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Not looking so bright at A123

Thu, 07/19/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

Things are looking gloomy for Massachusetts-based A123 Systems Inc as the money is close to running out.

Share prices have plummeted following the recall of hundreds of defective battery packs from one of its Michigan plants and now the company is trying to sell more shares to rescue itself from financial ruin.  This setback cost the company US$51.6 million last quarter, as it had to recall and replace the faulty batteries.  This blow was preceded by one of A123’s major customers cutting its order for batteries after saying it would be building less electric vehicles. 

A123 lost US$125 million in the first quarter of 2012 and has yet to turn a profit since it first sold stock publicly in 2009.  In 2009 shares peaked at US$25 a share but are now just over one. A123 must sell a lot of shares to stay afloat and cover its operating costs.

This comes just weeks after the firm announced plans to unveil a new technology, which they claim would allow batteries in hybrid and electric vehicles to operate at extreme temperatures.  The batteries, called Nanophosphate EXT, would cut the cost of production and reduce costs.

The idea is to eliminate the need for separate heating and cooling systems in lithium-ion batteries.  Chief executive David Vieau called it a "game changer" for the electric vehicle and telecommunications markets.  Production of Nanophosphate EXT is planned to start in 2013 to cover orders put in by a German automaker.

Researchers at Ohio State University said the batteries performed impressively at high temperature without losing storage and power generating capabilities. The testing has shown the battery can retain more than 90% of its initial capacity at 45 and deliver starting power at -30°C. 

The announcement of this development led to an upsurge in A123 shares which had been struggling around the US$1 mark for weeks, rose to US$1.58 last month.

This July the price is back down.  Vieau’s promise to “power through it” may sound hollow in the face of plummeting share prices but he is determined to help A123 ride out the storm.  His plan is to raise funds selling stocks and warrants while trying to attract customers to buy A123’s products, unfortunately for Vieau this market is looking saturated.

Lead surplus no more?

Thu, 07/19/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

Lead supplies could fall into deficit for the first time in five years.  Recycling of car batteries has stunted demand for raw resources but, with a growing market in Asia for electric bikes, industry demand for lead is rising.  

The 2012 global lead market is set to record a surplus of 144,000 metric tons. The price has declined in recent years due to this surplus, with value falling from US$2 700/t to $1 900/t from last year.

Demand for electric bikes should reduce the surplus and push prices up, lead producers would welcome this as prices have fallen steadily since 2007 when it was valued at US$3 890/t on the London Metal Exchange.

With lead producing factories closing in China and environmental concerns hindering expansion, the demand for lead is outstripping supply. 

Samsung and Bosch end partnership

Thu, 07/19/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

South Korea's Samsung SDI and German auto-parts maker Bosch will be ending their four-year old joint venture of SB LiMotive, an electric car battery manufacturing unit due to . Samsung will acquire the 50% stake in the venture held by Bosch, but both firms will continue to maintain close business relations.

Samsung will take full ownership of the lithium-ion battery unit while maintaining a collaborative working relationship with Bosch.  Samsung and Bosch had jointly established SB LiMotive in July 2008 under an equal ownership arrangement, where each partner held 38 million shares. SB LiMotive currently operates a battery cell production line in Ulsan, South Korea with a monthly capacity of 200,000 battery cell packs. Production at the plant will be raised to 400,000 packs per month by 2013 and 1.5 million packs per month by 2015.

From the outset of the partnership, Samsung was in control of the research & development and production, while Bosch took care of the battery management system and sales.  Bosch has recently shown an interest in running its own battery cell production line.

Bosch is working with German chemicals firm BASF to build a pilot line for lithium-ion battery cells. Test production will start this year, and the plant will produce up to 200,000 cells by 2015.

Lithium-ion without the rare earth metals

Thu, 07/19/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

A Tohoku University researcher last month announced the development of a lithium-ion battery whose positive electrode does not use any rare earth metals.

Conventional lithium-ion batteries do use rare metals, such as cobalt and nickel, in the positive electrode. Due to their geochemical properties rare earth elements can be dispersed and often not found in concentrated or economically exploitable forms.  This makes these metals costly, and supplies not always stable. Eliminating them will likely make the batteries cheaper to manufacture.

China announced plans in 2009 to reduce its export quota of rare earth minerals to around 350,000 tons per year to conserve scarce resources and protect the environment.  This has led to other countries stock-piling their reserves.  The EU, US and Japan have brought a complaint to the World Trade Organisation alleging China is restricting the exports to maximize domestic use and thus distort the global economy.

Professor Itaru Honma of Tohoku University's Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Advanced Materials has succeeded in replacing these metals with organic substances. As a result, costs of materials for the positive electrode have been slashed to less than one-fifth what they were before.

Professor Honma made a button-sized lithium-ion battery for testing. This prototype achieved an energy density of 200 watt-hours per kilogram -- roughly double that of current lithium-ion batteries. Tests confirmed that the button-sized battery could withstand at least 100 charge-discharge cycles.

The next step will be to look further for organic materials that more efficiently store power and boost the battery's capacity, with a goal of developing a secondary battery for electric vehicles.

New York battery plans to expand

Thu, 07/19/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

General Electric Co said it will invest $70 million in its Schenectady battery plant in New York to double production and create 100 jobs there.  This will take the plant’s workforce 450 at full capacity.
The factory manufactures GE's Durathon batteries, which are half the size of conventional lead-acid batteries but last ten times longer.

On track for a smaller more economical hybrid

Thu, 07/19/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

A Japanese hybrid train company has made an engine 45% smaller and 20% more economical on fuel than conventional diesel locomotives.  Kinki Sharyo use a diesel engine combined with lithium-ion batteries.  Unlike diesel trains the hybrid only requires one engine for two locomotives making it lighter and more economical on fuel. 

Japan losing out in the supply chain game

Thu, 07/19/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

Japan is losing out to Chinese and South Korean competitors in supplying lithium-ion battery components around the world. In the 2011 financial year Japan supplied less than half of these key parts.

Global shipments of cathode and anode materials, separators and electrolytes are estimated to have grown 11.2% to US$70.2 million last fiscal year. Japanese firms' share fell 5.7% points to 46.6%, dipping below the 50% mark for the first time since 2008.

The Japanese Yano Research Institute believes Japan’s dominance was weakened following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that halted the supply of some essential parts around the country. This, combined with the strong yen cutting into Japan’s competitiveness, meant a demand for cheaper materials grew.  Another factor is the shift in South Korean battery manufacturers to use domestically made parts over imports.

 

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