Any story about battery company A123 must start way back in the dim mists of time when the EV revolution was just a dream in Elon Musk’s eye. The company was founded in 2001 by Yet-Ming Chiang, Bart Riley, and Ric Fulop and based on technology developed at MIT. By 2009, it had 2,500 employees worldwide and seemed poised to be a dominant player in battery production as electric cars began to appear on the road.
In May of 2008, the United States Advanced Battery Consortium — a collaboration between Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors — awarded the company a $12.5 million grant to develop its lithium-ion battery technology for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. The US Department of Energy was part of that deal as well.
A123 provided batteries to Henrik Fisker for his groundbreaking Karma plug-in hybrid, but that association soon came to grief after a series of battery failures took the luster off Fisker’s first attempt at building an electric car. Both Fisker and A123 filed for bankruptcy while politicians such as Mitt Romney harshly criticized Democrats for investing in A123, despite the fact that the federal investment was enthusiastically supported by Republicans.
Oddly enough, the assets of both companies were purchased out of bankruptcy by Wanxiang, which has rebranded the former Fisker holdings as Karma Automotive and has begun sales of an updated model loosely based on the Fisker Karma and known as the Karma Revero. Confused? You’re not alone.
The A123 battery business has also continued to evolve under Wanxiang’s guidance. This week, Ric Fulop, one of the original founders of A123, tweeted that Wanxiang A123 will supply approximately $1.4 billion worth of batteries to Volkswagen for its electric car models in China. According to InsideEVs, Wanxiang A123 will be the third battery supplier to Volkswagen Group in China, following in the footsteps of CATL and Guoxuan.
VW signs $1.4B supply agreement with Wanxiang for A123 LFP batterieshttps://t.co/wwfVIOKSrY
— Ric Fulop 🚀 (@ricfulop) July 26, 2020
With this deal, Volkswagen has the following battery supply chain in place worldwide, says InsideEVs:
- Europe (over 150 GWh from 2025): LG Chem, Samsung SDI, SK Innovation and CATL, as well as joint gigafactory with Northvolt
- China (probably also over 150 GWh from 2025): CATL plus Guoxuan High-Tech Co Ltd. and now also Wanxiang A123
- North America: SK Innovation
LFP chemistry eliminates cobalt from the mix, reducing costs and avoiding the social justice furor that surrounds cobalt mining. But until recently, it didn’t have the energy density to compete with conventional lithium-ion battery cells. That seems to be changing.
Tesla is now about to use LFP cells from CATL for its cars made in China. In the most recent earnings call, Elon Musk mused, “Total vehicle efficiency has gotten good enough — with Model 3 for example — that we actually are comfortable having an iron phosphate battery pack in Model 3 in China. That will be in volume production later this year. So we think that getting a range that is in the high 200s — almost 300 miles — with an iron phosphate pack, taking into account a whole bunch of of powertrain and other vehicle efficiencies, [is possible].
“And that frees up a lot of capacity for things like the Tesla Semi and other projects that require higher energy density [batteries]. So you have two supply chains that you can tap into: iron phosphate or nickel.”
The key to A123 was always its focus on so-called solid-state battery cells. LFP may not be solid state exactly, but it does avoid many of the fire and explosion risks associated with ordinary lithium-ion cells, which must be addressed at the module or pack level. The problem is caused by dendrites, tiny spikes of lithium sharp enough to pierce the internal structure of cells, leading to short circuits as illustrated below.
Recently, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory revealed they had developed a new semi-solid electrolyte that is both solid yet flexible. It is an amalgam of both polymers and ceramics. “Our dendrite-suppressing technology has exciting implications for the battery industry,” says co-author Brett Helms, a staff scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. “With it, battery manufacturers can produce safer lithium metal batteries with both high energy density and a long cycle life.”
The best part of the announcement is the new technology can be incorporated into battery cells with few if any modifications to the manufacturing process, making it more likely the new technology could make it out of the lab and into production quickly.
In an odd twist, one of the offshoots of the original A123 Systems was a new company called 24M that specialized in solid-state battery research and development. And what company is partnering with Lawrence Berkeley to test the commercial possibilities of its semi-solid state batteries? 24M, that’s who. The links between all these companies are Byzantine and possibly incestuous. But if they allow manufacturers to bring us lower priced electric vehicles, we say in the immortal words of George W. Bush, “Bring it on!”