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Bankruptcy for A123

Wed, 10/17/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

A123 Systems has filed for bankruptcy following a turbulent year. The Massachusetts-based lithium-ion battery manufacturer that employs 2 500 has been struggling to keep its head above water following disappointing sales of electric vehicles and a costly recall back in March 2012.

Johnson Controls Incorporated will buy the automotive business assets from A123 in a deal worth US$125 million. This will provide the finance for the company during bankruptcy. The factory in Michigan is to remain open for the time being.

This latest news puts halt to the discussions for a rescue buy-out by Wanxiang Group Corporation in August. The US$465 million deal would have meant the Chinese corporation held an 80% share in A123 and four of the nine board seats. However certain conditions, including A123's liquidity falling below operational levels, were not met so only $22.5 million of the loan amount has been funded. These complications prompted the deal with Johnson Controls. The talks had sparked political debate because A123 had received a substantial amount of public funding from the Obama administration to boost the advanced battery industry in the USA and there was unrest about the company then falling to non-American ownership.  

A123 Systems has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on 16 October 2012 due to its mounting financial problems. There will be a bankruptcy auction for assets. Johnson Controls has provided A123 with US$72.5 million in debtor-in-possession financing to fund the bankruptcy case.

The Michigan-based battery maker has suffered because the EV market has failed to take off as quickly as hoped, only accounting for 3% of US car sales last year. For the first half of 2012 it reported losses of US$ 208 million, this vulnerable position led to the talks with Wanxiang Corp.

The mounting financial problems came despite a cash injection of US$249 million in the form of federal grants from the Obama administration in 2009. 

The bankruptcy will add fuel to the US presidential debate as another example of an unsuccessful ‘green’ investment by the Obama administration. Following EnerDel, A123 is the second of the 30 battery and electric drive companies that received government funding to go bankrupt. Excess of US$1.2 billion has been provided for battery makers, including A123 and Johnson Controls, over the past three years to boost the hybrid and electric vehicle market. Of the money A123 received in federal grants, US$132 million has been spent on building a factory in Michigan.

A123 has suffered losses of US$857 million since the company began and was at risk of being delisted from the stock market because of consistently low stock value.

13ELBC in Paris

Thu, 10/04/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

The ESPL team has returned from 13ELBC in Paris, the editor has been to many a battery conference so had a different take from his junior who was fresh to the conference world and easily impressed by free pens. There were many thought provoking presentations and plenty to see on the trade show floor. It was a great opportunity to meet the BEST readers, get a sense of what’s buzzing in the battery world and, of course, to present the winners of the BEST awards!

A full report will be in Autumn 2012 BEST.

Hope for A123 Systems

Tue, 09/11/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

Fraught battery manufacturer A123 Systems has been handed salvation in the form of a US $465 million investment from Chinese car-parts maker Wanxiang Group Corporation.

This will result in Wanxiang, one of China’s biggest non-governmental companies, owning 80% of A123 and holding four of the nine board seats for A123.

Earlier this year A123 announced it was running out of money, despite a cash injection from the Obama administration in 2009. This new investment could mean a government funded business will be in the hands of a non-US company that could out-source jobs.

The Michigan based battery maker has suffered because the EV market has failed to take off as quickly as hoped, only accounting for 3% of US car sales last year. For the second quarter of 2012 it reported losses of US$ 82.9 million so is in desperate need of help. A123 has 2 500 workers whose job security rests on the secure future of the company.

Award for Accutronics and Aston University

Thu, 08/23/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

Battery manufacturers Accutronics, based in Birmingham UK, have been awarded a Knowledge Transfer Partnership award for a joint project with Birmingham’s Aston University Business School.

Accutronics, who design, develop and manufacturer nickel metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries, joined with Aston for the two-year project to demonstrate how academic advancements could be used as a practical business tool.

Prabhjit Singh Chugh of Aston University spent time at Accutronics on the team where he was able to develop a new approach to managing operational improvements in a very customer driven way.  Martin May of Aston University described Prabhjit’s role as to “present a project in partnership with the host business to attract government funding.  The university provides some supervision and mentorship, as, of course, does Accutronics.”

The KTP project aims to build and strengthen relationships between academic establishments, businesses and the community.

Gareth Hancox, KTP project supervisor said: “This project was aimed at developing and implementing an operational strategy, which, together with all necessary processes and facilities would assist to support and grow the increasingly complex product range within Accutronics.”  He hopes it will continue to improve Accutronics reputation and enable the company to meet the challenges of performance requirements.

Key achievements in the first year of the project have included the definition of operations performance targets for existing and new markets and the identification of over one hundred improvement actions in the business process.

H-Train of tomorrow, today

Thu, 08/23/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

A hydrogen-powered hybrid train has been designed and built by students at the University of Birmingham, UK.  The prototype narrow gauge locomotive, running on a 5 000-litre hydrogen fuel cell combined with lead-acid batteries, is the first of its kind operating in the UK.

