Sequoia Capital-backed Oorja Protonics may be making methanol fuel cells to charge batteries in forklifts — but its new product, the OorjaPac Model 1, could give it a big-time entree into the plug-in vehicle market. Supplying 50 times more power to on-board batteries than competing fuel cells, the Model 1 could extend the range of electric vehicles like General Motors’ Chevy Volt or Nissan’s Leaf by two to three times — a game-changing development that could make green cars much hotter sellers.
“Until now, our revenue has come from industrial applications like forklifts and warehouse fleets, but we’re now edging close to the automotive market,” Oorja CEO Sanjiv Malhotra told VentureBeat. “At best, battery-powered vehicles have a range of 100 to 150 miles — this could take it to 2x or 3x.”
With one of consumers’ biggest objections to EVs being their limited driving ranges, this could completely change the way people think about buying greener cars. No longer would they only be suited only for short commutes. Oorja’s new product could make it possible to take a road trip from the Bay Area to LA without needing to plug in and recharge once.
The Model 1 methanol cell delivers 4.5 kilowatts of power at an operating cost of $0.18 per kilowatt-hour, making it cost competitive with other automotive power solutions, including the pricey lithium-ion battery packs used in most EVs today. The methanol cell can’t power vehicles by itself — rather it keeps batteries charged so that they are never fully depleted or overheated. This saves maintenance and replacement costs and can double the overall life of battery packs, Malhotra said.
“Because we are reducing the size of the average power pack by half, and increasing the life of a battery two times, the cost of the overall power package could be 15 to 20 percent lower than usual,” Malhotra said. “If you look at operating costs, including maintenance and charging, it could be 30 to 35 percent lower.” To be clear, he is comparing systems consisting of a methanol fuel cell and battery pack to systems consisting of just a regular battery pack alone.
The new OorjaPac is essentially an 11-gallon fuel tank full of methanol — a widely available source of fuel produced from natural gas, landfill gases and biomass waste. When the tank is nearing empty, it can be filled up just like a regular gas tank within minutes. This could spell trouble for companies working on the question of EV fueling infrastructure. Who needs highway charging or battery-switching stations (read: Coulomb Technologies or Better Place), if batteries can be drawing a charge from a fuel cell even as you keep driving?
When asked why none of its competitors have caught on to Oorja’s advanced technology, Malhotra credits the two years the Fremont, Calif., company sunk into research on methanol systems. He said the increase in power has to do with proprietary changes to the proton exchange membrane contained in the unit. He wouldn’t reveal more. The startup, founded in 2005, emerged from stealth mode in 2008 with the launch of its first, less powerful OorjaPac, which is readily available on the market today.
Oorja will not jump directly into the EV market with both feet. First, it will try to get its new technology integrated into long-haul trucks, particularly trucking fleets. It may target companies like the U.S. Postal Service, Malhotra mentioned. After that, it will eye opportunities to get its methanol fuel cells into plug-in sedans and sports cars, as they pick up momentum this year and next.
The company already has a deal with Nissan that allows the automaker to use the methanol fuel cells to charge batteries in its forklifts and other warehouse-based equipment.
Oorja has raised $21.5 million to date from Sequoia Capital, DAG Ventures, Artis Capital Management, McKenna Management, Northshore Partners and Spring Ventures.