A123 Thinks Big about Electric Cars from Norway

Local battery powerhouse A123Systems is delving further into the automotive market, thanks to a three-way deal involving itself, Norwegian electric car company Think, and General Electric. A123 has signed a deal to put its lithium-ion rechargeable batteries into Think’s vehicles.

Think is making an electric car, the City, that has a top speed of 60 mph and can go about 120 miles between recharges. It’s already on sale in Norway, and should be available internationally later this year. The company is also developing the Ox, a five-seater it says is close in size to an SUV, but lighter and more aerodynamic. That’s due out in 2009. (I didn’t speak to anyone at Think, but I’m guessing the name “Ox” is supposed to suggest oxygen, rather than a lumbering beast of burden. Maybe they’ll rename it if they move into the American market.)

Both vehicles are designed to rely on either a sodium or a lithium battery. In addition to A123, which makes the “Nanophosphate” lithium-ion battery, Think is working with Enerdel of Indianpolis, which makes a lithium-manganese system.

A123 batteries contain nanomaterials that let them hold more energy, run longer, and recharge faster than traditional lithium-ion systems. To build batteries for electric cars, the company has to take its individual battery cells and design them to operate in connected stacks that work with the car’s electrical system. The two vehicles, which will have different operating ranges, will require two different battery-pack designs, says David Vieau, CEO of A123. That’s why A123 is teaming up with battery-pack design experts at GE’s Global Research Center. The collaboration will “accelerate the timeline,” according to Vieu.

Meanwhile, another branch of General Electric, GE Energy Financial Services, is putting money into both companies to help advance the development of the electric cars. GE invested $4 million in Think, and increased its investment in A123Systems to more than $20 million. Vieau wouldn’t say exactly how much GE put in as part of this latest deal, but overall it’s the largest cash investor in A123, which has raised $148 million in financing to date.

He said both GE and A123 had been in talks with Think about battery systems, and the multi-party deal just made sense. “All of it kind of came together at the same time,” he says.

A123 has also been working with General Motors to provide the battery for GM’s electric vehicle, the Volt, and with BAE Systems to help power hybrid buses. Vieau says the deal with Think is yet another step into the transportation market.

But that doesn’t mean it will be solely a car parts company. A123 is also continuing its relationship with Black & Decker—among its first commercial products were batteries for high-power, longer lasting power tools. Still, Vieau says, “The transportation market is going to be our largest overall.”

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