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Start-up to launch safer notebook battery

Boston-Power is about to uncover its long-awaited Sonata battery, which it says is less likely to blow up. HP appears interested.

Boston-Power plans to show off a battery Tuesday that it claims is a lot like conventional lithium ion batteries but with a difference: it is less likely to blow up.

The Sonata battery--which the company is set to show off at the Demo '07 show taking place this week in Palm Desert, Calif.--is safer than conventional batteries, but is electrically and mechanically compatible to current notebook designs, according to the company. Notebook makers can thus drop it into their existing models, said CEO Christina Lampe-Onnerud, who added that Hewlett-Packard has been testing it for 18 months.

As a bonus, the Sonata battery can be charged to 80 percent capacity in about 30 minutes. Conventional notebook batteries take one to two hours to get to 90 percent capacity.

"We picked 30 minutes and drove development to that," Lampe-Onnerud said.

The company is part of a wave of battery start-ups that have emerged in the past few years. Most got started initially to improve the runtime on notebooks or power tools. A raft of explosions and recalls, however, have also pushed safety to the forefront.

The popularity of hybrid and has also juiced the market. Last week, A123 Systems, which , announced it had raised $40 million more in venture capital funds.

Boston-Power has been one of the more noteworthy new entrants in part because the somewhat secretive company, which came out of semi-stealth mode late last year, employs many scientists and executives, like Lampe-Onnerud, who have worked in the battery industry for years. Along with showing off the battery publicly for the first time this week, Boston-Power also announced it closed a second round of funding for $15.6 million.

There is no magic silver bullet inside the Sonata, Lampe-Onnerud said. Instead, the battery differs from conventional notebook batteries through a large number of design tweaks.

"We understand the system. We don't have a killer chemical," she said.

The can, or outside casing around the battery cells, is made from a metal alloy that is stronger than the iron cans used with notebook batteries and thus will remain intact, in the case of a thermal reaction, or fire, according to the company.

Boston-Power also spent a lot of time on the interrupt system, which prompts the battery to shut down permanently if there is danger of a reaction. (Replacements are covered by a three-year warranty, which Lampe-Onnerud says is longer than the industry average.) The company can't guarantee the batteries will never have problems, but it has added safety features not seen in ordinary batteries.

"If it is really damaged, I don't want it to work again," she said.

At the same time, the battery generally meets the performance characteristics of conventional batteries on the market today.

HP is likely the first customer, according to Lampe-Onnerud. A contract to put the battery inside a notebook has yet to be signed, but it's possible a notebook with a Boston-Power battery could hit the market by summer, she said. John Wozniak, an HP distinguished technologist, will appear with Lampe-Onnerud during the Demo presentation.

An HP representative said the company has been testing the batteries and is pleased with the results, but added that further testing will occur. A notebook containing the batteries potentially could come out this year, the representative added, but nothing has been signed and, again, further testing will occur.

Typically, large manufacturers move slowly and conservatively when adopting new components, and then introduce them on a limited basis.

The Sonata will sell for a premium, but Lampe-Onnerud would not disclose details on pricing.

The big challenge facing Boston-Power now is whether it can move into high-volume manufacturing. The company already has an alliance with a large Chinese contract manufacturer.

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, suggests swapping that out for lithium nickel materials.

More information can be found under a second patent 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.