Boston-Power Recharges with Big Investment for Safer, Longer-lasting Lithium-Ion Batteries

As many of our readers know, the X in Xconomy stands for “exponential,” referring to the rapid rate at which technologies such as semiconductors and genomics evolve and in turn transform our economy and our daily lives. Unfortunately, the batteries in the information devices we carry everywhere these days aren’t one of those exponential technologies. Portable power is an area where we have to settle for incremental advances—but where there’s such great demand that even small improvements can justify big investments.

Westborough, MA, startup Boston-Power, which says it’s come up with safer, longer-lasting lithium-ion battery cells for notebook computers, is the latest to attract some of that investment. The company announced today that it’s gathered third-round venture funding totaling $45 million, which it will use in to scale up manufacturing operations with partners in Taiwan and mainland China.

“By the end of 2008 we will have the capability of making a million cells a month,” says Christina Lampe-Onnerud, the company’s founder and CEO. “That makes Boston-Power a real player in the space. We are still very small, but [a million cells per month] is enough for our customers to place a bet on us.” The company’s batteries are larger than most existing lithium-ion cells–which is part of what makes them more efficient—but the firm is working with laptop manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard to incorporate the cells into battery packs that can be dropped into existing laptop designs.

Oak Investment Partners of Westport, CT, led Boston-Power’s funding round, with Venrock Associates, Granite Global Ventures, and Gabriel Venture Partners also participating. The infusion brings Boston-Power’s total venture investment to $68 million.

Rechargeable ithium-ion batteries were first developed in the 1970s and have been the main power source for laptops, cell phones, and other gadgets practically since the birth of portable electronics. But they’ve attracted some unwanted attention of late as the result of fires and explosions caused by manufacturing defects. Conventional lithium-ion cells are made using cobalt oxides that can become unstable if the batteries are overheated, overcharged, punctured, or short-circuited; they then release oxygen that oxidizes other materials, releasing more heat, with potentially frightening results. (In fact, the FAA classifies lithium-ion batteries as “hazardous materials.” To minimize fire danger aboard airplanes, the agency just enacted new rules prohibiting airline passengers from packing lithium-ion batteries in checked luggage, and limiting them to two spare laptop batteries in carry-on luggage.)

Boston-Power’s Sonata lithium-ion battery packsLampe-Onnerud, former director of battery research at Kenan Sahin‘s Cambridge-based technology-development firm Tiax, helped to devise lithium-ion batteries that use stabler substances such as manganese in place of cobalt. She founded Boston-Power in 2005 with a mission to commercialize the new chemistry—along with larger mechanical designs that simplify the path of current through a battery and add new interrupt devices resettable fuses, and other monitoring electronics. “We have put a lot of time and effort into safety,” says Lampe-Onnerud. “We’ve not only changed the alloys, but we’ve made batteries smarter. They can say ‘I don’t like what I’m feeling right now, so I’m going to shut down,’ either temporarily or permanently.”

At the same time, Boston-Power’s battery packs, branded “Sonata,” recharge faster than average lithium-ion cells, reaching an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes. They can also be recharged over and over for up to three years without losing significant capacity, according to Lampe-Onnerud, whereas the average laptop battery has faded to about 60 percent of its original capacity by that time. And they’re made using smaller amounts of heavy metals than traditional lithium-on batteries, earning the company the prestigious Nordic Ecolabel, awarded by the Nordic Council of Ministers to products that have mimimal environmental impact in both their initial manufacturing stage and their and waste or recyling stage. “We were the first in the world to get the Nordic Ecolabel for lithium-ion chemistry,” Lampe-Onnerud says. “Why the big guys didn’t do it first, I have no idea.”

Though the company hasn’t said which manufacturers will be the first to include Sonata batteries in their laptops, it is already busy making them in partnership with a contract manufacturer in Shenzhen, China. And it announced today that it has selected a second company, GP Batteries of Hsinchu, Taiwan, to expand its manufacturing capacity. Lampe-Onnerud and GP’s own CEO, Andrew Ng, say the two companies connected at just the time when GP was looking for the right technology to manufacture. “GP Batteries has in the past been a conservative player in the laptop computer market, because of the safety concerns surrounding the lithium-ion system,” Ng said in a statement announcing the partnership. “With the design innovation and safeguards that are incorporated in Boston-Power’s Sonata batteries, we are now ready to apply our manufacturing expertise to re-enter the laptop computer market.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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