Interview With Mil Ovan, SVP and Co-founder of Firefly Energy

Firefly LogoEditor’s note: This interview is a companion piece to Part I of the Gas 2.0 series about who might win John McCain’s proposed $300 million dollar battery competition if it were to become reality.

Last week John McCain, the presumptive presidential nominee for the 2008 Republican ticket, generated debate by suggesting that a $300 million government- sponsored competition would be a good way to spur development of next generation battery technologies.

His comments got me thinking about just who might win such a competition it if it were to become reality.

Firefly Energy is one of the companies that made it to my short list. Founded in 2003, they have been working on reinvigorating old-hat lead-acid battery technology in such a way that it would become brand new and cutting edge once again.

Firefly’s innovation is that they’ve taken the heavy lead plates you’d find in a classic lead-acid battery and replaced them with a light carbon-graphite microcell foam that’s been impregnated with lead.

I recently had a chance chat with Mil Ovan, Senior Vice President and Co-founder of Firefly, about the company, their take on McCain’s competition, Firefly’s battery technology, environmental worries about lead, the Oasis battery, electric vehicles and the company’s plans for the future.

Interview with Mil Ovan, Senior Vice President and Co-founder of Firefly, June 26th, 2008.

Mil Ovan , SVP and Co-founder of Firefly EnergyNC: What are the core operating principles of Firefly? What drives the company?

MO: We are developing a battery technology that reinvigorates a battery chemistry that’s been around since 1859 — lead-acid. Although traditional lead-acid batteries have been proven safe and are low cost, they suffer from weight issues as well as lifetime issues because they use fairly heavy lead plates on a metal grid. What we’re doing instead is replacing the lead plates and metal grid with a high surface area, non-corroding, lightweight microcell foam material. Using this technology you can start to realize the true capability of the chemistry and overcome some of those limitations I mentioned by not having to use all that lead in the battery.

NC: I’ve read that Firefly started as a part of the company Caterpillar. Is Firefly still a subsidiary of Caterpillar?

MO: No. The technology was spun off from Caterpillar. Firefly was created as a separate company with separate funding and was founded on May 1st, 2003.

NC: As you know, one of the main reasons we got interested in having this conversation was because of John McCain’s recent proposal to hold a competition to see who could come up with the most advanced next generation battery technology. If McCain’s $300 million battery competition were to become reality, what would give Firefly the edge to win it?

MO: First of all I’d like to say that whatever party is offering solutions that involve expediting development of next generation batteries, we’re all for that. The government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year on fuel cell development and we’re still probably as far away from fuel cells as we were ten years ago when they said it would be ten years before we see them widely deployed. We see the shift coming towards the realization that fuel cells are still going to take at least another ten years and that battery technology is of paramount importance.

Right now the world of advanced batteries and research is primarily in the far east, most notably in China. In one sense, while we want to electrify vehicles and reduce our nation’s dependance on foreign oil and the national security risks that represents, we’re in essence kind of trading one energy security risk for another because the majority of the lithium-ion batteries come from China. Firefly’s goal is to reinvigorate the vast base of lead-acid battery manufacturers in the US and enable them and their customers to enjoy greater performance without necessarily getting the resources of the less safe, higher priced, advanced batteries that come from the far east.

NC: I hear where you’re coming from on fuel cells. I remember about 20 years ago I read an article in Popular Science about how hydrogen fuel cells were going to be widely available within the decade. That was 20 years ago. Today they’re still saying that hydrogen fuel cells will be available within the decade. It’s easy to get pessimistic about fuel cells given that environment.

MO: Yeah. The thoughts about lithium-ion technology right now are similar to how fuel cells have evolved over time. People are saying “yeah, it’s expensive” and “yeah, it’s not as safe as it needs to be,” but there’s a lot of money being thrown into it and a lot of smart people. Well, take out the word lithium-ion and replace it with fuel cell and it’s the same phrases that have been uttered about fuel cells for some time now. We think we are unique in that we have a very practical means of gaining better battery performance and getting that right equation of safety, cost, run-time, size, weight, and life that has eluded many in the past. On one end of the extreme you have companies liking lead-acid’s low cost but hating its life and weight issues, and at the other extreme liking lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride for their small footprint and light weight, but hating its ten-times cost penalty and safety and thermal challenges.

NC: So, McCain thinks his plan is a good idea, Obama says its a gimmick. Obviously both of them are interested in spurring next generation technologies. Do you think something like McCain’s plan is a good idea, or is it a gimmick? If you think it would spur innovation, do you think $300 million is enough?

