ELBC 13 was a tremendous event that gave me a lot of clarity on where Axion and the PbC fit into the market. It also gave me a good deal of clarity on where the competition is headed because I had an opportunity to watch presentations from JCI, Exide, and East Penn, and spend a good half-hour talking one-on-one with the CEO of East Penn.
MY KEYNOTE PRESENTATION
As many readers know I gave a keynote presentation at this year's ELBC. Since I thought readers might like to see and hear what I told the industry, I've put together a Sliderocket presentation that includes both my slides and the scripted version of my discussion. It's available here:
DCA WORKSHOP NOTES:
The DCA workshop on Tuesday taught me several things about how cycling impacts DCA. The worst-case operating regime for DCA deterioration is a conventional vehicle that only starts the engine once per trip. The presentation from Heidde Budde-Miewes showed that AGM was better than a standard flooded battery, but not necessarily better than some of the enhanced flooded batteries.
The test cycle she's been using comes much closer to emulating the real duty cycle of a car because it cycles the battery for a half hour and then let it "rest" for five hours before cycling it for another half-hour. Even the best performing lead-acid batteries lose 90% to 95% of their DCA within a few weeks when you include more realistic rest periods. So in a quirky way, the micro-hybrid duty cycle test protocol that Axion's been talking about for the last two years is easier on the batteries than real life.
While I'm on the topic of the test protocol, Eckhard Karden of Ford referred to the test protocol a couple times as the "Axion-BMW Protocol" rather than the Ford-BMW protocol. I found that attribution fascinating because Axion was only briefly mentioned at the back of the 2010 ELBC presentation from BMW, Ford and Moll.
I did some digging and learned that BMW and Axion did the heavy lifting on developing the test protocol, but Eckhard Karden got top billing on the 2010 presentation because he was the first researcher to describe DCA as an issue. Despite the fact that the protocol originated with Axion and BMW several presenting companies used it to show how their innovations were improving their DCA performance. Many of them were able to shift their curves up a bit, but there was nothing that even vaguely resembled the PbC's graphs.
The next point of clarity I got from the DCA Workshop is that automakers are measuring DCA in terms of "Amps of charge per Amp-hour of battery capacity," rather than Amps per battery.
In effect, Axion has been understating its DCA advantage by comparing a 50 Ah PbC with comparably sized AGM batteries that have ratings in the 80 to 100 Ah range.
If you think about it for a second the Amps per Amp-hour metric makes a lot of sense. After all, a 50 Amp current going into a 50 Amp-hour battery is twice the charge rate of a 50 Amp current going into a 100 Amp-hour battery.
The bottom line is that the best "stabilized DCA performance" automakers are getting from Enhanced Flooded and AGM batteries is in the range of 0.05 to 0.10 Amps per Amp-hour.
After the workshop I had a few minutes to chat with Enders about the battery Axion used in the original BMW tests. He did confirm that it was an automotive sized PbC and while he didn't recall the Amp-hour rating, he agreed with my guess that it was probably in the 50 Ah range since the bigger 30HT sports a rating in the 70Ah range.
That means the DCA of the PbC when stated in terms of Amps per Amp-hour is roughly 2.0, while the nearest conventional competition is in the range of 0.1. While the current numbers are extraordinary, Ender's presentation yesterday said that the ongoing work under the project funded by the SBIR grant will be testing the dual battery system at a 150 Amp current (91% to the PbC and 9% to the starter battery), or roughly 3 Amps per Amp hour for the PbC.
In light of Tom's recent public statements that the 30HT has been tested at 200 Amps, which is roughly 3 Amps per Amp-hour, my guess is they already know that the PbC can handle a 3 Amp charge rate, but want to publicize the formal claim in connection with a peer reviewed testing program, which is basically what you get when you submit the results of an SBIR Phase I project to the DOE.
It's clear that JCI and Exide are focusing on Enhanced Flooded and AGM batteries, and they're generally satisfied with the modest performance improvements these technologies offer. For now, many mass-market automakers like Ford Europe are only concerned with meeting the CO2 requirements to continue selling cars. This makes sense if you think back to the "Best Available Technology" discussion in my ELBC presentation. For now, Ford has perfect cover for its decision to stick with Enhanced Flooded batteries because better AGM technology isn't available at relevant scale, and even better PbC technology isn't available in any scale. Their decision dynamic will change as AGM capacity ramps and then PbC capacity ramps, but for now I'm scratching Ford off my list of potential early adopters.
I had met the CEO of East Penn, at a couple of industry conferences including EESAT 2009 and ELBC 2010. Yesterday Rachel and I were able to snag about a half-hour of face time and ask her some very direct questions about East Penn's plans for the Ultrabattery.
