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Start-up touts less-risky notebook batteries

Lithium ion technology got burned in the summer's recall season, but Boston-Power says it has a better way to deliver the power.

Stung by product safety outcries, notebook manufacturers are showing signs of willingness to experiment with new types of batteries and suppliers.

Lithium ion batteries have been the de facto standard for powering notebooks and consumer electronics gear for years. But recent battery-induced accidents and fires have prompted massive, multimillion-dollar recalls and tarnished the reputation of giants including Sony and Dell.

Christina Lampe-Onnerud
C. Lampe-Onnerud
CEO, Boston Power

One start-up looking to get its foot in the door is Boston-Power, which has designed what it says is a safer and potentially more efficient lithium ion battery. The company, says CEO and founder Christina Lampe-Onnerud, is on the verge of signing a deal with a large notebook maker--she won't name it yet--that's expected to come out with a portable PC using Boston-Power's battery in mid-2007.

Earlier in the year, the Westborough, Massachusetts-based company had said only that it would start to ship batteries around that time, and gave no indication that it was close to getting its first customer. Component start-ups can struggle for years before landing a first deal or even getting high-level meetings with device makers. Boston-Power, however, has an advantage in that Lampe-Onnerud and other executives at the company have worked in the battery industry for years.

Richard Shim, an analyst with IDC, said the company's executives have a solid track record but face a daunting market.

"The benefits of what they are bringing to the table could be potentially usurped," he said.

Shim added that Lampe-Onnerud also told IDC the company was on the verge of a contract with a major notebook maker, but declined to name it.

Other lithium ion start-ups are less secretive. Valence Technologies, which makes lithium ion batteries for cars, changed the chemistry in the cathode, while rival Altair Nanotechnologies has changed the chemistry in the anode. The cathode and the anode attract opposing electrical charges and, if they degrade inside of a lithium ion battery, the particles can interact with the electrolyte and cause a runaway thermal reaction--and potentially a fire.

The problems with lithium ion have also prompted a search for alternatives. Some companies argue that notebook makers should adopt lithium polymer technology, which proponents say is safer, while others are touting zinc-based batteries. Fuel cell makers say their time has come.

Lampe-Onnerud and executives at other lithium ion start-ups, however, counter that none of these alternatives can provide the energy density and battery life of lithium ion. Lithium ion batteries can also be recharged far more times than other alternatives.

"It (lithium) is element number three. It is light. It is very fast," Lampe-Onnerud said. "There is no real threat to lithium ion continuing."

Boston-Power's secret?

So what is Boston-Power doing differently than Sony, Panasonic and Samsung, the main manufacturers of lithium ion batteries? Lampe-Onnerud said that Boston-Power isn't making any single dramatic change. Instead, it has focused on improving the overall safety and performance of the battery by tweaking a variety of characteristics. The company has focused on around 30 parts of the overall design of lithium ion batteries.

"We have made several thousand prototypes," she said. "We're really delivering on spec."

While Lampe-Onnerud was somewhat tight-lipped about how Boston-Power's product differs from conventional batteries, a patent search indicates that one change will involve altering the chemistry of the cathode. Currently, cathodes are made from lithium cobalt compounds. The July 2005 patent, granted to Lampe-Onnerud, suggests swapping that out for lithium nickel materials.

More information can be found under a second patent grant, from February 2005. Although a company's patents can lead to future products, there is no guarantee that a correlation exists, and Boston-Power has several pending, unpublished patents.

Despite the secrecy, the company, or at least the people behind it, isn't a complete unknown in the electronics world. Lampe-Onnerud worked on the design of the batteries for the first Palm Pilot. She then went on to Bell Labs, and also served as a partner in the energy practice of consulting firm Arthur Little. Venrock Associates, the venture firm that backed Intel and Apple, has invested in the company.

Other executives include Per Onnerud, also from Arthur Little; Richard Chamberlain, a vice president of engineering formerly at Eastman Kodak; and Sam Stimson, a vice president of quality who came from Dell. Dell has had to recall more than 4 million batteries, many more than any other manufacturer.

Boston-Power designs its batteries in the United States, but gets them built via contract manufacturers in China. Contractors own the factories, but Boston-Power works with them to ensure quality control and other issues, and they have dedicated manufacturing lines for the U.S. company, Lampe-Onnerud said.

Boston-Power may get into lithium ion batteries for cars, phones and other devices, but for now it will strictly concentrate on notebook batteries.