Innovation in Electric Vehicles? Easy as A123

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the great state of Michigan to participate in a two-day workshop entitled, “Electrifying the Economy – Educating the Workforce: Taking Charge of the Electric Vehicle Industry’s Educational Needs.” In addition to an exciting exchange on promoting innovation in the electric car industry, I had the opportunity to see this innovation first-hand when I visited A123 Systems’ Livonia, MI battery production plant. Thanks to support from the Department of Energy, A123 is rolling out advanced lithium ion batteries technology that is helping power many of the electric vehicles that are on America’s roads today.

A123 Systems began as a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). With Department of Energy support, it grew from a small start-up company in 2001 to an international business with more than 2,000 employees. What’s more, in just one decade of partnership with the Department, A123 has developed advanced lithium-ion batteries based on a unique nanoscale lithium-iron-phosphate cathode material that allows batteries to operate with improved safety, excellent cycle and calendar life, and higher rates of charge and discharge than previous generations of Lithium batteries.

A123’s partnership with the Department of Energy has resulted in cheaper, better-performing battery systems that are manufactured at the Livonia, MI production plant that I visited last week. That facility, housed in a plant that was once forced to close its doors, has been reconditioned and re-opened with the help of a $249 million American Recovery & Reinvestment Act grant. With what is now the largest battery manufacturing plant in North America, A123 has already created more than 400 jobs, and supplies its innovative, Department of Energy supported battery technology to companies like BAE, Eaton, Fisker, Navistar and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.

It all started in 2001 with a group of MIT researchers who had been developing an innovative lithium cathode material with the potential to meet the need for better battery performance in high-power applications — including electric vehicles. The technology faced a significant barrier, as the MIT team needed to produce sufficient amounts of the material to demonstrate its potential for commercial viability. Enter the Department of Energy: in 2001, the researchers successfully applied for a grant from the Department’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which allowed them to complete development of the material and establish their start-up company, A123Systems. The company was awarded a subsequent SBIR grant in 2003 to demonstrate a cost-effective, pilot-scale process for manufacturing the lithium cathode materials for hybrid electric vehicle batteries. This initial support enabled A123 to test and refine their technology, yielding a proven, market-ready product to potential investors.

Interestingly, the A123 battery system first found market success in the battery-hungry power tool industry through collaboration with Black and Decker on its cordless DEWALT line. Bolstered by this partnership, A123 became the world’s second largest producer of lithium-ion batteries. In 2006, it successfully secured a $15 million cost-share contract from the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium to further develop the lithium iron phosphate technology for application in hybrid-electric vehicles. That contract, along with an additional $12.5 million in 2008 and strong private sector investment enabled advanced development and deployment of the technology, including expansion to plug-in hybrid electric vehicle applications.

Today, I’m proud to report that the Department of Energy’s early investment in the technology that was first being developed at an MIT lab in 2001 now powers the energy storage system for the Fisker Karma, just one of the many cutting-edge electric drive vehicles rolling out of production right now.

The successful deployment of technologies like the Department of Energy supported A123 advanced battery system are a crucial step toward President Obama’s goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, providing choice and quality to American consumers, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and achieving a more secure energy future.

By Connie Bezanson, Education and Outreach Technology Manager for the Vehicles Technology Program at the U.S. Department of Energy.