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Dispatch from the ARPA-E Summit 2012: Envia’s Strong Roots in the Public-Private Innovation Ecosystem

The 2012 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit opened with news that Envia Systems – the recipient of a $4 million investment from ARPA-E – has developed a breakthrough lithium-ion battery for use in electric vehicles. A flurry of independent tests confirmed that the Envia battery can perform in the world record-range of 378-418 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg), almost triple the energy density of conventional batteries. The battery pack of the latest Tesla Roadster, for example, has a reported energy density of 121 Wh/kg. Furthermore, the unique battery design is such that “the cost of cells will be less than half — perhaps 45 percent — of cells today,” company CEO Atul Kapadia contends. If true, the technology could significantly reduce the cost of electric vehicles upon commercialization, assuming it’s scalable. Envia’s experience is a positive example of the kinds of potentially high-impact investments ARPA-E is making, as well as a reminder that technological breakthroughs are not manna from heaven, but rather the result of energetic public-private partnerships.

Envia is a small company of 35 people that spent 5 years laboring on their potential breakthrough. In addition to ARPA-E, Envia received funding from a variety of sources, including the California Energy Commission and $7 million from GM. Their work built on cathode technology developed at the Argonne National Laboratory. When the lab licensed the technology to Envia in early 2011, it was actually its fifth such agreement with a private company, a reflection of the key role national laboratories play in providing research and development support for the private sector. After performing in-house testing on their battery, it underwent additional testing and demonstration at a Naval Surface Warfare facility in Crane, Indiana, which confirmed it’s reached potentially breakthrough benchmarks set by ARPA-E. The next step is scaling the battery technology as a manufacturable commercial product. At this point, Envia is not looking to become a large-scale manufacturer due to “the challenge of raising a huge amount of capital to build factories when demand is not always certain and they are competing with well-established Asian suppliers,” instead hoping to “bring [their] technology to market through partnerships, such as joint ventures with automakers or selling manufacturing rights,” as reported by CNET.

Envia’s success thus far looks to be good news for the nascent clean economy, especially electric vehicle manufacturers that are trying to increase performance while cutting battery costs. Patience, however, is needed. “There are natural things about the energy sector that are going to make it, because of the gigantic capital involved and the nature of technologies, a lot slower than the IT revolution,” Bill Gates cautioned at the summit. “The IT revolution is the exception that’s kind of warped people’s minds about how quickly things can work.” Unlike a new app or computer technology, Envia’s battery will have to undergo additional testing by actual carmakers before full-scale commercialization in addition to the years of testing already on the books. Furthermore, success is by no means guaranteed and there will be failures in the clean energy sphere in general – that’s just the nature of the innovation process. No one should be scared off by failure, however, because as Gates also said, “we need to be willing to take risks and there are going to be certain anti-Solyndra stories, that is, things that paid off dramatically.” Hopefully, Envia’s battery will prove to be such a pay-off – one of many.

ITIF is a Designated Media Partner at this year’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit.

Photo credit: Envia Systems

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