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A123’s batteries use a nanostructured lithium-ion phosphate material, an advanced version of the type of battery used in laptops. The company says they’re far safer than ordinary lithium-ion batteries – which can catch fire or explode if overcharged, overheated, or damaged, hazards that would require expensive engineering to make them useable in vehicles. The new battery is safer because its cathode material, unlike conventional materials, does not release oxygen under these conditions; without oxygen, the liquid electrolyte will not combust. This safety advantage, along with the ability to pack a lot of power into a small, light package has caught the eye of several automakers, Fulop says.

This power could also have non-automotive applications in addition to power tools – the company is attracting attention from large companies such as GE and Motorola, Fulop says. Although he cannot give specifics yet, he says “what is really exciting about this technology is the ability to do starting jet engines, the ability to do alternative drive trains, the ability to do medical device systems that you couldn’t do before.” Although he adds that “automotive is where we expect to have the majority of our business.”

Even with the advantages of its batteries, however, A123 will have a challenge getting them into vehicles. The company enters a market already crowded with developers of hybrid-vehicle batteries. Menahem Anderman, president of Advanced Automotive Batteries, which organized this week’s conference, was able to list 10 competitors, and said there are many more, many of them major Japanese companies with established connections to automakers.

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