Christina Lampe-Önnerud, a native of Sweden with a doctorate in chemistry, gets a charge out of inventing new battery technologies.
Her expertise helped two of her companies become World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers, a distinction bestowed on young companies that are poised to have a significant impact on business and society.
Her first company, Boston Power, a lithium-ion battery cell, pack and system provider, received the Technology Pioneer designation in 2010. Lampe-Önnerud served as the CEO until the company moved operations to China in 2012.
Her second company, Wilton, Connecticut-based Cadenza Innovation, was named a 2018 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer for developing a new design that improves the performance, cost and safety of large lithium ion batteries used in two emerging $100 billion markets: grid storage and electric vehicles.
In September Cadenza Innovation partnered to manufacture its proprietary “supercell” battery architecture with Shenzhen, China-based BAK Battery Company, one of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery manufacturers. The companies announced BAK would begin mass producing batteries based on Cadenza’s supercell architecture in the first half of 2019, for use in grid storage and electric cars in China, the world’s largest electric vehicle market.
The U.S. startup is also in the process of testing an energy storage system for potential use by the New York Power Authority, the largest state-owned public utility company in the U.S.
The aim is “to deliver safer, more powerful and more sustainable technology to battery manufacturers worldwide by targeting two sectors critical to solving the complexities and challenges of global climate change,” says Lampe-Önnerud, one of 31 technology pioneers invited to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 22–25.
LEGO Blocks of Energy
After leaving Boston Power Lampe-Önnerud, an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Hall of Fame winner who has earned multiple distinctions for her commitment to environmental sustainability, set out to create Cadenza Innovation. “I thought, ‘what if I could use all the knowledge we have learned to lower the cost and increase the energy density while making the batteries more reliable,’” she says.
The key to ramping up fast and having a big impact on climate change was not having to build its own plants and every single battery, she says. So, Cadenza Innovation decided to develop a unique business model.
The U.S. startup, which has raised $17 million, including more than $6 million from the U.S. Department of Energy plus investments from the states of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, doesn’t make lithium-ion batteries. It licenses its technology, which focuses on the way energy is packaged, to traditional players in the battery sector supply chain. Clients can even temporarily rent Cadenza Innovation’s team, which includes experts in lithium-ion technologies and manufacturing from Boston Power’s original crew.
Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are usually powered by coded electrodes wound into what are known as “jelly rolls.” Packaging the jelly rolls tightly allows for greater energy density but it was not considered a good option because if one of the jelly rolls overheated it could catch fire. To solve this problem Cadenza has patented a battery system it calls the “supercell” in which smaller energy units in the form of jelly rolls are packed very tightly into a housing material made of a non-combustible ceramic fiber containing fire retardants. The material helps control temperature throughout the cell and isolate damage if one of the jelly rolls short-circuits. This in turn, prevents what’s known as “thermal runaway” which causes battery fires.
In tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense lithium-ion batteries made with the company’s technology didn’t catch fire in standard testing “even if a nail was driven into the battery,” says Lampe-Önnerud. “Under these abusive conditions, the battery just shuts down.”
The stability of Cadenza Innovation’s cells is considered a major advantage because lithium-ion battery packs have traditionally been anything but. In 2016 Samsung was forced to recall its Galaxy Note 7 handsets after a number of the phones caught fire or exploded due to short circuits within the lithium-ion battery cells. Cadenza Innovation claims its super cell technology can make electric vehicles even more stable than cars powered by fossil fuels (about 500 of these burst into flames every day.)
The startup’s technology also aims to bring down the cost. The current price of commercial lithium-ion battery packs that are used in electric vehicles ranges from $200 to $400 per kilowatt-hour. Cadenza Innovation says it believes trim the price to $125 per kilowatt-hour because its system uses standard components and simplifies the manufacturing of battery packs by designing supercell modules that click together. Think of its technology “as LEGO blocks of energy” that allow manufacturers to choose the shape, size and density of battery packs, while making them safer and more cost-effective, says Lampe-Önnerud, who has 20 years of experience in the sector.
Cutting the cost of the battery could be a major boost to electric vehicle adoption. By 2025, China’s leaders want 20% of the cars sold every year, about seven million, to be plug-in hybrids or battery-powered, according to news reports. And Europe, with the backing of the European Commission, is racing to set up a viable industrial battery sector to meet growing demand for electric vehicles as the bloc’s automakers mostly depend on Asian suppliers. Cadenza Innovation has already demonstrated its proprietary supercell battery architecture in Fiat’s 500e car model.
Transforming The Energy Grid
Transformation of the global energy sector is another big focus for Cadenza Innovation. Lampe-Önnerud is a regular speaker on World Economic Forum panels with members of the traditional energy sector, many of whom are reluctant to embrace change. The test of its storage technology with New York state will be an important proof point. The demonstration project will be a stand-alone system that includes a rack-mounted 200kWh, 50kW [JC4] battery storage unit and will feature Cadenza Innovation’s super cell technology. The project, expected to be completed by fall 2019, is an example of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commitment to fostering the use of clean energy, she says. New York state has announced an energy storage target of 1,500 megawatts by 2025. “The critical infrastructure is aging and Governor Cuomo is championing New York state’s use of new energy technology to complement existing capabilities or open up whole new approaches to meet its current and future energy demands,” says Lampe-Önnerud.
Cost-effective and safe battery-powered storage systems will be the key to better use of hydropower and widespread adoption of solar power, she says. To make such systems work, the grid itself as well as homes and offices will require safe, cost-effective energy storage systems. “In the future if you own a car you will charge it at home during the night, drive it to work and hook it up so that if the office building needs extra power, for example, you can sell a chunk of what you stored,” she says.
According to a report from Zion Market Research, the global energy storage systems market is expected to generate revenue of about $296 billion by the end of 2024 — growing at a compound annual rate of more than 6%.
“We are living in an unprecedented time in which it is possible to do good and do well,” says Lampe-Önnerud, who currently serves as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Energy. “We are now entering a period where sustainable technology is meeting sustainable economics. And the World Economic Forum’s leadership is instrumental in that.”