Following the announcement from General Motors the other day of a much closer working relationship with A123 Systems for development of the lithium ion battery cells for the Chevy Volt, AutoblogGreen sat down to talk with David Vieau and Ric Fulop of A123. Ric is the Vice President of business development and Founder of the company. David is the CEO and president.
AutoblogGreen: We got a big announcement this morning from GM. They're now going be working much more closely with you on the cell development. Why don't we start off by talking about that? Give us your perspective on this.
David Vieau: Well, it's a chance for us to get closer to GM and get a better understanding of what exactly they need which is a big part of this process. We're going to go back and forth and we have a relationship with them through Continental on the Volt program and through Cobasys on the Saturn Vue program, so we do have working relationship. This creates a direct connection with them on development of the cell. It's great.
ABG: How's the it been so far working with GM on the Volt program and also on the Vue program?
Ric Fulop: So far, very good. It's a lot of collaboration. It's been quite a bit of times that we've been working on these programs and our whole company is geared around delivering for this programs. This is a key part of what we're doing.
ABG: Are these your first major automotive programs? The Vue and the Volt?
Read the answers to this and many more questions after the jump.
RF: That have been announced, yes. We have some other things going on in the automotive field, but they're unannounced at the moment.
ABG: Let's start with the Volt since I think that's the one that most people are more interested in. What's the current status of that program? How far along are you on that program?
RF: GM's probably in a better position to answer exactly how far along it is in their vehicle time-line, but I tell you we're working very aggressively to meet our internal project plan and we feel very confident with the technology that we have is an excellent fit for this type of vehicle.
ABG: As far as development, do you currently have any prototype battery packs running for either the Vue or the Volt programs? Or are you still at the cell and module test level?
RF: I think, you know, that these are all of the above. These programs are all in different stages. What we're working on is taking our cells and customizing them for the application. the chemistry is already at the point of maturity where we're very confident of its capability and now we're scaling it specific for those programs that in partnership are with Continental and with Cobasys on these two programs. They're working on the packaging of those solutions.
DV: We're a little cautious on the delivery dates for obvious reasons. But, you know, there have been discussions today about having cars operational this year, I mean, in terms of pack delivery that's been talked about by GM.
RF: They're saying next spring.
DV: Right. But they're talking about delivery of the pack this year. So it's been moving along. And the relationship I'll add to what Ric's comment is, the relationship's been very good. The biggest – the most important thing is the enthusiasm. I mean, they're charged up to get the thing done. The whole team's wrapped around it. They're fired up from Bob Lutz down through the organization that this is gonna happen. So it's exciting.
ABG: How about we talk about your technology a little bit. One of the issues with lithium ion batteries at least in consumer electronics devices obviously, is thermal management and also the durability and the number of charge cycles that it can withstand. For the cells that you're developing for automotive applications, what kind of numbers are you looking at for charge cycles for the life of the battery?
RF: So this technology, one of the things that differentiates us from the consumer electronic type batteries – this technology is about ten times better cycle life than the conventional lithium ion system. You probably get about 700 cycles from a conventional cell phone or laptop battery. This system can give you over 7,000 cycles. So significant improvement. In addition to that, our nano-phosphate chemistry has a benefit in terms of safety. The fact that you don't involve oxygen. The cathode when you expose it to elevated temperatures allows you to have a much safer system than the conventional chemistry, which is the reason why people like Black and Decker use this technology it's safer.
ABG: What about temperature performance, particularly low-temperature performance? That's also been an issue with lithium batteries.
RF: It's better than consumer electronic type batteries. These are tuned systems to meet automotive requirements.
ABG: – So let's say, for example most automotive components are designed to work down to minus 30 or minus 40.
RF: Our specs are minus 30 to 60 degrees Celsius.
ABG: So at minus 30, how much of a performance hit would you take?
RF: It probably depends on how you package it, what the thermal management is, how much power you're drawing at the given amount of time. Obviously, it's a function of the conductivity of the electrolyte. That varies with temperature, but the system that we're developing is designed to meet the specifications of our customer with the window that they've given us, which is minus 30 to plus 60.
ABG: Another issue, obviously, is charging time. Altairnano's made a lot of noise in the past year with their claims of being able to charge their battery packs in ten minutes, assuming you had the special kind of charging station that could, pump out a thousand amps at 480 volts. Is that something that would be feasible with your system?
DF: Nano phosphate technology also has fast charge capability. There are a number of trade-offs when you do fast charge. I think it's great if you're gonna do small consumer devices that charge fast or other applications, but for a vehicle, you would need to rely on a completely new infrastructure, so while the technology has those capabilities, especially our ultra cells, I don't think that the market is there.