MO: One has to look at the specifics of the proposal to weigh in and determine whether it’s a practical idea or not. Without knowing the details — I haven’t seen them yet — I’m not going to comment on whether that particular plan is a good one.

In general government support of advanced research on batteries is a good thing because the stock market doesn’t support long term investments in capital in research — they’re more interested in quarterly results — and certainly venture capitalists aren’t patient enough to see multimillion dollar research evolve. A lot of venture capitalist jumped into investing in fuel cells only to see the payback be much longer than they expected.

It is a role of our government to enable basic research because, frankly, our country is being outspent in battery research by China, Japan and Korea.

NC: Shifting gears now… What is the microcell foam made of?

MO: There’s a variety of materials we can choose from including graphite and carbon.

NC: Graphite is a pretty fragile compound. Is there a way you’ve gotten around that limitation in your battery to increase the durability?

MO: The way in which we reinforce the underlying foam is part of the intellectual property of Firefly, and part of those reinforcement methods are patented and some are trade secrets.

NC: Okay, we’ll leave it at that I guess. Inside the battery, is the lead bonded to the foam?

MO: Yeah. In a regular lead-acid battery, for lack of a better term, you plop the chemistry on top of the lead metal grid and then you press onto that the plate and that’s a two-dimensional grid structure. In contrast, in the Firefly foam approach the chemistry is washed into the pores of the foam so that now you have a three-dimensional surface area that you can take advantage of and the electrolyte then is in much tighter proximity within the pores of the foam to the chemistry that is in the walls of that foam. Now your ability to recharge and discharge the battery is greatly increased and particularly in cold weather it becomes an advantage.

NC: How long would you expect the Firefly battery to last versus a traditional lead-acid battery or versus a lithium-ion?

MO: The answer on all of these things is ‘it depends.’ I’ve been in the battery industry 5 years now and I’ve come to learn the phrase “there are liars, damn liars and battery companies.” As a policy, in the public forum, we don’t make claims that ‘hey our battery can achieve this level of watt hours per kilogram and watt hours per liter’ because it really is dependent on solving a complex set of calculations in terms of cost, safety, runtime, weight, volume, and temperature concerns. So these types of things really depends on the application.

Take an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) example. Envision a room full of lead-acid batteries providing power backup for a data center of a major corporation. Under a fast discharge of five minutes — say power goes out at the facility and before the generator kicks in — the batteries are invoked and over the course of a five minute discharge, that battery is drained. The problem with a classic lead-acid battery, is that under very fast discharges it can supply the power you need, but it requires a room’s full of batteries to do it. In contrast, the high surface area of Firefly microcell foam batteries can accomplish that same five minute discharge in half a room’s worth of batteries. So what does this mean practically? It’s at least half the weight and half the volume of classic lead-acid battery technology. So the implications beyond that would include that there’s less shipping, less installation, less cabling required, less floor space taken up, and less air conditioning. The benefits really multiply in just that one example alone.

Another example is the Army. We’re working on a prototype battery for military tank applications. The Army says “we’re not interested in size reduction because this Bradley tank has a battery tray and cables already wired with set specifications.” It’s a 40-ton vehicle so weight reduction is nice to have, but it’s not critical. The idea is to just stuff as much runtime as you can into this thing. So in that example we’re not delivering any size savings, but were greatly improving upon watt-hours per liter of the current lead-acid batteries. So, all that is a long-winded way of telling you that it’s a complicated answer.

NC: What kinds of reductions do you find in the amount of lead used in the Firefly batteries when compared to classic lead-acid batteries?

MO: I believe on our website there’s a trucking industry white paper (PDF), and in there we go into a description of how much lead per battery is in a Firefly battery versus a standard battery. The other factor to consider is that a battery is going to last several times longer than a regular lead-acid battery, so the amount of lead used in the mission, in this case powering a truck over several years instead of over one year, means that the effective lead reduction is several fold. That’s how we like to portray the lead reduction.

Now we have two technologies. The first one we call 3D, which involves the replacement of the negative lead metal grids in a classic lead-acid battery with a microcell foam. The positive lead metal grids as well as the overall interconnecting strap that connects the cells within that battery are still lead. The second generation of our technology that we’re also working on is called 3D2, and that replaces all of the lead metal in the battery with the foam material. The amount of lead savings can range from 50% to 70% depending on which technology were talking about. The true effective reduction in lead depends on the application.

