The Lady and the li-ion

Laptops desperately need a better lithium-ion battery. Boston-Power's Christina Lampe-Onnerud says she's got it

14 min read
The Lady and the li-ion
Photo: Chris Mueller

YOUR WORLD increasingly runs on lithium-ion batteries. Chances are good that your phone, laptop, camera, portable music and video players, radios, and game consoles keep going only as long as there are lithium ions churning around inside them. Lithium-ion batteries are getting into your power tools. Soon they’ll even be in your car.

So it’s a shame that after nearly four decades of intensive development, lithium-ion batteries still leave plenty to be desired. They fade fast—although their energy capacity starts out higher than that of any other kind of mass-market battery, it can drop more than 25 ­percent per year in typical applications. And then there are the persistent reports of flameouts: just this January, ­journalists gathered at a Korean hospital witnessed a colleague’s laptop burst into flames. Remember the iPod that burned up in a man’s back pocket, or the Dell laptop that went up in flames at a conference in Japan? Their former owners sure do.

This is an industry ready for change but not necessarily expecting it, let alone striving for it. The big companies that domi­nate lithium-ion production—Sony, Panasonic, Sanyo, Samsung, and LG—are all selling batteries not much different from the ones they sold five years ago. Only the initial capacity of batteries has been increasing, at about 5 ­percent a year. Today they are commodity products, manufactured in huge quantities and sold at vanishingly slim profit margins.

Change, however, is about to come. And it’s going to come from a pretty surprising agent: a 40â¿¿year-old jazz singer, soccer mom, and research chemist named Christina Lampe-Onnerud.

Since 2005, Lampe-Onnerud has quietly redesigned the ­lithium-ion battery used in today’s ­laptop computers. She started a company called Boston-Power, in Westborough, Mass., to build the novel batteries, collected nearly US $70 million in investment, set up manufacturing lines in China and Taiwan that have so far cranked out tens of thousands of units, and expects to see her batteries in products shipping from major laptop manufacturers later this year. And as if that’s not enough, she’s managed to get her batteries certified to carry the Swanlabel, indicating they are environmentally friendly under the Nordic ecolabel program, the first lithium-ion batteries ever to receive such a designation.

LAMPE-ONNERUD had her career-altering moment in 1999, at the 40th Battery Symposium, in Kyoto. She ruffled a few feathers there by pointing out in a talk that the energy density of lithium-ion batteries used for laptop computers, at 40 watt-hours per kilogram, was already getting uncomfortably close to that of your basic hand grenade. That density, the amount of energy stored in a certain mass, had been going up like a rocket as manufacturers competed fiercely for a growing market.

At the time she was a partner at consulting firm Arthur D. Little, in Cambridge, Mass., advising battery companies, doing market forecasts, and troubleshooting technical and manufacturing ­problems. She gave lots of speeches at conferences, most of them saying the same thing: as lithium-ion makers squeezed more and more energy out of their batteries, they were also going to get squeezed on cost. Put those two trends together, she told battery makers, and bad things might happen. None of the manufacturers became overly alarmed.

Then, in 2002 and 2003, battery manufacturers indeed started having problems with unpredictable failures—none of which, at this stage, involved flaming consumer goods. Manufacturers addressed the failures, ”but the solutions were always just patches,” she says. By 2004, Lampe-Onnerud was tired of helping the industry slap on Band-Aids: ”I wanted to take a step back and think about the whole battery as one system.” And she couldn’t do that within Arthur D. Little.

So on Halloween 2004, she cleaned out her office at Arthur D. Little, said good-bye to her colleagues, and went trick-or-­treating with her kids. The next day Lampe-Onnerud dropped her children off at preschool and then walked up the stairs to her study, where she opened her laptop, took a deep breath, and began to think about lithium-ion batteries in a way no one else ever had before.

Lots of people find their life’s calling only after circuitous adolescent self-discovery. But not many engineers find their way after rejecting opera singing and medicine. Christina Lampe grew up enchanted with opera in her native Sweden. But her father, Wolfgang Lampe, a power engineer who was named an IEEE Fellow for his innovations in high-power transmission, encouraged her to make performing arts a sideline and pursue a more traditional career in math or science.

