduled to enter volume production in A123's 20Ah prismatic cells during the first half of 2013. We might then expect it's first appearance in vehicles beginning in 2014 at the earliest.

"From the introduction of our breakthrough Nanophosphate battery chemistry to our envelope-pushing work developing ultra high power batteries for Formula One racing to our introduction of megawatt-scale grid energy storage systems, A123 has been at the forefront of battery and energy storage innovation. Today we announce another milestone, and believe Nanophosphate EXT to be a significant breakthrough," said Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang, co-founder of A123 and professor of materials science and engineering at MIT.