Ric Fulop, Co-founder A123 Systems
I had the chance to speak with Ric Fulop, co-founder and marketing director of A123 Systems in Boston as the Volt was visiting there. You can hear the whole interview below the post, download it, or find it on iTunes podcasts.
I tried to find out of GM had their Volt pack yet, but he declined to comment. We talked a bit about the DOE/USABC grant. He told me A123 got an initial 15 million dollar grant 5 years ago. The new 12.5 million dollar grant was for research on a newer yet battery technology for extended-range EVs called "HD chemistry". This new architecture will optimize the battery by modifying power/energy ratio and other characteristics to make it better suited for future generation plug-in hybrids.
I asked him about Denise Gray's (GM battery director) comments that it takes battery makers 2 years to ramp up to mass production once a final design has been engineered. He agreed, indicating that there is an expensive validation process as well as manufacturing process scaling.
He noted that A123 supplies cells to Continental who then manufactures the packs. He feels everyone is moving swiftly. He is very comfortable with A123's battery technology for the car, but noted still some work to be done in thermal management and packaging. He is fully confident though that the project is achievable.
I asked him for the battery specs in w-h/kg, but he decline to answer, citing it as competitive information. He admits people will be "pleasantly surprised" when the production car ships and packs are opened and analyzed, disclosing a very advanced technology. He admits it is a "step-above" what they've done in the past (i.e. for power tools) with extremely good calendar life and performance under many weather environments. He noted that A123 has made "custom cells" for the Volt, that their agreement indeed states a custom cell is to made made specifically for the Volt, and the cells are not those you can publicly see on their website.
He wouldn't comment on EnerDel's chemistry, but says they're good people and he wishes them luck, indicating that it's a new industry with room for a lot of companies.
We talked about where lithium-ion production is taking place geologically. He noted most of the lithium salt is in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, but that there is some lithium in the U.S., and assures us there is enough lithium on the planet for "several billion" plug-in hybrids.
He tells me A123 has 850 employees total, sites in Michigan, Massachusetts, and Canada, and production facilities in two different countries in Asia. Also he states A123's goal is to use these facilities to make a competitively priced product, as cost is a limiting issue. He was unable to share with me their cells cost in dollars per kwh.
Importantly, he assures me that the price of cells are not holding anything back in terms of the production timeline. It is the standard automotive validation process (4 years) to get a car from concept to mass production that is pushing things to 2010.
He also relates that lithium-ion manufacturing process is mature, consumer electronic cells have been produced for a decade and a half, it's just the new technological improvements afoot that are allowing cells to be now be applied to the automotive industry.
He wouldn't give me the date of an IPO for A123, but notes they are very well capitalized, $132 million to be exact. He says an IPO will not be in the immediate future, but they are considering it for when the "time is right".
He feels that goverment investment is highly important for li-ion research and has allowed this industry to happen. He believes the U.S. li-ion technology is currently more advanced than that in Japan and that government investment is needed to keep that advantage.
In fact, he shares with me that A123's first $100,000 came from the DOE in 2002, when it was just him and the other co-founders. This financial seed allowed them to create their li-ion technology, eventually allowing them to be the largest lithium-ion employer in the U.S. Although corporate dollars could fund some low risj research with good ROI, he believes goverment grants are needed to allow new research into markets that don't exist, and allows companies to pay for failures,and for taking risks mature companies couldn't tolerate.
He tells me that since nickel pricing has increased, NiMh cells are at the moment actually more expensive than current advanced li-ion cells.
Although he was keeping some key facts close to the vest, Ric Fulop's confidence that the car will go to production was apparent.