We’re about to commercialize a battery for the world of highway trucks called Oasis. The reason why we named it Oasis is because, when you think about it, what does a sleeper cab represent to trucker that’s just finished a ten hour hour drive and he’s pulling into a truck stop in the middle of August and it’s 95 degrees out? Well that sleeper cab is a sanctuary or refuge or, as we like to call it, an oasis. With the anti-idling legislation that is starting to sweep the country requiring that, for example in California you need to shut off your truck engine for a portion of every hour, how are they going to run all of their hotel loads — microwave ovens, TVs and the like? It’s going to put a tremendous strain on current lead-acid batteries which are primarily used for starting the truck, not for runtime support.

Besides requirements due to anti-idling legislation, since January prices for diesel have gone from $3 to over $5 per gallon. If you’re idling your engine 8 hours a night times $5 per gallon — because that’s about how much is consumed per hour when you’re idling the main engine — times 5 days per week times 52 weeks per year, you can see how incredibly expensive idling your truck becomes. In response, Firefly has developed this long runtime battery in the classic group 31 battery footprint and we think it is going to enable fuel savings as well as pollution reduction as a result — and give the trucker the kind of performance he needs in order to drive effectively.

We’re also pursuing a strategic marketing relationship with a company called Bergstrom, which makes a battery powered supplemental air conditioning system, so that indeed you can turn off the engine and the driver can turn on this supplemental battery powered air conditioning system in the sleeper cab and the driver can have a comfortable night’s rest running on battery power.

NC: My brother is a trucker, so I’m familiar with those laws. There’s another strategy in the preliminary stages I’m sure you’re aware of in truck stops where they are putting in these supplemental power units and air conditioning attachments, but you have to have your truck specially outfitted to take advantage of that…

MO: Well, yeah, and you have to also find a place that has that special equipment and, you know, it’s not ubiquitous of course, so it’s not a solution that’s going to make a big dent in the trucking problems we’re facing today.

NC: And I’d say that most truckers don’t actually spend every night at truck stops, they spend the night on the side of the road…

MO: …Right, along the highway on an exit.

NC: In terms of the Oasis, and maybe any other future products, obviously there’s going to be a premium charged for the technology. What’s the premium you expect to charge for the Oasis over a traditional lead-acid battery?

MO: Well, if you look at the spectrum of choices available to a trucker for group 31 lead-acid batteries, they could buy an inexpensive flooded lead-acid battery for anywhere from 80 to 100 bucks, and if you went to the next tier of quality lead-acid batteries it would be a valve-regulated lead-acid battery, or VRLA battery, and that would be around $280 for one battery. We haven’t announced prices yet, but we’ll probably be somewhere around $400 per battery. From a cycles per dollar perspective, that being how many times can you run it before you have to replace it given that it’s a heavy cycling application, we think that on a cycles per dollar basis it’s cheaper than both of the traditional battery choices I mentioned. Certainly, in the view of battery powered air conditioning systems and the like and being able to turn your engine off and not use fuel idling, the payback would be less than a year.

NC: So you’ve got the Oasis, there’s some buzz going about that — but future products? Obviously, from our readership there’s going to be a huge interest about electric vehicles. So the next questions are going to be about just that. I don’t know how much you’ll be able to answer about it because you haven’t even gone there yet, but I’m sure you’ve talked with some companies or interested parties that are out there. In general, when you’re talking about electric vehicles, what sorts of benefits does your technology hold over lithium-ion?

MO: Well, I think that before I answer that question I would say that if you look to the GM EV1, it was deployed in California and Arizona. Why? Because it had a 60 mile range due to the limitations of the traditional lead-acid batteries that it had. But, were you to drive it in the depths of winter in Detroit, you would have an 8 mile range. That’s because in a classic lead-acid battery it’s capacity falls as the temperature falls. So at minus 20 degrees centigrade you would only have 10-15% of what you would have at 30 degrees centigrade — which would be 100% of your battery capacity. In contrast, with the microcell foam Firefly technology you would have about 60% of your maximum battery capacity at minus 20 degrees centigrade.

So what does that mean? First of all it means lead-acid electric vehicles can become more practical across the nation not just specific to a modest temperature or a modest climate like in California. So that’s one advantage. Secondly, lithium-ion and nickel metal hydride batteries have certain issues in terms of capabilities in both cold and hot temperature extremes that are limitations. Third, in particular, if you look at nickel metal hydride batteries they have a very high self discharge rate and so if you left your electric vehicle standing without charging it for a week you’d see a fairly significant drop off in capacity.

