Battery experts told us they were not surprised by the A123 announcement, mainly because the lithium-iron phosphate chemistry it is using has long had a reputation for being less volatile than other lithium-ion chemistries.
"I wouldn't classify this as a breakthrough," said Elton Cairns, a battery expert and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California-Berkeley. "It's not like they've invented a new chemistry here. But it's been known by people who work on batteries that this material is much more stable than oxide-based materials. You don't get the thermal runaway with this that you might with other chemistries."
If the Nanophosphate EXT helps eliminate the battery cooling systems on big electric cars, it could be meaningful for EV engineers. Many electric cars employ liquid-based coolants, along with the associated pumps, compressors, and machined plates containing channels that permit the coolant to flow. In an MIT Technology Review article this week on the A123 announcement, a National Renewable Energy Lab engineer said the savings for automakers from the new chemistry could climb as high as 10 to 20 percent per battery pack. Some big EV batteries now cost upwards of $30,000.
Experts said they expect automakers to take a hard look at the possibility of eliminating their cooling systems. "We don't know if they'll want to eliminate the cooling system," Cairns said. "That's an engineering design choice based on how warm they want the battery to get."
A123 has recently fallen on hard times as a result of a $55 million battery recall and a $125 million net loss in the first quarter of 2011. In light of its recent struggles, industry analysts said they would wait to see how significant the Nanophosphate EXT announcement really is.
"If it does everything they claim, then it's a pretty good step forward," said Dave Hurst, senior analyst for Pike Research. "But we'll just have to wait until it gets into a vehicle to see how important it is."