Boston-Power Expands Lithium Ion R&D Lab, Sets Eyes on Batteries for Transportation

Boston-Power, which makes advanced lithium-ion battery packs for notebook computers, is planning a ribbon-cutting ceremony today for its newly expanded research and development facilities in Westborough, MA. I caught up with CEO Christina Lampe-Onnerud by phone this morning as she prepared for the event, where a number of local business leaders and state officials plan to join the company as it unveils a state-of-the-art facility focused on improving the quality of the company’s existing notebook batteries and exploring new applications for lithium ion technology.

Already, Boston-Power’s Sonata notebook batteries are known for lasting longer and recharging faster than battery packs from competing manufacturers. Lampe-Onnerud—who will be one of the expert panelists at an upcoming Xconomy Forum on energy innovation, planned for December 2—says the company hopes to extend that advantage into other types of consumer electronics and, eventually, into hybrid and electric vehicles.

A few outtakes from our conversation:

Xconomy: We last talked when you collected a $45 million Series C investment round back in January. Can you say a little about what Boston-Power has been up to since then, and why you needed additional research and development space?

Christina Lampe-Onnerud: The company is three and a half years old now, and it feels quite wonderful—it seems that we have arrived in the market at a time when consumer awareness is pretty high around what next-generation electronics technology should look like, and it’s all about having a battery you can depend on. Our batteries are green, they’re the fastest to charge on the market, and it’s really fun for us today to be opening our new development facility, where we’re expanding both our chemistry laboratories and our electronics laboratory, as well as our testing capabilities and our quality-control production support. We’re also officially opening a whole new division around transportation batteries.

It’s particularly inspiring for me and my colleagues, at a time when we’re reading a lot about the horrific evens in the financial markets all over the world, to be able to promise a glimmer of hope. We are stepping to markets that will not only create new opportunities for us but will actually solve major problems in the clean tech space.

New Laboratory Space at Boston-PowerX: What kind of work will go on in these new facilities?

CL-O: We now have close to 100 employees here in Massachusetts, and through our consultants, part-time people, and factory workers we have 500 people engaged in the company. The old facility was in the same building as the new one, but it was only part of a floor. We now have a whole floor, which means we’re able to house the whole team in one place, which is great. We have a dedicated customer support team for every OEM [original equipment manufacturer] that we work with, and now they, as well as the core expert groups in mechanical engineering and chemical engineering and material science, are all in the same space. That helps them make progress really quickly.

We are also fortunate to have many people who want to collaborate with us, so [the new facilities are] an opportunity to take in and partner with other organizations and truly come up with the best solutions.

X: Can you say more about the transportation applications for lithium ion batteries? That’s not something you’ve talked about a lot in the past.

CL-O: I think we have two really big opportunities for Boston-Power. We have all embraced mobile electronics in the last 10 years, and consumers are still hungry for better technology, and batteries have a big part in that. Now our company has the opportunity to leverage our experience with the [lithium ion] chemistry and apply it to the emerging market of transportation. That is a market that is still coming, no question. But it will probably be the biggest market in my lifetime. We really need people to come together to think this through from many different disciplines.

There are a number of new opportunities that will present themselves. Today we are showcasing battery modules for power-assisted bikes and scooters. And later we will be showcasing systems for larger systems like trucks and hybrid cars. In my opinion, it will be quite a few years before that becomes a real market, but I’m absolutely convinced that it will happen.

Right now the batteries in most hybrid cars, like the Toyota Prius, are nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Are you saying that you think you can displace that technology, or are you thinking about experimenting with other chemistries?

CL-O: I believe that we have only scratched the surface of lithium ion technology. If you look at the history of battery technologies, they typically stay around for 30, 50, or even 150 years. Lithium ion was only commercialized starting in 1991. You can think of a battery as a chemical factory where everything has to run exactly on time—and it takes a long time to refine a technology to that point. Lithium ion has had remarkable success in mobile electronics, where it is deployed in basically 100 percent of devices. The energy density is so much higher than for nickel metal hydride that there is basically no question that lithium ion will be the dominant technology.

But I have to be somewhat humble, because it takes a long time to commercialize these opportunities—longer than people sometimes might think. It just takes a very long time to scale up and trouble-shoot new batteries. It’s lovely to have an early demonstration in the lab, but it’s a whole new game to take it into mass adoption.

I think it’s quite likely that lithium ion is the only battery technology I will work on for my entire life. It’s going to stay around for another 50 years, at least.

X: Lastly—you’re talking today about Boston-Power’s lithium ion batteries as a “clean” technology. How so?

CL-O: Lithium ion is intrinsically environmentally friendly because it doesn’t have any heavy metals in it. Boston-Power is the only company in the world that carries “green” government accreditation from both the EU and China. It also has to do with the longevity of the battery packs. You are only going to need one Sonata battery for the lifetime of your notebook. The debate about whether batteries are recyclable misses the point. If you have a battery that can power-cycle 1,000 times as opposed to 400 times, you don’t have to recycle nearly as many batteries, which costs a lot of money, effort, and energy.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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