Green

ActaCell nabs $3 million for cheaper, better batteries for hybrids

Recently, we wrote about the move in the private sector to use electric and hybrid delivery trucks. Companies like FedEx and Frito Lay are tapping into benefits of greener cars — even ahead of the broader consumer market because they’re a hedge against volatile diesel prices and can pay returns more quickly.

That’s the market that Austin, Tex.-based startup ActaCell is jumping on, citing market drivers like EPA regulators cracking down on emissions requirements and the difficulty of predicting the price of diesel. The company makes high-power lithium-ion batteries for use in medium to heavy-duty hybrid trucks, and today it announced over $3 million in grants.

One of the grants is a $3 million award over a three-year period — provided it hits certain benchmarks — from the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. The money will provide for the company to create a strategy to show it can scale up by 1,000 times the production of a nano material for high-energy batteries for use in electrified vehicles.

“We have a nano material that can enable a high-energy battery to be made,” Kohler said. “We can make the alloy material five grams at a time. A cell may need 100 grams of material. Right now, it’s not practical to make batteries using this material,” so the company will demonstrate it can scale up production of the material to five kilograms at time, which would then put it in contention for being a commercially viable material for hybrid batteries.

The other is a $179,000 grant from the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium (made up of Ford, GM and Chrysler) to conduct a 16-month assessment of ActaCell’s high-power battery cells to see if they meet requirements specified by the consortium for power-assist hybrid-electric vehicle applications. It’s essentially a slew of tests to pinpoint the battery’s overall performance, how it works under different temperature situations and what it’s overall lifecycle looks like.

The tests will pinpoint the strengths of ActaCell’s batteries, Kohler said, and if all goes well, could lead to one of the automakers in the consortium seeking out ActaCell for additional research on its batteries.

The company seems to reflect some of the latest trends in venture capital-backed cleantech startups. For one, capital efficiency. ActaCell has raised $7 million and lived off that for three years. In fact, Kohler said the company has been able to buy second-hand equipment from startups that burned through their funding too fast. For another, it’s focusing on a market — hybrid trucks — that sells to commercial entities on the basis of being able to prove return on investment, a trend Peter Wagner of Accel told VentureBeat would strengthen in 2011.

ActaCell licenses research from the University of Texas at Austin and has used it to make battery cells that use a traditional approach to making lithium ion batteries but without blending in nickel or cobalt, which companies typically add to compensate for the short life cycle of these batteries (particularly under too-hot, too-cold conditions). Not having to add those materials and creating a more efficient battery could result in lowered cooling requirements for car makers and a cheaper battery overall. If the company can demonstrate the technology works and can scale up, it could eventually grow to service the market for mass consumer electric and hybrid cars.

“We feel we have a technology that is well understood and can be scaled up without having to reinvent everything. We feel we’ve solved the technical problem without having to blend anything. We’ve been able to bring in a high power cell with safety to match,” said Marc Kohler, the company’s director of product management.