As for why a company that is initially building batteries for earthmoving and lawn care products, Ovan said name Firefly came about because fireflies produce "perfect light" (that is, without generating any heat). This graphite foam core material the company is using in their new battery technology has the heat dissipation characteristics of diamonds, which are far better than aluminum and copper, Ovan said. A cooler battery lasts longer, he said, and when you think of a firefly, you think of great power to weight ratio. If you're pushing less lead down the road, you're consuming less energy, no?
Read the entire Q&A interview after the jump.
ABG; The batteries are called 3D and 3D2 (3 D Squared), is that right?
Ovan: There are two products that I can take you through. One is called 3D and the other is 3D2. But maybe I can give you a little history on the company and how it was founded. It was founded in 2003 as a spin off of Caterpillar and it was really formed out of a basic need that Caterpillar had in terms of better batter performance. You can't imagine a more abusive environment posed to a battery than something that shakes violently, it used in temperature extremes and is used infrequently, like a piece of earthmoving equipment is. We [CAT] turned to the existing supplier base in the lead-acid battery industry and said, "How would you fix these problems we're seeing?" and, not surprisingly, the answers coming back were not satisfactory because there really hasn't been much in terms of innovation in the lead acid chemistry. They've used a certain material component called a lead metal grid in that battery for decades. What we've doing, in contrast, we're taking the innate power of the lead-acid chemistry, an incredibly powerful chemistry, and replacing the chief bottleneck which was the heavy, corrodible fairly non-conductive lead metal grid with a carbon graphite foam which has a tremendous increase in surface area and it doesn't corrode like a two-dimensional lead grid does. That's why we call it 3D.
There are several green stories to this. In the first version [of the battery], we are removing the negative lead metal grids of the battery and replacing it with the graphite foam. We call that 3D. In the second version, we replace not only the negative lead metal grids but also the positive lead metal grids. We call that 3D2 (3 D Squared). From a green standpoint, dropping the amount of lead in a lead acid battery, and replacing it with a graphite foam is a great environmental benefit. It also has benefits in terms of recycling. With a lithium and nickel-metal hydride battery, you actually have to pay a recycler to take that battery and recycle it. In contrast, the recycle rate of lead acid batteries is very noble. Over 90 percent of all lead acid batteries are recovered and recycled and put to new use again. In our battery's example, since we're using less lead to start with, there's less to reclaim at the end and when you recycle a lead acid battery you smelt it at high temperatures and carbon as a whole is added to raise the smelting temperature. Well, the ingredient of our battery is basically carbon so that actually increases the temperature and makes it more efficient to recycle the battery.
Another aspect of green is you see a number of product companies around the world in different categories who operate internal combustion based platform, for example Husqvarna, which is our first customer, which is making a variety of outdoor lawn and garden equipment, so they're making two- and four-stroke engines. A company like that seeing an increased noise and air pollution restrictions and regulation want to complement their offerings with battery-powered solutions, that's where Firefly come in. We're seeing the same phenomenon coming in the trucking industry, where, in 2008 in California, they want to introduce some very strong restrictions on truckers who are at truck stops, where they can only idle their diesel engines five minutes per hour. Well, how is the trucker then going to run his "hotel loads," as they're called, air conditioning, TV and the like? And then, of course, you have the world of automobiles and you'll see a range of various hybrid ranging from micro-hybrids, where you simply pull up to a stoplight and the engine goes off and when you're releasing the brake and ready to go back to the gas pedal the engine is starting again, to mild hybrids to full hybrids to, now, plug-in hybrids. There's going to be a variety of car types, much like you find today with gasoline engines – you have a V4, you have a five cylinder, you have a six-, eight-, ten- and twelve-cylinder – and of course those vary by price and performance, so I think over time, you'll see the same emerge in the car business. Tesla's one example of a "V12" and the associated price that goes along with that. For broader scale adoption, to put a real dent in our oil addiction, requires a much stronger equation in terms of price performance in the battery packs, and that's a key area that we believe we have with the Firefly technology. We're leveraging well-understood lead-acid technology and working with an existing manufacturing base.
ABG: And where will the batteries be made?
Ovan: We're headquartered in Peoria, Illinois – Caterpillar's world headquarters are here – and we will be making these carbon graphite foam plates here in Peoria and we will be announcing in the next few weeks our contract battery manufacturers, who we will ship these plates to and have them incorporate them into an overall battery that will be made with the Firefly name.
