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Startup Envia battery promises to slash EV costs

With a new type of battery cathode, Envia says its lithium ion batteries can extend the range of electric vehicles and lower the costs. Investor GM is already testing them.

Packing a punch. Envia's battery modules, seen here, are designed to improve the energy density of lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles.
Envia Systems

With the auto industry pining for a battery breakthrough to lower electric vehicle costs, Envia Systems has some interesting performance data to share.

The five-year-old company today is expected to disclose technical details of its batteries which executives say could lead to cutting EV battery pack prices in half in three or four years. Envia Systems' batteries are being evaluated by a number of automakers, including its largest investor General Motors, according to CEO Atul Kapadia.

The lithium ion batteries in cars, such as the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf, provide ample power to accelerate a car, but the cost and bulk of these batteries has kept initial sales restricted to early technology adopters. Automakers and battery manufacturers are hoping that battery improvements, specifically in cost and energy density, can broaden the appeal of plug-in cars and extend their driving range.

Envia said its batteries were tested at 400 watt-hours per kilogram at a projected cost of $125 per kilowatt-hour, which is more energy dense than most batteries and less than half of what automakers are paying today, according to the company. Its tests have also shown that its batteries perform well after 400 cycles, Kapadia said.

Envia licensed technology from Argonne National Laboratory and was funded with $4 million from the ARPA-E agency in 2009 to develop the high-energy density battery. It also received a grant from the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium.

To improve battery performance and cost, engineers at Envia Systems designed a new manganese-based cathode, a costly component in a battery cell. Battery cells are wired together and assembled to make a battery pack. The cathode uses a mix of metals produced in a way to create surface properties for better capacity and long life, explained Sujeet Kumar, the chief technology office and president.

"It's a very complex material yet it can be made using simple reactors you'd find in the biotech industry or furnaces from the ceramic industry, so it can be scaled up easily," Kumar said.

Envia, however, does not intend to become a large-scale battery manufacturer. U.S.-based battery technology startups face the challenge of raising a huge amount of capital to build factories when demand is not always certain and they are competing with well established Asian suppliers.

Instead, Envia plans to bring its technology to market through partnerships, such as joint ventures with automakers or selling manufacturing rights. This approach will avoid needing to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, a stumbling block for many clean-tech companies, Kapadia noted.

If the technology pans out as its performance tests indicate, it's conceivable that electric vehicles will match the cost of gasoline cars in the near future, Kapadia and Kumar said. With more energy-dense batteries, automakers can put few batteries in the car, lightening the load and reducing costs of other electric components. It takes about four years to evaluate batteries and design them into EV battery packs.

"If there was price parity where a consumer can buy a car that's electrically driven or one that's driven by gas, that's very disruptive," Kumar said.

General Motors is an investor in Envia and has tested its battery cells and modules at GM's Global Battery Systems Lab. John F. Martin for General Motors