Unlike public company executives who have to be guarded about what they say and how they say it, East Penn's CEO was refreshingly blunt. She explained that East Penn took two licenses from CSIRO. The first, in 2008, was limited to automotive in North America and China. The second, in 2010, was a worldwide license for stationary applications with exclusions for Japan and Thailand.
She then explained that while automotive was a long slow grind, they'd had tremendous results implementing the Ultrabattery technology in their big 2-Volt stationary cells, and were actively building that market. They were also continuing work on the mild-hybrid market, which has been a primary target for the Ultrabattery for years. She confirmed to me that East Penn was not presently focusing on the micro-hybrid market and while she wouldn't close the door on the possibility of a future run at micro-hybrids, it was not presently a priority application for East Penn.
Of the two applications they are working on, she sees more short-term potential in the non-utility stationary market, and says that East Penn could be ramping sales faster than they are, but is holding back because they don't want to risk "the big mistake." As CEO of a family-owned company, she apparently believes that growth in several stages is more sensible than trying to conquer the world in one giant leap.
In this morning's presentation, East Penn indicated that they had a string of batteries on test at Penn State for Norfolk Southern which apparently wants 5-years of proven battery life. They indicated that so far the Ultrabattery is about three years through the testing cycle and performing stably. I don't see any reason to believe, however, the Ultrabattery might be a short-term competitor.
I'm biased, but I thought Enders Dickenson's presentation was more dynamic, positive and generally interesting than all the others combined. It explained how the SBIR project would take the BMW-Axion test protocol up a notch and use a 150 Amp current instead of a 100 Amp current.
It also explained why the PbC performs so well in strings. The basic reason is that conventional lead acid batteries have a convex shaped charge curve like a ski-jump while the PbC has a concave shaped charge curve like an upside-down bowl. Apparently that difference tends to bring weaker cells up to standard naturally without having to engage in active current and load management in the BMS.
In this morning's presentation about their New Mexico project, East Penn noted that their battery strings are also self-balancing to a degree, although they didn't go into much detail about how, why or when. So I guess we'll have to live with the idea that PbC is king in a string, but there may be a couple princes out there.
In 2010 BMW fired a shot across the bow of the battery industry when it held up Axion and the PbC as a better solution. This year the shot across the bow described a six month single vehicle test where they used dual battery system that used a flooded LAB for starting and a 14-volt, 20 Amp-hour lithium-ion pack for the hotel loads. It was the same kind of dual battery system that Axion is proposing, but it used lithium instead of PbC as the demonstrator. In the Q&A session after the presentation, the BMW guy indicated that the cost of a dual-battery lead-acid/lithium-ion system would probably be on the order of 2.8 times the cost of an AGM battery alone. My sense from the presentation was that BMW was trying to tell the lead-acid industry "We can do this if we have to, but we'd really rather not." I saw nothing to indicate that their testing of a dual lead-lithium system was anywhere near the same stage of development as the dual lead-PbC system.
UNEXPECTED FUN DEVELOPMENT
One of the speakers on Wednesday was from Avicenne Energy, a French firm that does most of its business consulting for the lithium-ion, NiMH and NiCd battery world. They've invited me to speak at their lithium-ion battery conference in Nice, France next month. It may feel a bit like Daniel in the lion's den, but it should be interesting.
OUTLOOK FOR THE NEXT YEAR
I was very encouraged by my talk with East Penn's CEO who explained that they saw renewables integration and behind the meter systems as the clearest and easiest paths to sales becuase the customers are driven by entirely different needs than automakers and utilities. She said there was enough demand out there for them to sell 60 or 70 MW a year, but they were intentionally keeping the numbers small because they didn't want to go too big without enough experience out of concern that going to big too fast can be deadly if you end up facing an unexpected problem. She didn't mention A123 by name, but she did say that she'd hate to be in a position where she had to go to the Chinese for money because they bit off more than they could chew. I was careful to avoid asking her direct questions about Axion, but it's clear that she's impressed with the results coming out of New Castle.
Those of you who've seen my presentation know that it tied together several themes I've written about before, but failed to explain as thoroughly or as well. There was something about being forced to clarify the points for a brief presentation that also forced me to crystallize my thoughts on several topics that had been pretty amorphous. In the process, I planted the seeds for a series of articles that will more clearly define the issues and show where Axion and the other companies I write about fit into the broader landscape.
I'm not sure when those articles will be published, however I am sure that I'll split the work between SA and TheStreet. This year's ELBC didn't have a single negative minute for Axion, but there were several positive hours.
Disclosure: I am long AXPW.