CAMX Power Quietly Develops 200-Mile Electric Car Battery

Claims of a breakthrough in battery performance are fairly commonplace—and often disappointing. A little-known startup has been toiling on a material that isn’t a radical break with today’s batteries. But by improving on materials that are already widely used, it could be a commercial success nonetheless.

CAMX Power, based in Lexington, MA, has only existed as a standalone company since last May. But it has been working on a battery cathode material for 12 years and is now providing samples to potential customers and licensees, says president and founder Kenan Sahin. The cathode, which is the same class of material used in Tesla Motors electric car batteries, is designed to store more energy in a given space. That translates into a longer driving range for electric vehicles and runtime for mobile electronics—one of the main technical challenges with today’s lithium ion batteries.

“I think the sweet spot is about 200 miles on a charge. Tesla can achieve that and we think we can do even better with our material,” says Sahin. “The cathode was really a big obstacle.”

Aiming for a leap in performance, many battery startups are developing alternative chemistries to the lithium ion batteries used in consumer electronics and the latest generation of electric vehicles. The strategy at CAMX Power, by contrast, is to target relatively incremental, but still significant, improvements on today’s lithium ion batteries. It’s using a lithium nickel-based material, which rates well in power, energy, and lifespan but typically doesn’t score as high as other cathode materials on safety and cost, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

CAMX Power has been able to bring safety, reliability, cost, and cycle life to the level of existing commercial products, Sahin says. About $50 million has gone into the development of the cathode, with most of it from Sahin. Parent company TIAX, where Sahin is also president, has also funded the work.

The technology behind CAMX Power goes back to 2002, when Sahin acquired the research division of once-storied consulting company Arthur D. Little at bankruptcy auction. Convinced that high-energy density batteries would become crucial to the success of electric vehicles, Sahin—a successful entrepreneur and MIT-trained scientist who had sold his software company Kenan Systems to Lucent Technologies in 1999 for $1.45 billion in stock—decided to fund development of battery research.

The company’s plan is to develop versions of its cathode material for very specific uses, such as running batteries in very cold temperatures or small start-stop batteries, which are already used by many carmakers to power a car when idle to save fuel. At CAMX Power’s Lexington headquarters, engineers add dopants to tweak the formulation of the cathode material—a ceramic-like black powder that’s made in furnaces—to emphasize different qualities. “It’s really molecular engineering,” says Sahin.

The Lexington facility has equipment for making the cathode material in small quantities and for making coin-size cells for testing. And in a CAMX Power factory in Rowley, MA, machines can make tons of the cathode material, which is produced as a slurry rather than powder, and complete cylinder-shaped batteries, which include multiple cells in each.

Having the means to make the finished product is crucial to the development process, Sahin says. Having a good understanding of the manufacturing processes informs and speeds up research and development. And being able to produce at least at the demonstration scale allows potential customers and licensees to better evaluate performance.

“As you scale up, many things break down. So you have to master synthesis at the gram level but then you have to make sure that when you scale to the kilogram level, the material will remain the same,” Sahin says. “And then scaling from the kilogram to the ton level is yet another step.”

The process is like cooking a favorite recipe for family and friends versus making that same recipe at large volumes, Sahin says. Producing that recipe at scale is what yields its commercial value.

Indeed, CAMX Power’s story reflects just how long it takes to bring material science to market. Improvements in battery materials, for instance, tend to take years even for incremental improvements—and breakthroughs are rare.

Beyond the technical issues is the question of how to fund a venture that requires years of product development and significant amounts of capital. Venture capitalists, even those in energy, are wary of putting money in a company that requires research and long development times. Private equity firms, meanwhile, invest capital for scaling up a company but typically aren’t willing to take on technical risk.

Kenan Sahin CamX Power-1

Kenan Sahin shows off CAMX’s special sauce–cathode materials for lithium ion batteries. Photo: Martin LaMonica.

In that way, battery development is similar to drug development, Sahin says. The difference is that with drug development, there’s a funding pipeline, which includes large pharmaceutical companies, for such risky, multi-year efforts.

That funding infrastructure is far less developed in energy, which makes it very difficult for startups to scale up, particularly since cleantech investing has largely gone out of favor.

CAMX Power was able to sustain its efforts because Sahin was willing to personally fund the work and provide the company with resources from parent TIAX. The companies’ headquarters, for example, have extensive engineering and design space for both TIAX and CAMX Power engineers.

TIAX makes money by developing a range of products, mostly relating to energy efficiency, which are sold or licensed to other companies. During a tour, Sahin showed me a number of mechanical engineering projects underway, including a more efficient compressor for industrial air conditioners. It also has a wet lab for making materials, such as thin-films and coatings.

TIAX spun out CAMX Power because its technology is ready for the marketplace, Sahin says. Initially, he hopes to sell or license the cathode material for niche applications in autos and electronics.

It’s also conceivable that the material will be licensed for high-volume manufacturing, which could be done in the U.S. because the production process can be highly automated, he says. If that happens, CAMX Power’s technology could make electric vehicles more commercially viable, lower carbon emissions, and reduce oil use—factors Sahin expected would drive demand for EVs a decade ago.

In the meantime, CAMX Power is researching battery anodes made of silicon, rather than the traditional carbon-based materials. That’s still in research and development and, like the cathode, commercialization could take a few years longer than Sahin had originally anticipated. “But,” he says, “I’m a patient man.”

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