Boston-Power Strikes Deal with Hewlett-Packard to Market Longer-Lived, Eco-Friendly Laptop Batteries

After raising $70 million in venture funding and spending more than three years on the development of next-generation lithium-ion batteries, Westborough, MA-based Boston-Power has won its first big customer: It’s the supplier behind a new line of replacement laptop batteries from Hewlett-Packard. Branded as the “HP Enviro Series” but based entirely on Boston-Power’s Sonata technology, the batteries incorporate advances in design and chemistry that will allow them to be recharged much faster than conventional laptop batteries—and that will keep them from losing their capacity to store power over time, the way older lithium-ion cells do.

The Enviro batteries be available from HP early next year, and will have the same form factor as current HP laptop batteries, meaning they can be slipped directly into existing HP laptops. That will make Boston-Power the first U.S.-based company ever to enter the laptop battery market, a space wholly dominated up to now by Japanese and South Korean companies such as Sony, Sanyo, LG, Samsung, and Panasonic.

Boston-Power—which is funded by Oak Investment Partners, Venrock, GGV Capital, and Gabriel Venture Partners—has long been promoting its battery technology as a smarter alternative to conventional lithium-ion cells. Most lithium-ion batteries suffer from chemical buildups that cut their capacity in half after only one year of use, meaning that they usually have to be replaced several times over a typical laptop’s three-year lifespan. That’s not only an expensive proposition for consumers, since replacement packs usually cost $80 to $120, but also uses up precious resources during manufacturing and leads to greater shipping costs and carbon emissions.

Boston-Power\'s Sonata lithium-ion batteriesA single Enviro replacement battery, by contrast, is designed to retain 80 percent of its charging capacity over three years—meaning, in theory, that the replacement will never have to be replaced. Christina Lampe-Onnerud, a research chemist and Swedish native who founded Boston-Power in 2005, calls the company’s deal with HP “a celebration of cleantech” and of innovation in general. “The number-one laptop and notebook computer maker has prioritized the environment and created a whole new brand to give consumers a choice,” says Lampe-Onnerud (who participated in an Xconomy panel discussion on energy innovation last week). “I’m very proud that Boston-Power is the enabling technology for their first offering, and I’m extremely happy that we can be part of the solution for climate change instead of the problem.”

But if the Enviro batteries are so great, why aren’t they being included in new HP laptops, rather than sold only as replacements? That will probably happen down the road, Lampe-Onnerud suggests. Offering the Enviro as a replacement battery first “was the quickest, best way, in HP’s mind, to deploy this battery to as many people as possible,” she says. “I think you should expect to see other opportunities for collaboration [between Boston-Power and HP] in 2009.”

In fact, the market for laptop batteries is so commoditized—with no particular product standing out from any other—that it’s hard to imagine that HP would not eventually put the new Enviro batteries directly into its Presario and Pavilion laptops and turn them into a sales point (or at least market them as an option, the same way it offers buyers of new laptops a choice of graphics cards or hard drives).

“We will see during a 2009 a very interesting opportunity for our early adopters to get rewarded for working with us, because we truly offer differentiation,” says Lampe-Onnerud, who was the subject of an extensive profile in IEEE Spectrum back in March. “This is the first green battery for laptops, and it’s the longest-lasting, fastest-charging battery.”

When Lampe-Onnerud calls her batteries green, by the way, she’s not kidding. By virtually eliminating heavy metals from the manufacturing process, Boston-Power became first U.S. company to win the Nordic Ecolabel. It’s also the first lithium-ion battery maker to receive the Chinese Ecolabel certification.

Today’s announcement is the fruit of a long relationship between Boston-Power and HP. In fact, for Boston-Power’s public coming-out at the Demo ’07 conference in San Diego, Lampe-Onnerud was introduced on stage by John Wozniak, leader of HP’s personal systems group.

“HP was quite a remarkable partner,” Lampe-Onnerud says now. “They took us seriously from the beginning. The first day I came into HP in the summer of 2005, they said, ‘Really? That’s what you want to do? Small companies have never entered into this space, you know.’ and I said, ‘Okay—but if this vision is real, are you interested?’ And they said ‘Of course—show us some data. If it’s real, it’s going to be big.'”

Boston-Power’s big idea wasn’t to start from scratch with a new chemistry for laptop batteries, but simply to refine their design. Conventional lithium-ion battery packs contain six cylindrical cells, arranged in three pairs wired in parallel. In Boston-Power’s Sonata batteries, which are assembled in China and Taiwan, three rectangular cells are packed into the same space, and wired in a series.

Because they use more of the available volume, the Sonata cells have a somewhat greater capacity than traditional lithium-ion battery packs. Moreover, wiring the cells in a series makes the current flow easier to control, lessening the slight imbalances in current that cause flecks of lithium metal to build up on the anodes, or negative electrodes, in parallel-wired cells. These buildups are what lead to reduced energy capacity in conventional batteries. (The same design changes mean that Boston-Power’s batteries recharge faster, reaching 80 percent capacity in just 30 minutes.)

According to a Harris Interactive poll sponsored by Boston-Power, 40 percent of laptop users report that they have replaced their laptop batteries five or more times over the course of three years. “If you’re one of those 40 percent, you are spending almost as much on batteries as you did on the laptop,” says Lampe-Onnerud. “I feel pretty good about the fact that we can offer a battery that is going to work for a long time. I also like the feeling of helping to create good jobs and high-end products that last, that are good for the Earth and good for the end user.”

Lampe-Onnerud says she doesn’t yet know how much HP will charge for the new Enviro batteries. “I suspect there will be a small premium attached,” she says. “But I think consumers will make back enormous amounts of money by not having to replace them.”

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

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One response to “Boston-Power Strikes Deal with Hewlett-Packard to Market Longer-Lived, Eco-Friendly Laptop Batteries”

  1. This is the kind of technology that will lift Boston out of the recession. It may take a while, but a “green bubble” may be our best chance at getting through this nightmarish economy.

    Congrats on the good news, Boston-Power. Keep it up.

    Peter Nowicki | Sustainable Staffing Group