Dr Stuart Hillmansen, from the University of Birmingham's School of Electronic, Electrical and Computer Engineering, said: "Our hydrogen-powered locomotive is a clean and efficient example of how hydrogen power could work for future trains on non-electrified routes.  We hope that our efforts will encourage the rail industry to take a closer look at this exciting technology."

The fuel cell is used both to power the permanent magnet electric motors and to charge the batteries, helping to meet the peak power demands during acceleration.

The advanced cell, which has already been successfully deployed by the university on a canal barge, exceeded expectations when the locomotive was tested on Leicestershire's Stapleford Miniature Railway.

Hydrogen transport also hit the headlines recently during the London 2012 Olympics.  A fleet of five black cabs, powered by hydrogen, shuttled people around the city demonstrating the potential of H-cells as an alternative fuel source.

Plant-based anodes for lithium batteries

Thu, 08/23/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

Chinese companies Kuraray and Kureha are to produce lithium-ion batteries made from plant-based raw materials at a joint factory in Okayama Prefecture.

Traditionally the anode material comes from graphite but the new factory will use ‘hard carbon’ made from plant materials, including coconut shells.  The effect of using the hard carbon will have a more complex crystal structure than conventional graphite.  This will reduce deterioration occurring because of repeated charge – discharge cycles.

The factory for the joint venture will be built at Kuraray Chemical’s carbon plant and will cost US$ 38 159 000.  Output of the factory should be 1 000 tons of anode material annually.  Building work is due to commence in October with plans for the factory to be operational in Autumn 2013 with plans for expansion already being considered.

Breakthrough in lithium-air cell technology

Wed, 08/15/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

Advances made in lithium-air battery technology by researchers at the University of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, could provide ten times more energy density per mass unit than conventional lithium-ion batteries.

Battery chemist Peter Bruce believes the driving range of EV’s can be pushed beyond the 300 mile driving range with the lithium air technology which he believes has the potential to provide a transformational shift in transport.

If successful, lithium-air batteries could decrease the weight of the battery pack because they use oxygen to charge the electrodes. The design would be of a similar design to zinc-air batteries used in hearing aids.

A previous stumbling block to using lithium-air cells has been the unstable chemical reaction causing the battery to fail after a couple of cycles.  This may be overcome with the work done at St Andrews where they were able to run a lithium-air lab cell for 100 charge-discharge cycles.

Clearly there is a long way to go before this could be a commercially practical option, but this step is part of a giant leap in the future of battery technology.

Lead-acid growth for Hitachi

Wed, 08/15/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

Hitachi Chemical Co will increase its production capacity for industrial lead-acid batteries by next January by expanding facilities of the subsidiary company Shin-Kobe Electric Machinery Co.

Some US$12 750000 (one billion yen) will be spent on constructing a building with a new assembly line at Shin-Kobe's Nabari Works in Mie Prefecture, the main site making lead-acid batteries.  It is estimated cell production capacity is likely to increase by 50%.

The site will make back-up power source batteries, the LL-W series of which demand is growing for in offices and factories at risk of power failures.  Joining 192 LL-W batteries together can produce 40kw of electricity for around ten hours.

Shin-Kobe Co. accounts for roughly 30% of the domestic market for industrial lead-acid batteries.  The LL-W products claim a battery life of 17 years, one of the world's longest, and are a fraction of the cost of a lithium-ion counterpart. 

Chinese rare earth exports

Thu, 08/02/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

China has published a white paper confirming its position on rare earth elements following a complaint filed to the World Trade Organisation.  The US, EU and Japan protested China are limiting their export of rare earth elements to protect domestic industries. China has rebuked this claim and cites mounting environmental damage by over-mining as the reason for slowing its mining programme.
The country is now being criticised for manipulating its estimation of reserves held. Previously they claimed to have 30% of the global reserves but now state it is closer to 20%. The Chinese government is fearful of the environmental impact of over mining.  The country has already come under much scrutiny for its poor environmental track record so vigilance should be welcomed. However some critics fear the re-estimation and slower mining of reserves could have more to do with keeping prices up than concerns for the land they come from.
Industries rely heavily upon rare earth elements and will have to look elsewhere for resources if China is to stand by its conviction.  Greenland could hold the answer, there is an estimated quarter of the elements required globally hidden beneath its ice.  Alternatively countries could follow suit with South-East Asia and by ‘urban mining’ – reclaiming used materials from landfill sites.

Second Life for lithium-ion

Wed, 07/25/2012 - 18:02 -- Ruth Williams

The ‘second life’ potential of batteries is a hot topic at the moment with the rise in EVs meaning more lithium-ion batteries will be in circulation, including the Nissan Leaf being mass-produced in the UK from 2013.  ABB and Zero Carbon Futures are both researching the potential utilisation of ‘used’ batteries.  When the batteries come out of the cars they would still have around 80% capacity, this would reduce the range of the car but still be sufficient to be put to another application.  Zero Carbon Futures, working alongside Nissan, are researching the energy storage potential of the used batteries for home energy management systems.

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