DV: There's two statements. The batteries we've tested are small cells that we make. Power tools for example have been qualified tested for long life with charge times of five minutes. At the cell level and very, very high discharge rates. Now, would you employ that? Depends on the infrastructure that Ric's talking about. Ric's saying that isn't very likely, but if you did create a system – a battery system – I mean, the batteries would be capable of doing it. You've got to build basically all of the connections all the way through the battery system, all the way back out to the charge port and infrastructure and make that happen. But you could do it.
ABG: The Altairnano battery would require a special infrastructure to charge them that fast, as well.
ABG: Aside from that question, I was trying to determine whether or not your batteries were capable of doing that. Sounds like they are.
DV: They are. Yeah.
RF: They are. You understand, essentially power, which is power in or power out, is a function of the kinetics of the system. And when you go to a nano scale, you can put things in and out of the particles much faster. It's faster kinetics. And so both that technology – or the technology we've got has that capability. The trade-off with that technology is that you end up with much lower voltage. And the energy by volume is much lower. So you have those two down sides, which means you end up with a more expensive, larger battery for an application like a plug‑in hybrid.
ABG: With hybrids, one of the limitations right now as far as being able to do regenerative braking is the ability of the battery to absorb the kinetic energy. Would your batteries be able to absorb energy faster to allow for better use of regenerative braking?
RF: Our hybrid batteries, we have two different – we started with our M1 chemistry. Which is the proprietary chemistry and we've now split into two variants. One is the M1HD chemistry, which is optimized for plug‑in hybrid type applications, and the other one is the M1 Ultra, which is optimized for hybrid applications, and the M1 Ultra technology has excellent power in and out.
ABG: So that could potentially help increase the range of the vehicles because they could make better use of regenerative braking.
RF: Hybrid vehicles – yes. The technology – the HD still is a pretty powerful system in and out in terms of power, but you can get great regen from this technology.
ABG: What about manufacturing volumes? I think certainly the Vue plug‑in would probably be your first automotive application. Has A123 got manufacturing capacity in place already or planned short-term to do large volumes of automotive batteries?
DV: Well, we've been making millions of batteries per year at the size that was supported by power tool applications and other commercial applications we've got. So they're relatively small. What we're doing for these programs with GM is developing larger size – larger format cells, which benefits the application by fewer number of components and few number of weld or termination connections that are on there. So our capacity is reasonably large for what we currently make. These new cells, the capacity will be built up over the next two years.
ABG: one other area I wanted to get into is the idea of standardized form factors for automotive batteries for EVs and plug‑in vehicles. One of the things that comes up from readers is the idea of instead of having a range extender on a vehicle, or having really huge batteries, since charging time is an issue and it's not like with a gas-powered car you go in and takes you five minutes to fill it up and you're on your way again. The idea of having easily interchangeable batteries, so you pull in to a station, swap out your battery and get a freshly charged one...
RF: I think it's not a bad idea, but the devil is in the details. Interconnecting high-voltage systems, you can die from exposure to high-voltage line. So interconnecting high-voltage systems with integrity of seals and these things are heavy, it's not a trivial matter. You could break it up into lots of blocks and then have the system auto-connect. I mean, we have technology to do things like that.
DV: It's being discussed. I hear it a lot. It's something that's interesting, you know. It'd be interesting to see if it develops –
RF: We'll see if somebody does it, yeah.
DV: At my last company we made modular battery systems that were used and deployed in stationary applications and there's certainly some promise that you could do that – and what you're talking about is a standardized format.
RF: It's not impossible. I still would caution – I wouldn't go and say, or put in writing, that people are looking at that as a serious solution. I think a lot of people are questioning whether that is a scalable and it is one of the concepts that gets put in a matrix and traded off.
ABG: The last think I wanted to get to is vehicle to grid technology. Is that an area that A123 is actively involved in research on?
RF: We are excited about vehicle to grid. We would like to see it developed. We think it has huge potential in the long run. It's gonna require that there are enough plug‑in hybrids on the road first. Before we can deploy we need to have a large enough base if you wanted to trade in the power markets. The whole point of being a vehicle-to-grid network or an aggregator is that you can trade that power. You need at least a megawatt of constant supply. So if you're gonna have a bi-directionally inverter say 5 kilowatts in/out, say 220V on a vehicle, you're gonna need to have a lot of plug‑in hybrids aggregated to be able to supply. So I think maybe in five or six or seven years, as soon as you start seeing these vehicles in volume. The second generation of those vehicles will be much easier to integrate those things. Those concepts are going to be great for all sorts of new business models in the power markets.