She did find science fun as a child, playing with electronics and chemistry kits. By the time she was 12, she was concocting fireworks in a basement bathtub, slapping out stray sparks with damp ­towels. In high school she applied to and was accepted by a prestigious eight-year program in Sweden that would end with a medical doctorate. But during her senior year of high school, in 1985, with memories of a recent fun-filled summer in Oregon fresh in her mind, she instead accepted a scholarship from a Swedish-American associa­tion to go to college in the United States. She spent a year at Elmira College in New York, taking double the normal course load and studying English literature, business, and various sciences and working for one of the chemistry professors as a lab assistant. In the spring, the students voted Lampe ”Miss Elmira.”

She went back to Sweden to finish her education at Uppsala University, but by this time she’d turned away from medicine for good. An Elmira chemistry professor, Pierre-Ives Bouthyette, had convinced her that chemistry was far more interesting than anatomy. Anatomy was simply memorization, while chemistry was literally the stuff of the world. With chemistry, ”you had to see beyond what the science was,” she says, and understand what the science could make happen.

PHOTO: Chris Mueller

These days, Lampe-Onnerud is working 80â¿¿hour weeks, meeting with potential customers and investors, overseeing the manufacturing ramp-up in China, and working with members of the company’s executive team around the world. On a typical day, she’s up at 5 a.m. to check in with Boston-Power’s team in China; at 7 a.m. she reads her e-mail, and then from 7:15 to 8:30 she’s feeding the kids breakfast and getting them ready for school. From 9 a.m. to midafternoon it’s meeting after meeting. She and Rick Chamberlain, Boston-Power’s vice president of engineering, discuss a new customer at 10 a.m. [left]. Around noon, Lampe-Onnerud meets with senior scientist Yanning Song to discuss test results [center], and then at 1:45 with members of the company’s electronics group [right].

It came easily enough to her. Lampe began graduate studies at Uppsala, focusing on copper deposition on semiconductor wafers for her master’s work and analyzing cathode materials for lithium-polymer batteries for her Ph.D. While completing her degree, she collaborated with a battery company called Danionics, in Odense, Denmark. Danionics patented the synthesis of some of the vanadium-oxide cathode materials she worked on for her Ph.D.

On the day Lampe was due to defend her Ph.D. thesis, she publicized the event; she was giving a live interview to a radio journalist as she entered the room. ”The thing that separates Christina from others is her ambition,” says Josh Thomas, the professor who supervised her Ph.D. work.

She could hardly have timed her thesis better. When she got her Ph.D. in 1995, commercial lithium-ion batteries were still fairly novel. Lampe quickly became known as a lithium-ion cathode expert. Not that she fixated completely on batteries: she also worked for the town of Uppsala, leading its 120-singer chorus, and married her high school sweetheart, Per Onnerud, who was studying chemistry and math and playing jazz trumpet in a local band.

After graduation, the two went to MIT as postdoctoral ­researchers. Lampe-Onnerud worked part-time for an MIT spin-off, Quantum Energy Technologies, where she concentrated on batteries and displays, before moving in 1997 to Bell Communications Research (Bellcore), in Red Bank, N.J., as director of energy storage. The Bellcore gig was fun but short-lived. Executives at Arthur D. Little, the management-consulting firm, had begun wooing Lampe-Onnerud the day she left Massachusetts for Bellcore. They called at least once a month. They sent gift baskets. And finally they offered to hire her with her husband and assign them to work together, something Bellcore wouldn’t do.

She left New Jersey in 1998 to become a partner at Arthur D. Little and stayed for six years, working with companies, industry groups, and governments to help them understand the battery market, defend battery patents, and set energy policy. She continued her cathode research, now to advance technology for Arthur D. Little clients; companies credited her on several patents.

in typical use, a year-old Sonata battery pack can power a laptop for 4 hours, compared with about 2 hours for a year-old traditional battery

And then, as summer turned to autumn in 2004, she realized she was weary of having to think about batteries in the ways her clients wanted her to. She had two children, aged 1 and 4, but she also had child care. The family could live on her husband’s income. She even had an unrenovated carriage house on her Framingham, Mass., property, which could be company headquarters. For a while.

