After eight years of rarely speaking above a whisper, Axion Power International (NASDAQ:AXPW) has found its voice, taken the scientific wraps off its PbC® battery technology and shown potential customers, competitors and investors that it's carrying a big stick and is poised to dominate energy storage for stop-start idle elimination – a cheap and sensible fuel efficiency and emissions reduction technology that's expected to grow at spectacular rates for the rest of the decade as shown in the following forecast of battery demand in vehicles equipped with stop-start systems (click to enlarge images):
In a new white paper on dynamic charge acceptance that's available in the Investor section of its website, Axion has thrown down the technology gauntlet and shown why flooded and valve regulated lead-acid batteries from Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI), Exide Technologies (XIDE) and others aren't good enough for today's stop-start systems and won't be good enough for even more demanding second generation systems. In the process it's also shown why a dual device system from Maxwell Technologies (NASDAQ:MXWL) and Continental AG (OTCPK:CTTAY) that combines a supercapacitor module with a valve regulated AGM battery can't be an optimal solution either.
The basic problem is that stop-start systems require their batteries to operate at a partial state of charge and conventional lead-acid batteries rapidly deteriorate if they're not kept fully charged. There's a fundamental mismatch between the needs of the application and the capabilities of the battery. With flooded lead-acid batteries the deterioration is obvious within weeks. With valve regulated AGM batteries it takes a few months. As the battery deteriorates, the mechanical systems just stop working. Stop-start systems that lose their functionality over a few weeks or a few months because of feeble batteries aren't efficiency technologies at all - they're greenwash. Automakers desperately need a better solution, but it has to be easy to manufacture, easy to scale and cheap enough for a price sensitive mass market.
In simple terms, the PbC is a battery-capacitor hybrid that loves operating at a partial state of charge and doesn't deteriorate rapidly with age. While the basic chemistry is pure lead acid, Axion replaces the lead-based negative electrodes found in conventional batteries with carbon electrode assemblies that eliminate battery deterioration and pave the way for second-generation systems that will offer even better performance. Since the white paper does a fine job of explaining the science, I'll focus on the business dynamics that favor rapid launch and widespread implementation of the PbC technology.
The PbC offers 10x the dynamic charge acceptance and 20x the cycle-life of conventional lead acid batteries for one reason – it's a third-generation device that takes valve regulated AGM battery technology to a whole new level. While the science underlying the PbC technology was patented in 2002, the challenge was developing production methods and equipment that could leverage existing manufacturing and distribution infrastructure instead of replacing it. Axion spent eight years developing PbC electrode assemblies that can be used as plug-and-play replacements for the lead-based electrodes used by battery manufacturers worldwide.
The last step is earning OEM certification for its automated electrode manufacturing processes. Once the OEM's have certified Axion's electrode manufacturing processes, it will be easy for an AGM battery manufacturer to substitute PbC electrode assemblies for their conventional lead electrodes and offer a better battery to customers without having to requalify their factories or their products.
Unlike other battery manufacturers that want to build new factories and develop new customers, or wrestle business away from entrenched competitors, Axion plans to pursue a platform technology strategy where it will focus on manufacturing a high value component for sale to existing manufacturers that want to offer a better product to current customers. Axion's strategy was lifted from the Intel playbook. They don't care who manufactures the battery for a particular customer as long as it uses Axion's electrodes.
With a strong intellectual property estate that will keep new entrants away from its sandbox, Axion is well positioned to forge a variety of cooperative relationships with battery manufacturers worldwide.
The only battery technology on the market that can offer comparable performance in stop-start applications is lithium-ion. While lithium-ion developers like A123 Systems (AONE) are actively developing products for the stop-start market, their batteries are more expensive than the PbC and harder to scale because they can't leverage existing infrastructure. They also suffer from significant cold weather performance issues and have limited potential for future cost reductions while the PbC is at the upper left-hand corner of the learning curve. There's a reason that first tier battery buyers like BMW and Norfolk Southern publicly aligned themselves with the PbC technology before there was a PbC product.
In his seminal book The Innovator's Dilemma, Dr. Clayton Christensen uses the term disruptive technologies to describe low-cost innovations that satisfy new customer needs, improve over time and eventually displace established technologies. The following graph illustrates the phenomenon.
If you believe Dr. Christensen's theory it's impossible to believe that lithium-ion batteries that were developed for the most demanding uses will be the ultimate winner in energy storage for stop-start idle elimination. Technologies simply do not transition downstream from high quality uses to low quality uses. Disruptive technologies always start at the bottom and work their way to the top.
Given a choice between embracing the PbC technology and working with Axion or losing critical market share to more expensive lithium-ion products, the lead-acid battery industry will do the only sensible thing.
At Friday's close Axion had a $48 million market capitalization and a serially patented technology that holds the price and performance keys to a multi-billion dollar market. The math seems obvious to me. In less than two weeks Axion will present at the Rodman & Renshaw conference in New York. Its stock had a strong run in February and March of this year after similar presentations at lower tier cleantech conferences sponsored by Piper Jaffray, Jefferies and Kaufman Bros. While the first run was crushed by selling pressure from a couple of large stockholders, cumulative trading data leads me to believe that the willing sellers are effectively out of stock and can't cause a comparable reversal of the next run.
Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International(AXPW) and holds a substantial long position in its common stock.