By Michael Kanellos
The way to get to the electric car market is by bus, says Bob Kanode.
Kanode, CEO of battery maker Valence Technology (VLNC), ultimately hopes to reap millions from selling batteries for plug-in hybrids and electric cars.
But it's not easy. Car manufacturers are notoriously conservative – chip designers say sales and testing cycles with automakers often last years – and they vastly prefer established names. When it came time to pick a battery cell maker for the Chevy Volt, General Motors went with LGChem, founded a few years after World War II ended, over relative newcomer A123 Systems.
Other battery startups, such as Boston-Power, PowerGenix and ZPower are tackling the consumer electronics and computing market first. Later, they will look at the automotive market.
Valence is taking a slightly different tack. It has been working with makers of hybrid and electric commercial vehicles like delivery vans. While a smaller market, the deals bring in revenue and the design wins indirectly help validate the technology. The van and bus market in many ways is easier because the buyers – large companies with fleets of cars –generally only use these vehicles for local hops and already own centralized service centers. Thus, the limited range of electric cars and lack of charging stations in the wild aren't barriers to acceptance.
"We could not wait on a GM. We could not wait on a car, period," he said.
PVI, which manufactures trucks for Renault, is going to put Valence batteries into electric trucks for the French brand. Valence has also sold batteries to Wrightbus, which makes a hybrid double decker, as well as Smith Electric Vehicles, which makes electric delivery vans, among others.
"We're working on multiple platforms with Siemens," on electric and hybrid vehicle systems, he noted.
Ford has agreed to collaborate with the Tanfield Group on electric versions of the Ford Transit and Transit Connect, two commercial vehicles, for Europe. Tanfield is the parent company of Smith, so who knows. (Like a lot of battery makers, Valence also makes the software and control systems to go along with its batteries.)
Word of mouth recommendations in the transportation market helped the company get in front of grid operators in the U.K. and Spain. The grid operators are testing Valence's batteries as starters for diesel generators.
"Sixty percent of the time a diesel generator does not come on line when you ask it to," he said.
In the meantime, Valence is testing out batteries with established automakers and some startups like Aptera, the makers of a three-wheeled vehicle. On average, customers are getting 100 miles a charge, he said. It's a start.
Although the name might not be familiar, Valence has been around since 1989; for most of its history it has sold batteries to the notebook and computer market. The company's U-Charge Power System contains a cathode material, the metallic pole inside a battery that attracts electrons, made of metal phosphate. Most lithium-ion batteries sport a cathode based around cobalt.
Batteries with the metal phosphate can store only about 75 percent of the energy a traditional lithium ion battery can hold. However, the phosphate won't burn. In traditional lithium ion batteries, heat inside the battery can cause the cobalt oxide cathode to decompose. (A123 also has a phosphate battery.)
In other words, Valence's battery cells are far, far less likely to explode or catch fire than the ones in your laptop. It can now make 100 metric tons of cathode powder a month and recently said it shipped its 200,000th lithium-phosphate battery. (CORRECTION: earlier, I said it was 100 million pounds a year.)
Europe, Kanode added, seems to be further along in adopting electric transportation.
"They are extremely concerned about foreign dependence on oil. Look what is happening with Russia. It is a national security issue for them," he said. "In Europe, they are moving quickly to EVs."