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Twist of phosphate means better batteries

Valence Technology replaces cobalt with phosphate in lithium-ion batteries, claiming they'll last longer and cost less--good news for notebook and cell phone users.

Valence Technology is telling mobile consumers and manufacturers exactly what they want to hear.

The Austin, Texas-based company announced Monday that it has developed a new technology that offers longer battery life and will cost less than current lithium-ion batteries.

In a nutshell, the company is replacing cobalt with phosphate as the cathode material in its lithium-ion batteries, allowing them to be more stable and less expensive, according to Valence Chief Executive and President Stephan Godevais.

Valence is calling the new technology Saphion, and devices using the battery technology are expected to hit the market as early as this spring. Godevais added that notebook manufacturers are likely to be the first to adopt the new battery technology.

Innovations in batteries are few and far between, and many are looking to fuel cells as the next generational leap. But Godevais said that leap may be further off than expected.

"There is little doubt that fuel cells will be big," Godevais said, "but Saphion will be the battery technology of choice for the next 10 years, until fuel cells begin to take over."

Analyst reaction to the Valence announcement was mixed.

One analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, wondered whether the company could get the batteries to market.

"Many companies are making innovations but have found that transferring something from the labs to the street is often a challenging process," the analyst said.

Sara Bradford, an analyst with market consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, agreed that getting the word out would be a hurdle, but she said manufacturers have been asking for just this kind of technology.

"In terms of cost and being environmentally friendly, this fulfills the needs" of original equipment manufacturers, Bradford said.

Richard Doherty of market research firm The Envisioneering Group said Valence's strong intellectual property puts it in a good position. The company has more than 790 issued and pending patents worldwide, including 284 issued in the United States.

Godevais said batteries using the new technology would cost 30 percent to 40 percent less than batteries using cobalt and that notebooks using similarly sized batteries would last about two hours longer with Saphion than with cobalt.

Valence also announced on Monday at the Demo 2002 conference in Phoenix, a portable battery system, called the N-Charge, which will recharge and run two mobile devices simultaneously. The battery will be able to power multiple devices and eliminate the need for multiple adapters or additional batteries.

The N-Charge will use the Saphion technology and power a notebook for 10 continuous hours or a cell phone for five days worth of talk time. The battery is expected to be available in the spring.