The Firefly battery has an incredibly low self discharge rate even compared to a traditional lead-acid battery which is already the best among the various chemistries in terms of slow self discharge rates. Even the first generation of our technology, 3D, probably would be the best lead-acid battery out there in terms of fitting with an EV for those few reasons I mentioned. But we think that the real promise, in terms of the world of EVs will come from our second generation technology, 3D2, where we’ll be able to make pretty significant inroads in terms of weight and size reduction and making it competitive to lithium-ion. Because in today’s world of lead-acid EVs, as you know, you’re spending a fair amount of energy just pushing the lead down the road.

NC: Not to mention that it’s lead and people are always going to have environmental concerns about the process of making lead and the chances for it to contaminate the environment. But after reading through your website, Firefly seems to have a good argument for why lead is actually a better choice than lithium-ion when it comes to the environment because there’s a vast recycling program already available in the United States…

MO: Yeah, people don’t talk about that with these other chemistries. It is very expensive to reclaim the metal in a lithium-ion or nickel metal hydride battery and lead-acid has a far better recycling rate than aluminum bottles — over 90% of lead-acid batteries are recycled — and there’s no change required in the recycling infrastructure to reclaim the Firefly batteries.

NC: So, there are going to be a lot of people who will ask “when can I get a hold of a Firefly battery to put it in my electric car?” What would you say to that?

MO: We get that all the time…. all the time. I mean, there is no one more passionate about seeking better battery solutions than the EV aficionado. That’s for sure. They’ve been continuously eager to get a hold of our battery. As a start up, however, I hope your readers can appreciate that there’s only so much time we have on our investment capital, so we have to get to market with some major customers first and so we’re working with some major companies and we’re also working with the US Army.

Out of that work I would hope that there could come variants that would allow Firefly to offer a lead-acid battery for the EV crowd that represents a new standard for performance capabilities for those that are looking to put lead-acid batteries in their converted vehicles. But there are also other types of EVs ranging from scooters to three wheel and four wheel vehicles and neighborhood electric vehicles and the like.

So it’s a question of finding what’s best and making it all fit. What’s the ideal distribution structure that would allow us to get those batteries out to that audience? What would be your advice if I were to sort of turn the tables on you? What vehicle do you think this would be best for in terms of type of electric vehicle? Or do you just offer it up for sale and let the EV world grab it and adapt it as they would for their application?

NC: Well, that’s a good question. I think that once you start digging into it, there are a huge amount of home EV tinkerers, especially in the west. There are organizations like the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association. It might be that you could establish connections with those groups. You know, even the Oasis battery that you are selling to truckers, they might want to tinker with that. That might be a place to start and establish a relationship.

But, I don’t know, I see what your problem is. It’s an issue of chicken and egg. Nonetheless, I think from all the research I’ve been doing and the comments I’ve seen — and I’m probably biased because I’m in the thick of it — I think that in the next 2 to 3 years I would imagine there would be a big enough market of electric vehicles for you to start considering actually developing batteries specifically for that market. Anyway, if you were to develop a battery for EVs, this 3D2 technology, how far off is that really?

MO: I think that probably in 24-36 months we could have a commercial version of our 3D2 technology. Now, I’m not saying that it would be ready for an EV at that stage because we do have funding from the US Army to develop something for them, but we’re aiming to commercialize our technology in the next 24-36 months.

NC: Compared to a lithium-ion battery — these are the last questions by the way, and then I’ll let you get going because I’m sure you have better things to do than talk with me — how far might you expect an electric vehicle vehicle powered by your next generation battery to go on one charge and at what kind of speed? Ball park if you can. If you can’t that’s fine, but these are going to be the kinds of questions that I get and the better I can answer them, even if they are not set in stone, the better it would be.

MO: The problem with lithium is that everybody likes to quote what the innate performance of the single cell is… you know in terms of watt hours. The problem is that when you put it into a multi-cell task now you’ve got all these thermal management issues and you’ve got these safety issues that require controls and all of this safety and thermal management stuff that all adds to the volume and weight of the box which then drags down the performance in terms of range and so on. The fact is that you’ve got to keep lithium from over-discharging. Therefore you’re really not using the innate power capability of that single cell as a result.

We get very specific with major customers who say “here’s my application, here’s the performance envelope of that application, and here’s my favorite battery in this application, how would you compare?” All I’m saying is that I don’t like to throw out a number there because there are so many factors that have to be considered for each application and, in any case, are you talking about a particular climate, are you talking about combined city/highway driving, are you talking about hills involved, you know, what specifics? So I’m going to have to beg off on answering that question for those reasons.

NC: Okay, thanks… and with that I guess I’ll let you go.

MO: Thanks Nick. It was good talking with you. I enjoyed your questions.

NC: Well, thanks very much for taking the time to answer them in such a thorough way.

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Image Credits: Firefly Energy

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.