For those last two months of 2004, Lampe-Onnerud spent most of her time in her study, figuring out what her newborn company should do. ”You get an innovation euphoria going,” she says, and ”you barely need sleep.” Her husband dealt with the children as much as possible. Friends and neighbors dropped off meals for the family. She drafted spreadsheets, one sorting out technical issues in the battery industry, another looking at financial opportunities.

She considered developing a battery for active RFID. She considered implantable batteries for medical devices. She even thought about batteries for hybrid cars, but she kept coming back to the laptop market as the most interesting niche. She reviewed cases in which laptop batteries had problems, and she found something interesting: what all those incidents had in common was that people were jamming too much energy into a confined space. A laptop’s battery slot determines the boundaries of that space but not the divisions within it. So Lampe-Onnerud reorganized the space within. And just as a simple kitchen remodel can make a family’s life more efficient, the reorganization made all the difference. The solution, she says, looks simple now. At the time it was anything but.

PHOTO: Chris Mueller

At 2:15 Lampe-Onnerud gets an update on the production scale-up from Phil Partin, associate director of product development [left], then checks out testing in progress [center]. On most days she then rushes home to greet her children returning from school. From 3 to 7:30 it’s family time, which involves music [right].

TRADITIONAL LAPTOP ­batteries consist of six cylindrical cells, arranged as pairs wired in parallel, with three sets of parallel cells wired in series. Lampe-Onnerud sketched out a design with three rectangular cells instead, each filling the space of two cylindrical cells, all wired in a series. Could such a simple change make a difference? It could. In the parallel laptop battery, current is supposed to flow through the parallel paths at exactly the same rate. But slight temperature differences or tiny chemical imbalances between the two paths force more current into one of them. Over time, the current imbalance between the cells can go to an extreme that forces bits of lithium metal to adhere to the anode. When this happens, the battery is able to store less energy than it is designed to store, meaning a shorter computer run time per charge. And because lithium metal is highly reactive, those scattered bits of metal can fuel a fire if a short crops up and suddenly raises the temperature of the system.

Wiring three cells in a series essentially eliminates that problem [see diagram, ” A Not-So-Simple Remodel”]. With only one path for the current to travel, it’s easier to control the flow of current, reducing the chance that lithium metal will be deposited, which would compromise the storage capability.

Lampe-Onnerud’s batteries don’t dramatically lose power in their first six months or so and thus won’t need to be replaced as quickly; they are designed to operate at a minimum of 80 ­percent capacity for three years, the life of a typical laptop computer. After three years of regular use, a traditional lithium-ion computer battery essentially has no capacity left; after a year of typical use, users will find that a battery that once had a 4-hour capacity now has a 2-hour one.

The change in form factor is only one reason for this longer life; she also changed the chemi­cal composition of the cathode from pure cobalt to a cobalt-based mixture; understandably, she won’t give out the ingredients of her secret sauce. Jim McDowall, business development mana­ger at Saft Batteries and former chair of IEEE’s Stationary Battery Committee, hypothesizes that she selected nickel-manganese-cobalt, a material that potentially fades more slowly than pure cobalt.

Lampe-Onnerud also spent some time optimizing safety systems and control circuitry. McDowall says safety improvements typically come at the expense of energy density, but the extra 14 percent of volume she picked up in the rectangular design may indeed make up for any capacity loss.

The Sonata can recharge faster than traditional batteries, reaching 80 percent of its capacity in 30 minutes—because, Lampe-Onnerud says, the finely tuned design means that more of the current entering the battery goes to charging it instead of heating the table on which it sits.

And that is basically it. ”I simplified the system and optimized it,” she concludes.

Michael Feinstein, who led Venrock Associates’ investment in the company (the size of the first round of investment is not ­public), said that none of the design changes Lampe-Onnerud made were individually revolutionary. But sometimes a group of evolutionary changes are better than one dramatic innovation.

