The lithium batteries in the small candy-apple red car hold just enough oomph to push the electric vehicle a couple of laps around an 18-hole golf course.
That may seem modest, but Joe Fisher believes that with a bit of work those batteries will be powerful enough to propel the coming generation of electric cars. And they may drive his company, CFX Battery Inc., to the front of the pack.
Lithium batteries have been in the spotlight recently thanks to alternative energy vehicles that automakers such as General Motors Corp., Toyota Motors Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. are calling the cars of the future. Those companies plan to push the new wave of all-electric and hybrid electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt into mass production as early as 2010.
Those high-mileage cars will need lithium batteries, which are more efficient and powerful than the nickel hydride models that now run hybrids such as the Toyota Prius. While lithium batteries are currently expensive and prone to overheating and sometimes catching on fire experts expect the industry to boom as the technology improves.
The biggest lithium battery manufacturers are overseas, mostly in Asia, where governments dole out hefty subsidies. CFX, a Caltech spinoff that was co-founded by a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, is among a handful of U.S. companies now trying to break into the lithium battery market.
And CFX has recently made some big moves. Last month it opened a 16,000-square-foot facility in Azusa for research and construction of battery prototypes. It has raised at least $11 million from investors this month, and by February it plans to have doubled its employee count to 20.
What sets CFX apart from its competitors including electronic giants BYD Co. in Shenzen City, China, and LG Chemical Ltd. in Seoul, South Korea is the chemical composition of its batteries. By mixing the right amount of lithium with other chemicals, CFX engineers believe they can build a battery that costs less while also lasting longer and providing more power than competitors' products.
"What we're looking for is the Holy Grail of batteries," said Fisher, who is chief executive of CFX. "The three main concerns with lithium batteries have been power, safety and cost. We think we've got something that will address all three."
Battery manufacturers hope the increased attention on lithium will translate into more money for research and development. The National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture, a trade group of 14 U.S. companies, plans to ask the federal government for as much as $2 billion in grants and loans over the next five years to help boost the American lithium battery industry.
Meanwhile, research and consulting companies estimate the market for lithium rechargeable batteries is currently worth about $8 billion, and should double in six years. That leaves plenty of room for a company such as CFX to make some sales despite its small size provided its batteries deliver.
"You're seeing a lot of investment in these emerging technologies," said David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "And at this point where there really is limited capacity in the world to build batteries for automobiles, if you've got a really great idea that works, you'll do very well."
For now, CFX's best battery prototypes power the roadsterlike electric car that sits in a spotless warehouse at the company's new facility. Fisher brings the car out for exhibitions to prove that his company's technology can work, even while still being engineered.
It took the melding of minds from two continents to form CFX: Rachid Yazami, a visiting professor at Caltech from France and a world-renowned battery expert, and Robert Grubbs, a Caltech chemistry professor with a penchant for founding businesses, among them Pasadena-based chemical company Materia Inc.
Grubbs, who won the Nobel for chemistry in 2005, said he hadn't given much thought to batteries before meeting Yazami. But when they started talking, the prospects excited him.
"Energy storage is going to be one of the big issues in the future," Grubbs said. "I'm a Prius driver, and I'd like to be able to plug my Prius into the wall. But the battery technology to do that is still expensive and has safety issues."
Along with Dr. Andre Hamwi, another visiting Caltech professor, Grubbs and Yazami founded CFX in 2007. About a year ago, they hired Fisher, whose three-decade stint at St. Louis-based Energizer Battery Co. Inc. included managing its rechargeable battery division.
CFX will first focus on building so-called "primary" lithium batteries, which can't be recharged but still last longer than other batteries. By the end of the year, the company plans for three manufacturers to buy those batteries to power products that could include military devices and defibrillators.
CFX then intends to reinvest that revenue into its rechargeable battery unit.
Its Azusa building is tucked away off the 210 Freeway, with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background and a Miller beer brewery down the road. Inside, folding chairs, bare walls and chemistry equipment still in shrink wrap testify to the newness of the facility.
"When my wife visited, she said, 'You guys need to get a decorator,'" Fisher said.
On a recent Friday, a small group of researchers some in lab coats, some in jeans and polo shirts stirred chemicals and consulted charts. One worked in the facility's "dry room," a 1,350-square-foot space that is kept free of water, which can combust when it comes into contact with lithium.
The biggest barrier now for companies like CFX is to overcome is cost. To make lithium technology more accessible, the U.S. Department of Energy has set a target price of $1,700 to $3,400 for an all-electric car battery that could go 40 miles on one charge. However, Cole expects the battery in the first generation of the Chevy Volt to cost $8,000 to $10,000 each.
Fisher would not say how much CFX batteries are expected to cost because the company is still developing the technology.
But, Cole added, there are plenty of examples of automotive innovations that went from expensive to affordable.
"Anti-lock brake systems started out at $1,000 a unit, and they're less than $100 a unit now," he said. "You give engineers a task and they seem to be able to figure it out."
Cost seems to be the deciding factor right now for one potential CFX customer, Ray Hoogenraad, president of American Custom Golf Cars Inc. His Chino-based company builds and sells small electric vehicles made to resemble Hummers, sports cars and Cadillac Escalades. Price tags range from $10,000 to $12,000, and the company counts Saudi princes among its clients. The roadster that sits in CFX's facility is one of Hoogenraad's, modified to use a CFX battery.
Hoogenraad, who found out about CFX through a Caltech contact, likes the company's lithium batteries because they're lighter, smaller, have a longer life and generate more power than the traditional lead-acid ones his company uses now.
But he estimated that a CFX battery would currently cost four to five times more per unit, a number that makes him grimace. Still, he's holding out hope that CFX's technology gets cheaper.
"I've seen a lot of battery companies all over the world," he said. "You name it, I've been there. And CFX makes a good battery."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.
Stories You May Also Be Interested In
- L.A. Peers Get the Chills as Dot-Com Heads North
- Positive Charge
- Did ‘Warfare’ Maker Shoot Itself in the Foot Over Duo?
- Electric Car Maker Gets Big Buzz
- Contour Energy Systems Raises $20 Million
- UCLA Engineers Land DOE Grant for Battery Research
- L.A. Family's Hot Red Car to Become Hot 'Green' Car
- Maker of All-Electric Sedan Charges Into China