Another Lithium-ion breakthrough to watch

A123Systems Inc. of Watertown, Mass., has come out of the storage closet, so to speak. The company publicly unveiled its Lithium-ion battery technology this week, announcing a deal with Black & Decker Corp. that will see new A123-powered 36v power tools on store shelves next year. The technology promises up to 5 times the power, 10 times the life and dramatically accelerated charge time. It also has the ability to recharge to 90 per cent capacity within 5 minutes.

Alert to wannabe Canadian handymen: You can bet you’ll be seeing these tools promoted heavily on Canadian Tire commercials next year.

Laptop, mobile phone and BlackBerry users also take note: “In addition to its high power products, A123Systems is working on a family of high-energy products that significantly improves upon the performance of existing Lithium-ion batteries used in notebook computers and cellular phones,” the company said, adding that this line of products will also be introduced next year.

This is serious technology, built upon research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that has been tested thoroughly by Motorola Inc. and U.S. government research labs. More interesting is that A123’s batteries could give a major power boost to hybrid-electric and all-electric vehicles, and make the idea of a plug-in hybrid more practical. The company says it is working on a “major undertaking” with the U.S. Department of Energy in this area.

Existing Lithium-ion technology has had trouble scaling up to meet the demands of hybrid vehicles and all-electrics, largely because at higher power the batteries can overheat and become unstable — i.e. they’re unsafe, dangerous, can catch on fire and go boom. A123 claims its batteries use new “thermally-stable, non-combustible active materials” to overcome this potential problem. The batteries also use what the company calls an “environmentally friendly chemistry.”

Valence Technologies, Electrovaya, Toshiba, and others have been aggressively trying to improve Lithium-ion technology, with a particular eye to hybrid-electric and electric vehicles, but A123 appears to have set the bar quite high. It raises the question, once again, about the future of direct-methanol fuel cell cartridges as a battery replacement. We’re still waiting for DMFC-powered products, and the longer we wait the more we see Lithium-ion advancements stealing the thunder. The clocking is ticking…

It should also be pointed out that A123 is well financed, having already raised $32 million (U.S.). Investors include Qualcomm, Sequoia Capital, Motorola, MIT, and the U.S. Army — a high-profile bunch with serious pull.

There is a Canadian connection here. A123’s chairman Desh Deshpande is one of its earliest investors. Deshpande, who founded Sycamore Networks Inc. and a number of high-tech businesses before that, is a Canadian citizen — or at least he was three years ago. He got his engineering degree from the University of New Brunswick and his Ph.D. at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., after which he began his career during the 1970s working at a Motorola subsidiary in Toronto.

This is just a bit of trivia, mind you, but it’s great to see “Desh” is into a good thing again after watching the telecom downturn devastate Sycamore.

(UPDATE: Sanyo Electric Co. and Johnson Controls are both saying that lithium-ion batteries will be the main technology in hybrid-electric and pure electric vehicles within the next few years. Check out The Energy Blog for a take on this. Also, for those interested in the use of lithium-ion technology in plug-in hybrids, check out the Plug-In Hybrid Development Consortium.)