”I’ve seen a lot of battery startâ¿¿ups that do exotic things. And to commercialize them takes a brand-new factory, a huge amount of capital. Christina made a whole series of incremental changes involving the chemistry, the physical design, and the safety mechanisms. When you add them all up, they make a big difference in performance and safety,” Feinstein says. And, Feinstein points out, she was careful not to go so far that manufacturing would require a major modification of existing production lines or that the battery wouldn’t easily pass qualification tests by potential customers.

Scott Chou, who led the first investment round for Gabriel Venture Partners, said he’d been looking for a start-up doing ­batteries for several years when he heard about Boston-Power. He’d already rejected battery-technology proposals that increased energy density but sacrificed longevity, changed the form factor and therefore would have a tough time getting industry acceptance, or seemed to have safety issues. He passed on one battery that would vent sulfur dioxide gas when it failed. And then came Lampe-Onnerud.

”Christina offered safety first,” Chou said. ”Things were not too radically different, which meant that the product was safe and relia­ble and had a fast time to market. But they were radically improved.”

PHOTO: Chris Mueller

Lampe-Onnerud's family time involves play with children Anna-Maria and Mattias [left].Per Onnerud, Lampe-Onnerud’s husband, often puts the children to bed while she works in her home office; here [center] she meets with him to prepare for late-night conference calls with factories in China and Taiwan. At 11 p.m. she’s back in her home office [right]; this is when she can wrestle with scientific questions or think strategically about her company. She gets to bed around 1 a.m. most nights. Thursday evenings, however, are different. Lampe-Onnerud sings with and directs the Stardust Show Chorus, a 20-member women’s jazz chorus. Thursday is rehearsal night.

AT THIS POINT, a typical inventor might have taken this new design, built some prototypes, and tried to license the design to established battery manufacturers. As the winter of 2004 arrived, Lampe-Onnerud was thinking she might do that. But the Christmas holidays were approaching, and for Lampe-Onnerud, that meant family time. She and her family went to New Hampshire to ski.

Even on the slopes, she didn’t stop thinking about her design. Riding in a chairlift, she announced to her husband, ”I have decided to try to be part of the manufacturing process.” It would be easier for her to license the design, she reasoned, after proving that the battery was builda­ble and popular. She also figured that by doing it herself, she could commercialize it faster. And she thought it would be fun. Really. Waiting in lift lines, she began calling friends in China, trying to line up a factory that would let her set up a pilot production facility.

In January, she officially incorporated Boston-Power, with money from two angel investors. One was Anders Barsk, a Swedish investor; the other’s identity is not public. She went to China, talked to manufacturers, and signed a deal with Future Power, near Shanghai. By May 2005, the samples coming off the line met U.S. standards for safety and Underwriters’ Laboratory requirements. She built a laboratory in her carriage house to test the samples and hired Yanning Song, a recent Cornell engineering graduate, to work there. That lasted until September, when the company that insured her home realized that ”a little testing in her barn” actually meant reactive chemicals, heavy machinery, and hundreds of batteries and told her to get the battery operation out, immediately. She moved into a nearby business park. She began filing for patents—15 are in the works so far.

That month she also spoke with former Venrock partner Feinstein. ”She talked about the safety features of her design,” he recalls, ”that if these batteries failed they would just die, not explode. My reaction was, ’That’s nice, but you’d better have something else that differentiates you.’ She also told me then that safety issues were going to start causing problems for the industry, and my reaction was, ’Sony and Sanyo and the rest are going to build products that break? I don’t think so.’ ”

But they did. In June 2006, the famous Dell laptop had a flameout during a conference in Osaka. Then came reports of other battery fires. Sony, the manufacturer of the flaming Dell battery, recalled 10 million units that summer, and other battery recalls followed. And venture capitalists who had already been interested in Lampe-Onnerud’s little company were practically pounding at her door.

She took money from Venrock Associates, Gabriel Venture Partners, and Granite Global Ventures as her first investors; more investment firms contributed later for a total to date of $68 ­million.

Once she got her new company funded, her husband left Arthur D. Little. The plan was for him to care for the children and the household while she focused on her business. ”That lasted five months,” Lampe-Onnerud recalls. She then told him that if he really wanted to help her, he should contribute his technical talents. Now he’s chief technical officer of the company.