ABG: Are there any materials involved in the production of these batteries that are rare and might limit production down the line?
Ovan: No. When Firefly was formed in 2003, the price of nickel [used in nickel metal hydride batteries] was $10,000 a ton, that's now risen to about $27,000 a ton in 2006 and there are some who think that will rise to in the 40s next year. Cobalt, used in lithium-ion batteries, has gone from $40,000 a ton in 2003 to over $70,000 a ton today. Lead itself, the price of that has gone from $500 a ton in 2003 to $1,400 a ton today. There's a view that with volume, lithium prices will come down, but that view fails to understand that these precious metals are being driven by the voracious appetite of the Chinese economy and the use of these same materials for a different purpose, in stainless steel. So the battery industry is not in the driver's seat.
ABG: Is there any talk of licensing the technology down the road?
Ovan: We are working with flagship customers now who have a critical need, then we'll be in a position to show that to the broader battery industry and entertain discussions on licensing for broader volume uses.
ABG: So when will 3D or 3D2 be available to consumers and to manufacturers?
Ovan: Well, it's the latter that we'll offer to first. Our first commercial customer is Husqvarna, so we'll be shipping them batteries by this time next year for incorporation into one of their key 2008 products in the area of outdoor lawn and garden equipment. Our second customer is the U.S. Army, where we'll be developing a battery upsized for temperature and vibration and power and energy purposes, a battery for their use. We'll be kicking off that project early next month [Jan. 2007]. Both of those platforms may have direct applicability for the world of various hybrid vehicles because this battery has an outstanding advantage in several respects. This carbon graphite foam is a very efficient dissipater of heat, and we know from looking at nickel-metal hydride batteries and lithium ion batteries, you have to put a lot of safety and thermal controls on them to keep them within a certain temperature range so they don't get into a thermal runaway condition and with this use of this high-heat dissipative material, this graphite foam, our batteries run much cooler and lighter.
ABG: Is it just taking some of the lead out that makes them lighter?
Ovan: It really depends on the application, where you will see weight reductions. Simply taking our 3D technology for the moment, in cold climates – where are you from?
ABG: I'm in Michigan.
Ovan: Ok, so in Michigan, your car battery is typically oversized by two or three times so that in January when it gets to minus 15 out and your car whirrs before it finally starts, because in lead-acid chemistry the chemical reaction is really slow at those temperatures so you've got to have a bigger battery as a result so you can start it in those cold temperatures.
ABG: I saw in the white paper that Firefly batteries can put out 70 percent of their power at even at negative 18 Celsius?
Ovan: That's right. That's because of the high surface area, number one, and you can put the chemistry not only on top of the graphite foam plate but also in the pores of that plate and the electrolyte is now in much closer proximity to that chemistry so the ability to use the battery in cold temperatures and recharge it quickly all get improved dramatically.
ABG: Do you have any idea, in any of your testing, what kind of power these batteries might provide to an electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid?
Ovan: I think the answer is a qualified it depends. Here's why I'm saying this. Firefly is a company that is now starting its fourth year in business and my partner Ed Williams and I, not having been from the battery industry before, did a lot of homework in terms of understanding how do businesses conduct themselves in this area and one of the key phrases we learned is kind of a joke. There are liars, damn liars and battery companies. There's a tendency for a battery company to want to pound their chest and make claims that really require you to peel the layer 15-20 layers to really understand. So our policy is not get into the beating the chest claims. What we do in contrast, though, is we bring in interested parties in a non-disclosure agreement, we ask them specifics on the application and we have a long list of things we ask, we then ask what their preferred battery alternatives are, and we come up with tabular comparative of our batteries against those. That's lead to several of these major corporations who have looked the world over for their battery technology to vote with their wallets and become investors and pay for the product development for their unique applications. That's a very long-winded way to say I'm not going to get into specifics.
ABG: I know our readers could get very excited about this technology, especially those who are thinking about doing a home conversion over to electric drive.
Ovan: I'm a passionate car guy, and I'd love nothing more than to be able to offer a battery for the enthusiast. I guess my only caution is to say that our policy to date has been to work with flagship corporations who have a key need, that is, battery performance is essential to their end product. We are on the record as talking to a couple of worldwide car companies. It is my hope, as a "car guy," that one of these discussions will bear fruit and that will ultimately lead to the availability of this battery for the EV enthusiast, but we're still a couple of years away from that.
[Updated to fix minor typing and transcription errors]