Caterpillar Spinoff Seeks Next-Gen Car Battery

Firefly has developed a graphite composite material it will use to replace the lead in lead acid batteries, reducing their weight by more than 50 percent.

Published: 08-Jan-2006

p;Last year's high petroleum prices goosed consumer interest in electric/gasoline hybrid cars and energized the business model at Firefly Energy Inc., the Peoria-based battery technology company.

Today's hybrid cars improve energy efficiency by relying in part upon electricity to power the vehicle. But they could boost efficiency more if their batteries were recharged by plugging into an electrical outlet rather than relying solely upon the car's gasoline-driven motor, said Mil Ovan, a Firefly senior vice president and co-founder.

Improving automobile efficiency is necessary, Ovan said, because there simply isn't enough petroleum available on the planet to continue consuming fuel as we have in the past.

"We're not going to drill our way out of the oil situation," he said.

The U.S. uses roughly 20 million barrels of oil daily, and more than half of that is imported, said Ovan. About two-thirds of that oil goes for transportation. If hybrid cars could recharge batteries overnight by plugging into an electrical outlet, many American motorists could drastically reduce gasoline use, he said.

"We envision cars that could travel 30 miles or more using battery power," he said. "About half of the nation's motorists only drive their cars 20 miles a day, so their gasoline engines wouldn't be used at all."

A major barrier to this scenario has been battery technology, which is where Firefly comes in. Old lead acid batteries are relatively inexpensive but extremely heavy, while newer nickel metal hydride and lithium batteries are lighter but quite expensive.

Firefly has developed a graphite composite material it will use to replace the lead in lead acid batteries, reducing their weight by more than 50 percent, Ovan said, improving their power output and eliminating corrosion problems while maintaining low costs.

The company, which was spun off by Caterpillar Inc. in 2003, has a deal with Electrolux Outdoor Products to provide batteries that can be used in weed whackers, lawn tractors and the like. Firefly is supplying prototypes to Electrolux for testing and hopes to see its batteries used in products next year, Ovan said.

"We want to prove this work commercially, to help reduce the risk an automaker sees in committing to our technology," Ovan said.

Auditing telephone bills: Fate has been unkind to competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs), the upstart telecom companies that offer alternative service to giants like Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc.

The government has backed away from dictating rates and conditions by which CLECs can buy wholesale service from the big carriers, causing many CLECs to install their own switches and some lines while paying more for the services they still must buy at higher wholesale rates.

Even so, the CLECs are soldiering on, said Thad Pellino, managing partner of Smart Telecom Concepts LLC, based in Lisle. STC helps CLECs audit the bills they get from big carriers each month, looking for overcharges and other costly problems.

STC, which started operations in 1999, recently won a U.S. patent covering the software it uses to analyze and simplify the complex billing information large carriers typically send to CLECs.

Difficult market conditions are causing CLECs to consolidate, Pellino said, which has proven helpful to his firm's business.

"It creates opportunities for us," he said. "A number of our clients have encountered different pricing and billing platforms in their dealings with large carriers--a lot of transformation and all kinds of inaccuracies and billing problems. These changes increase their need for our help."

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