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The Sad Story of the Battery Breakthrough that Proved Too Good to Be True

Technology from Envia that was supposed to cut EV battery costs in half doesn’t actually work.
December 6, 2013

We’ve previously reported on a startup, Envia Systems, that claimed its batteries could store twice as much as conventional ones—and could cut costs in half. That could have made electric cars with a couple of hundred miles of range per charge affordable.

But according to court documents from a lawsuit against the company, Envia hasn’t been able to reproduce its stunning results, and as a result, it has lost its funding and a key relationship with GM, which had hoped to use the technology its electric cars (see this article from GigaOm for more on the court documents and “A Big Jump in Battery Capacity” for background on Envia).

Envia was a poster child for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), whose funding led to the remarkable original results. The company was often cited by the agency’s director as evidence of the kind of progress that the agency’s funding could make possible (see “Can ARPA-E Solve Energy Problems?”).

GM invested $7 million in the company on hearing of the battery’s high energy storage capacities. GM’s CEO, Dan Akerson said the technology “could be a game changer” and remarked on how it seemed to have “come out of nowhere” (see “Should the Government Support Applied Research?”).

At the time (spring of 2012), the results were so far out of line with what others were accomplishing that I looked closely for a catch. What I found was that the batteries lost energy capacity far too fast to be practical in EVs. I wrote:

But the cells aren’t yet ready for use in electric cars. To last the life of a vehicle, they need to be able to recharge over 1,000 times and still maintain 80 percent of their original storage capacity. The company is still testing the new batteries, but after only 400 charges, they have dropped to 72 percent of capacity  … Solving the problem could require substantial improvements to the electrodes.

As it turns out, that wasn’t all that was wrong with the batteries. From GigaOm:

[B]y spring 2013, it started to become clear that Envia could not replicate the 400 wh/kg technology and turn it into a product. Samsung, LG and Asahi Kasei declined to buy the company because it found problems with the technology, according to the court documents … When the technology was not recreated for GM by summer 2013, GM eventually cancelled the deal.

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