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."

More money

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.

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