Who Might Win McCain’s Battery Competition? Part I: Firefly

Firefly microcell foam next to classis lead plates[social_buttons]

Editor’s note: This post is a lead-in story to the Gas 2.0 interview with Mil Ovan, Senior Vice President and Co-founder of Firefly Energy.

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

His comments generated debate in the blogosphere and around the United States. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic ticket, called McCain’s proposal a gimmick suggesting that $300 million was not enough.

Regardless of my feelings about the proposed competition or the candidates themselves, it got me thinking about just who might win it if it were to become a reality. All that thinking led to this post, and, hopefully, to several others that will look at the most promising next generation battery technologies on the horizon.

This week I’ll start with Firefly Energy.

Founded in 2003, Firefly has 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. On the surface, the concept may seem pretty dull, but digging into it we find that it presents a lot of promise.

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.

Key benefits of their first and second generation technology when compared to traditional lead-acid batteries include:

  • up to 70% less lead
  • up to 50% reduction in weight and size
  • Much faster recharge and discharge capabilities
  • Much better cold weather performance
  • Increased lifetime and durability

Two of the main problems associated with traditional lead-acid batteries are corrosion and sulfation. Together these are the lead-acid battery’s Achilles’ heel and the typical reasons they fail. Firefly mitigates these problems by creating a balance between the amount of lead in the battery and the acid electrolyte that flows through the microcell foam.

Firefly’s technology could make the lead-acid battery truly competitive with other advanced battery chemistries, such as lithium-ion, but at a much more affordable price and in a safer package. At the same time, the technology would increase the durability and reliability of the lead-acid battery and address many of the environmental concerns associated with the industry.

Another key benefit of reinvigorating the production of lead-acid batteries in the United States is that it would be a domestic endeavor — meaning that the US has lots of lead available (it’s the third largest producer behind China and Australia; PDF), a robust system in place for recycling lead from batteries, and a healthy and capable domestic manufacturing base.

In terms of energy security and recyclability, this beats the pants off of lithium-ion batteries, which depend on resources from the Far East and South America (PDF) and are proving very difficult/costly to recycle.

Firefly's Oasis batteryFirefly is set to release its first commercial product by Q4 of this year with the introduction of the Oasis battery — only available to the trucking industry initially.

While Firefly has no immediate plans to enter the electric vehicle market, they are fully aware of the keen interest their technology has generated among EV enthusiasts and the benefits that their battery technology could provide to the EV market.

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.

Rather than try and distill that conversation down to its elements, I thought it was interesting enough to present it in its entirety in a separate post. Click the link below to proceed to that interview.

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

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Image Credits: Firefly Energy

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.