TODAY BOSTON-POWER has 40 employees, many of whom have had a decade or more of experience at places like Duracell, Eveready, Dell, and IBM’s ThinkPad division. Boston-Power is no Facebook, staffed by 20-somethings and their dogs; these are people with gray hair and long track records. They don’t play foosball all day and pull all-nighters. It’s the kind of company where people know their jobs inside and out, they do them quietly, and then they go home to their families for dinner.

But it’s no sleepy little tech shop, either. The corporate culture reflects Lampe-Onnerud’s vibrant personality and love of music. She selected Sonata as the name for Boston-Power’s first battery—which is bright blue, by the way, because that’s her favorite color. The conference rooms at the company are labeled Harmony and Symphony; she plans to name the company’s next battery Salsa. Employees are a little more dressed up than those at typical start-ups; jeans and T-shirts are not the norm here. Lampe-Onnerud usually wears a suit, always with heels, often with pearls. For her, dressing down is a denim skirt. People are polite to one another and to outsiders. They send thank-you notes whenever someone does something for them. Handwritten thank-you notes. Even to reporters.

SO FAR, tens of thousands of Sonatas have rolled off Boston-Power’s first production line in Shenzhen, China; the company is in the process of bringing up a second line in Taiwan. Meanwhile, additional laptop-battery recalls, like the Apple recall late in 2006, and an industry-wide battery shortage exacerbated by a fire in Panasonic’s Osaka factory in September 2007, mean that Boston-Power’s entrance into the market this year couldn’t be at a better time.

Lampe-Onnerud expects at least three major laptop manufacturers to begin shipping units this coming year with Sonata batteries installed. And Boston-Power is negotiating with companies that sell replacement batteries directly to ­consumers. (Volume prices to manufacturers have not been made public but are reportedly on par with today’s premium batteries sold to business customers.) In typical use, a year-old Sonata battery pack can power a laptop for 4 hours, compared with about 2 hours for a year-old traditional battery.

HOW GOOD are the ­batteries? John Wozniak, Distinguished Technologist at Hewlett-Packard, has been overseeing testing of sample batteries, running them through charge and discharge cycles at different temperatures and under various conditions. HP requires that all batteries it ships with laptops retain at least 80 percent capacity after 300 cycles; Sonata batteries met that mark. Most traditional batteries can’t go much past it, but Boston-Power claims that Sonatas can go to 800 to 1000 cycles and still retain 80 percent of capacity; Wozniak is still testing that claim.

If it proves true, Sonata batteries, even with the slight premium on the price that analysts predict, could save HP money, Wozniak explained. These days, savvy commercial customers attempt to return laptop batteries for replacements just before the warranty expires. HP tests the returned units to verify that the batteries have truly failed to perform as expected; if a customer uses the laptop extensively on battery power, it could indeed fail before a year, in which case HP pays for the replacement. Because of the slim margins in today’s computer industry, such returns cannibalize profits. With a long-lasting battery, Wozniak said, HP would be able to offer an extended warranty that includes the battery; today’s extended warranties don’t.

Wozniak also said that in the future, the Sonata battery’s ability to fast-charge—that is, get to 80 percent in half an hour—could also be a plus for the laptop manufacturer, but it would take a new generation of computers with design tweaks to take advantage of that feature.

Sonata also passed HP’s safety tests, Wozniak said, but ”safety isn’t something we can sell; it is expected as a given.”

If HP does order Boston-Power’s batteries, purchasers of HP laptops this year may not know that they are among the first to get Sonata batteries. ”We’ll do a blind launch,” Wozniak says. ”The customer won’t know what battery is in the product.” The company will then be able to calculate from data on product returns whether the Sonata is lasting longer than its competitors.

Lampe-Onnerud dreams that Boston-Power will soon emerge as one of the world’s leading battery manufacturers and that the choices she made to make her product environmentally friendly, and to emphasize safety and longevity instead of sheer power, will set a new path for the industry. If that happens, Lampe-Onnerud says, she’ll call this venture a success.

”And then,” says Lampe-Onnerud, ”I will become a singer.”

Diana Krall, look out.

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