Boston-Power Swings Into Electric-Vehicle Batteries

With all the attention on electric vehicles these days, laptop battery manufacturers are rushing to get in on the action. The latest is Massachusetts-based Boston-Power, which on Monday unveiled a new battery, called Swing, for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The company hasn’t released any details about Swing, other than to say that it will deliver “industry-leading capabilities” in areas such as energy density, lifespan, safety, cost savings and environmental sustainability. (CEO Christina Lampe-Onnerud told us in January that the company was working on a transportation battery.) She said more specifications will be coming in the next few weeks. Lampe-Onnerud said Boston-Power is in discussions with a range of potential transportation customers and already has some “small volume” sales. She wouldn’t disclose the names of the company’s customers, saying that the sales are part of larger initiatives for those customers, who would decide when to announce them.

Boston-Power also Monday announced plans to build a 455,000-square foot lithium-ion battery factory in Auburn, Mass. The 4-year-old company, which raised $55 million in January and supplies upgrade batteries for HP laptops, said it has scored up to $9 million in state funding and is seeking approximately $100 million in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The company plans to produce both its Swing batteries for vehicles and its Sonata batteries for laptops at its proposed Massachusetts factory, and will continue its production in Taiwan “for the foreseeable future” as well, Lampe-Onnerud said.

If Boston-Power receives the DOE funding, it plans to have the Massachusetts factory up and running in full-scale production in about three years after it begins work on the project, she said, adding that the company expects to hear back from the DOE in July and to begin work immediately, if it gets the thumbs-up. Even if it doesn’t get the funding, the company plans to continue to grow and open more factories to meet its demand, but those factories would “very likely” be built outside of the United States, Lampe-Onnerud said.

The news is the latest in a series of announcements about government funding sparking U.S. manufacturing of electric-vehicle batteries. Lithium-ion battery startup A123Systems and Johnson Controls–Saft, a lithium-ion joint venture between Milwaukee automotive-component supplier Johnson Controls and French battery maker Saft, in April announced plans to build factories in Michigan after receiving state funding. Both are developing batteries for advanced vehicles, with A123 partnering with Chrysler and Johnson Controls–Saft partnering with Ford Motor.

As part of the stimulus package, the DOE is offering $2.4 billion in grants for advanced batteries, as well as additional money for advanced vehicles, and companies are jumping at the chance to tap into the cash. Battery startups, such as Planar Energy Devices and Sakti3, have applied for funding from the Electric Drive Battery and Component Manufacturing Initiative. And A123Systems is seeking $1.8 billion in loans from the DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program.

The drive toward making batteries for electric cars could help bring about what Sara Bradford, a principal consultant at research firm Frost & Sullivan, calls “a renaissance” in North American battery manufacturing. While North American-based companies, such as Energizer, Duracell and others, have for decades transitioned battery manufacturing away from the U.S. and Canada toward lower-cost areas like China, India, Korea and Japan, Bradford sees the potential to establish a North American production base for batteries targeting electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, as well as alternative-energy storage.

Bradford told us that the stimulus has renewed interest in manufacturing those batteries in the United States. The success of those plans will depend on whether the government support continues, whether the battery companies can meet their technology and cost challenges and, of course, whether the market for electric vehicles takes off.