Mississauga-based Electrovaya is a tiny company competing with much bigger entities such as A123 Systems, Panasonic and Samsung for a stake in the burgeoning global battery market. With 150 patents and an advanced lithium-ion technology that packs more energy into a smaller space, it is carving out a reputation for innovation.
Recent deals to supply batteries to Chrysler for tests in hybrid Dodge Ram pickup trucks and Town and Country minivans helped boost Electrovaya’s profile. Still, founder and chief executive Sankar Das Gupta says the biggest market may be for large utility-scale storage batteries that will help make solar or wind power more viable.
How did you end up in the battery business?
I’m an electrochemist. A long time ago I invented a reactor to remove pollution from water. That company grew quite well, [then] the investing group sold it off. So I restarted again with a colleague, Jim Jacobs, whose mother was [urban activist] Jane Jacobs. [We started] making lithium batteries. In 2003 we were the first group to have a vehicle running with lithium ion batteries in North America.
Lithium-ion batteries’ inconvenient truth is that manufacturing them usually involves massive quantities of toxic chemicals. We developed a completely different system [and] that was one of the competitive advantages. The other was energy density – we managed to eke out a little bit more energy, so our cells tend to be a little bit smaller than competitors’.
How does U.S. public policy affect the enthusiasm for new battery technology?
Everybody is watching the November elections before jumping in. [People want] to see if there are more [U.S. federal] incentives [for electric car purchases], or if the incentives disappear. We don’t benefit from these directly, but we do benefit tangentially if [equipment manufacturers] are buying our stuff.
If the move to electric vehicles loses momentum, where will you shift your efforts?
We’ve started building energy storage systems. All over the world, people are putting up huge numbers of windmills, and solar panels, [but] the utilization of the electricity is very low, because it is being generated at the wrong time. There is a huge amount of electricity generation in the middle of the night or in off-peak hours. The key is to take that intermittent power from wind and solar, and make it into reliable power.
We see the opportunity in the storage sector to be much stronger than the auto sector. We are not dropping the auto sector at all, but we have to be a little bit opportunistic.
Does electricity storage also cut the need to build new transmission lines?
Cities such as New York or Toronto are growing so fast that you can’t bring in new electricity lines. There is no real estate to put them on. So there is overload starting to take place on the lines. If you have storage, you could have a bunch of our boxes sitting there and accept the electricity whenever there is excess, probably in the middle of the night, and give it out for an hour or two when the peak takes place from six to 8 p.m.
Have you sold any storage units?
[We recently delivered a test unit to] a utility called Arizona Public Service Co. They did a search for the best technology, and they looked at flow batteries, lead acid batteries, fuel cells, compressed air and sodium sulphur batteries. They chose our lithium-ion batteries. Now we are building another one for Hydro One [Ontario’s electrical utility].
Is there an environmental gain?
That box we built for Arizona saves about 2,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per year. If it is running for 10 years, that is quite a bit – about 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. And you can very easily visualize about 10,000 of those boxes. That is like removing 200 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. That exceeds Canada’s commitment on the Kyoto accord.
How do you compete with much larger battery makers?
We have to work out a strategy to fight the massive goliaths. Our feeling is that we can build [manufacturing] plants for $50-million, where our competitors might need $400-million. We need to surround those competitors with our nimble plants with very high productivity.
Will energy storage surpass the size of the electric vehicle market?
The other day I saw a report saying the energy storage market was going to be $230-billion in no time. But let’s see what happens [with the automotive sector] after the U.S. election.
What’s the most optimistic scenario for electric vehicles?
The number of vehicles around the world will probably stabilize at something like 1.4 billion or 1.5 billion in the next 10 years. A very optimistic scenario would be that 20 per cent or 30 per cent will be electric in the next 15 years. Of course it depends on the price of gasoline, really.
Is there a problem with the culture of innovation in Canada?
There is a huge problem. In Canada we are No. 1 in [financing research] input. But on the output side of innovation, we are last in class. Most of the money for innovation and research goes to universities. Some policy planner figured out that universities should do the research, then companies should that take that research and commercialize it. But in reality that never works.
Universities are terrible at innovation. Ninety per cent of the research [PhD students do] is basically data collection. Innovation comes from a totally different source – people who understand the problem, and who have to solve the problem. The university guys aren’t stupid, they just don’t know what the actual problems are and how to solve them.
Can you give an example?
Here in Canada we have a policy to drive into hydrogen fuel cells. More than $1-billion went in there. We have 165 professors all researching hydrogen fuel cells for the last 15 years, and you don’t see a single hydrogen fuel cell [on the road]. They don’t know what the problem to be solved is.
What should be done?
Projects have to be industry-led. The university has to be a subcontractor to that. [If you do] just that one simple thing you will see innovation pouring out.
What about government research institutions?
The biggest help we’ve received was from the National Research Council. It is an underutilized [institution] with absolutely brilliant people. Their focus is a 100-per-cent research. They don’t teach or anything. Sometimes they, too, don’t understand what the problem is, but that is where we come in, and we work well together. They have been great.
Do you still make a lot of specialty products, such as the life-support battery you made for NASA astronauts?
We are trying not to. They require almost the same effort [as production-line projects]. Suppose we spend $1-3 million designing a battery box for a car, then that car sells 10,000 or 20,000 units, there is a huge amount of revenue coming in. With specialty projects, you don’t get as much.
But the NASA project was a tremendous help to us, because it was such a high-profile program where 30 to 35 NASA engineers would show up for design reviews.
SANKAR DAS GUPTA
Title: Chief executive officer, Electrovaya Inc., Mississauga, Ont.
Personal: Born in India; 61 years old
Education: Undergraduate degree from the University of Calcutta; PhD in electrochemistry from Imperial College, London.
- Invented an electrochemical system for waste-water treatment.
- Founded Electrovaya in 1996 with partner Jim Jacobs.
- Took Electrovaya public on the TSX in November, 2000.