What does this mean to our RC LiPo battery future?
Founded in 2001, A123 Systems is an offshoot of advanced battery technology invented at MIT by a professor. We are all familiar with lithium ion polymer cells or LiPos. They are the batteries we use to power our electric model airplanes. The technology invented by the company’s founder is a little different from the more common lithium ion phosphate batteries that most of us use. Standard lithium-ion batteries use a lithium cobalt oxide for the positive, or cathode, side of the battery. A123 cells use a different material, lithium metal phosphate. These are the LiFe cells that you may have heard of.
A123 Cell Advantages
The metal phosphate in A123 cells is a lot less prone to thermal runaway than standard LiPo batteries. In other words, they are much less likely to go boom when you are not looking.
At the time they were introduced, A123 cells could handle a much higher discharge rate than the average LiPo cell on the market. They also could be recharged much more quickly and could handle ten times more recharge cycles than standard cells.
Black & Decker
The first big commercial win for A123 Systems was as a supplier of batteries to power tool maker Black & Decker (B&D). Up until that time B&D had been relying on NiCad batteries because of safety concerns over LiPos. But the greater safety of A123 cells persuaded them to switch over.
These Black & Decker rechargeable power packs became a source of batteries for many of us that fly electric models. I myself remember buying a couple of power packs for about $100 each five years ago. Inside each one there were ten cells with a capacity of 2300 mAh.
A major business win for A123 was the contract to supply batteries for the Fisker Karma electric car. This is a $100,000 sports car that was attracted to A123 technology for the same reason as Black & Decker: safety.
For a while A123 looked like they had it made. With two high profile companies as steady customers, it sure looked like their billion dollar investment in technology was paying off.
But then they started to hit bumps on the road, so to speak. Problems with their batteries in the cars surfaced. There was a massive recall that cost the company an estimated $65 million.
At the time I bought those power packs they were a good value. I do not know how much they go for now, but LiPo batteries have made enormous strides in affordability, discharge rates, and recharge rates since then.
Even the primary concern with LiPos, safety, has been greatly reduced through the almost universal use of balancing chargers. There might still be occasional LiPo fires, but I almost never hear about them anymore.
Bankruptcy and Buyout
This morning A123 Systems announced that they had entered under bankruptcy protection. There was an interest payment due yesterday that they were not able to make.
The largest Chinese automotive technology company, Wanxiang, is currently in final negotiations to buy perhaps 80% of the company. It would not surprise me if they dissolve the company name and focus on developing the battery technology for internal use in their own cars.
So where does that leave us RC electric pilots? I am not worried. Use of LiPo-like batteries in electric full-size cars is only increasing. This is a large market that is set to explode in size. With investment dollars come research breakthroughs.
Before long, I expect the energy density of our batteries to double or even triple. A123 will just be an interesting footnote in history.
Update – October 19, 2012
The latest word is that the assets were in the end purchased by Johnson Controls, an American company. I am not sure that this affects my prediction that A123 cells will become harder to find.