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Troubled Battery Maker A123 Unveils ‘Breakthrough’ New Lithium Ion Technology

A123 Systems, the troubled Massachusetts-based battery maker and recipient of U.S. Energy Department financing assistance, is banking on a new lithium ion battery technology to boost its prospects. To date, A123 may be best known for a costly recall of a product earlier this year and its precipitous decline in value on the stock market

The company is calling the lithium ion battery, named the Nanophosphate EXT, a “game-changing breakthrough” for energy storage.

“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,” said David Vieau, CEO of A123 Systems, in a statement today.

A123 has faced increased scrutiny and skepticism in the wake of its battery recall earlier this year. The company was set to receive $249 million in government financing to build a new factory in Livonia, Michigan, but has only received about half of that money after failing to reach production targets. The factory sits largely unfinished and the company was recently forced to reduce the number of workers there. A123 has reported loses every year since 2005, including $125 million in losses for the first quarter of this year in the wake of the recall.

Despite all of its financial trouble, the U.S. government has remained cautiously confident in A123 because of its engineering acumen. With the exception of the recent defective batteries, A123 has remained on the cutting edge of lithium ion battery technology, and the Nanophosphate EXT is the latest example.

Though the specifics of the new Nanophosphate EXT battery are proprietary, A123 has suggested that the battery’s electrodes (anode and cathode) and electrolyte have been redesigned.

Though lithium ion batteries are relatively light weight, many are needed to power a vehicle. This takes up a lot of space, adds weight, and reduces the efficiency (and therefore range) of the car. According to A123, the Nanophosphate EXT packs between 20% and 30% more power than traditional lithium ion batteries. If true, this has the potential to substantially reduce the number of batteries required in hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles, thus boosting performance.

Another major problem with current lithium ion battery technology is temperature restriction. In cold temperatures, a battery’s power is dramatically reduced; in hot climates, the life of the battery is severely depleted. To counter this problem, expensive and heavy climate control systems are needed in the battery casings of electric cars.

Moreover, the cars really work best only in specific conditions. Take the Nissan Leaf, the first commercial plugin electric introduced in the United States: It has a range of about 77 miles and the EPA rates its fuel efficiency at the equivalent of about 99 miles per gallon. But the Leaf works best at between 68 and 73 degree Fahrenheit. Extreme temperatures either one way or the other can cut its range substantially.

A123 Systems claims that its Nanophosphate EXT technology solves the temperature problem. The company says that the new battery no longer needs the heating and cooling systems and is immune to the effects of extreme temperatures. This could have a huge practical impact. In addition to increasing the efficiency and range of electric vehicles — and therefore their practicality and commercial appeal — the new battery could make electric cars viable in a broader range of markets.

If the technology performs as claimed, the Nanophosphate EXT could also reduce costs. As it stands, the battery packs of hybrid electric or electric cars are expensive and need to be replaced every 100,000 miles or so. According to A123, the Nanophosphate EXT lasts 2-3 times as long as traditional lithium ion batteries — eliminating the need for after-market battery replacements.

Already, the Nanophosphate EXT is scheduled for use in the Chevy Spark, an all-electric city car due out in 2013.

Between the power boost, the temperature flexibility, and the cost reductions, this new battery technology has the potential to boost the electric car market and get us closer to President Obama’s goal of 1 million such cars on the road by 2015.

Max Frankel is an intern on the energy policy team at the Center for American Progress. A version of this article is cross-posted at Climate Progress.

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