Boston-Power Adds Ex-GM Exec to Board, Prepares to Take On Automotive Battery Market

Around the time Steve Jobs unveiled the Apple iPad, a funny Photoshopped picture began making the rounds on the Web, showing Jobs with four iPhones crudely lashed together with duct tape. The picture’s unspoken message, of course, was that the iPad is just a big iPhone.

Well, something like that is actually coming true in the automotive battery field. It turns out that you can make a pretty good battery for a hybrid electric vehicle by assembling lots of small lithium-ion laptop battery cells—up to 2,000 of them, in fact—into one big pack.

This is the approach being pursued by Boston-Power, the Westborough, MA, startup best known for making the environmentally friendly Sonata batteries used in many Hewlett-Packard notebook computers. And in a sign that Boston-Power is getting serious about marketing its so-called Swing cells to electric-vehicle makers, the company is expected to announce today the appointment of retired General Motors executive Robert Purcell to its board of directors.

As the leader of GM’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Group from 1994 to 2002, Purcell helped to launch the EV-1, GM’s first modern electric vehicle, as well as an electric pickup truck and early hybrid cars. He went on to lead global sales, planning, and strategic alliances for GM’s Powertrain Group, managing $2 billion a year in direct engine and transmission sales and $1 billion in licensing activity.

In other words, he’s been around the block a few times in the automotive industry. And while he says he’s “seen a lot of things” in his work with GM and its partners, he’s never seen a car powered by the equivalent of 2,000 laptop batteries.

“Of course, this isn’t just as simple as strapping together a bunch of laptop cells,” Purcell told Xconomy last week. “It’s about integrating from cell to module and then from module to pack. Boston-Power has some very clever ideas about how to do that in a cost-effective way. And this isn’t a science fair project—they are doing the hands-on work to move from cell to module to pack in a way that will work in a typical light-duty passenger vehicle.”

Boston-Power has been eyeing the transportation market since 2008, when it expanded the R&D facilities at its Westborough headquarters and began to build prototype battery packs for power-assisted bikes and scooters. So far, the company has tested Swing-based battery packs in just a few hundred cars—but Christina Lampe-Onnerud, the company’s founder and CEO, predicts that eventually the Swing and other lithium-ion batteries will completely displace the nickel metal hydride batteries used in today’s mass-produced hybrid cars, such as the Toyota Prius. That’s mainly because lithium-ion batteries have a much higher energy density, a measure of the amount of current a battery can produce per unit of volume.

So the work Boston-Power has done to engineer greener, longer-lasting, faster-recharging lithium-ion batteries for laptops will eventually pay dividends in the automotive market, Lampe-Onnerud believes. “The rigor we brought to the portable space is really paying off as we enter the transportation market,” she says. “The fundamental carryover is the absolute dedication to safety, the very good thermal management, and the temperature window for high performance, which is really wide. We are already in mass production, and we have applications that match some of the expectations of the automotive industry—although everybody around the table admits that this is an emerging market and there’s still a lot to learn.”

That’s one of the reasons Boston-Power recruited Purcell, who will be valuable to the startup not just for his understanding of electric and hybrid vehicles but for his connections across the automotive business. Part of Purcell’s last job at GM was managing the giant automaker’s relationships with the other powertrain makers that license its technology. “What was really interesting about that assignment was that I got to know every major automaker in the world, and virtually all of the companies supplying power systems to the auto industry,” he says. “I actually spent more time inside other companies than I did inside GM. That will be a real advantage as we begin to position Boston-Power” to sell batteries to carmakers.

Purcell says he was attracted to a board position at Boston-Power in part because of the company’s high engineering standards. (While lithium-ion technology itself is quite venerable, Boston-Power has developed novel cell geometries, wiring arrangements, and control electronics that make its batteries longer-lived, less likely to overheat, and faster to recharge than conventional lithium-ion cells.)

“I have seen a lot of battery companies over 15-plus years and I have to say that Boston-Power clearly came to the top of the class in terms of its system engineering expertise,” Purcell says. “A battery is more than just a bag of chemicals, it’s an integrated system, and I never saw a company that made a more intelligent set of tradeoffs on the overall system design. The safety, the high energy density, the recharge time—these are the right kinds of elements to bring into play to be successful for an automotive application.”

On top of all that, says Purcell, Boston-Power has “put a real emphasis on creating a green battery,” becoming the only battery maker to win Nordic Eco-label certification for the long life of its batteries and its low use of heavy metals. “To me, it’s simple—a green car deserves a green battery,” Purcell says.

But when Lampe-Onnerud lists Boston-Power’s fundamental advantages as it goes head-to-head with other battery suppliers in the auto industry—including Watertown, MA-based A123Systems (NASDAQ: AONE), which plans to build a production plant outside Detroit in Livonia, MI, to supply battery cells to Chrysler—she comes back to the small form factor of its Swing batteries, which are identical in size to its 6.5-centimeter-long Sonata batteries.

The small size means not only that the cells can be flexibly arranged into modules and packs that fit almost any space, but that there’s less chance of catastrophic overheating, a problem that’s led to well-publicized episodes of exploding laptops, plug-in hybrid meltdowns, and battery recalls. “We feel strongly that the cell elements that are put together into packs need to be small to preserve safety and control,” Lampe-Onnerud says. “That is absolutely critical, and I don’t think the industry had that focus before we came along.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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