When we last brought you news about Firefly nearly two years ago, it was of a more hopeful nature: I had a chance to sit down with the company’s then-Senior Vice President, Mil Ovan, and discuss Firefly’s future.
At the time, Firefly seemed like it was set to take off. With lucrative military and private contracts to change out those institutions’ old hat lead-acid batteries with new ones that were supposed to provide much higher durability, longer charge capacity, and less sensitivity to temperature changes in a lighter and more compact package.
Well, that future is no more. Firefly has officially closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy. Chapter 7 to be exact. The one where all that’s left of the company is liquidated in a fire sale.
Firefly’s claim to fame came in the form of a lead-acid battery that, instead of having heavy, corrodable lead plates, had graphite foam impregnated with lead. That seemingly simple innovation accomplished many key things, including using up to 70% less lead, up to 50% reduction in weight and size, much faster recharge and discharge capabilities, much better cold weather performance, and greatly increased lifetime and durability.
Plus, because it was made with lead, the battery could be manufactured using domestic mineral supplies instead of relying on foreign countries for lithium. To top it off, lead already has a robust recycling program in the US where almost 98% of it gets recycled.
Firefly seemed to have everything going for it. So what happened? According to many reports, Firefly, founded by Mil Ovan and CEO Ed Williams 7 years ago after it was spun off from Caterpillar, couldn’t find the investors needed to get their product to market. You could blame all sorts of issues for this.
Perhaps, in the end, the product was really a non-starter and they couldn’t figure out a way to make it a reality at a price people would swallow? But based on large initial investments from private firms and backing from the US military, I don’t think the actual feasibility of their product was a problem. Lead is cheap, and scaling their already existing manufacturing techniques up to the commercial level likely wasn’t the culprit.
Certainly the financial meltdown and the drying up pool of investors had something to do with it. Let’s face it, lead really isn’t all that sexy. Even the phrase “lead-acid” doesn’t shine a candle to the sexiness of “lithium-ion.” But other next generation battery companies were able to make it through the financial meltdown, so why couldn’t Firefly?
The answer comes from Ovan himself. As quoted over at Green Car Congress, Ovan, who actually left the company last month, said that their military contracts worth more than $5 million weren’t enough to keep the company running. But he also added that the company was disappointed when Firefly failed to get a share of the $2 billion stimulus money distributed by the federal government for advanced battery research. Those funds were almost exclusively distributed to lithium-ion companies.
Truly, the feds seemed to have picked their own favorite sweetheart battery technology as the winner in the next generation battery race. Certainly lithium-ion is a great technology, and it seems that with research we might even be able to increase its capacity by 10 times within the next decade. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also be pursuing other types of advanced batteries too. For instance, Firefly’s lead-acid technology could have been exactly what the trucking industry needed to be able to stop idling all night.
If we want our various industries to continue to innovate in an environment that brings the greatest amount of solutions to our problems in the shortest period of time, the government can’t pick the winners and losers. Having a large variety of solutions available to consumers means that we can solve our problems quicker. Creating an environment that encourages innovation means supporting all promising companies equally. By killing off Firefly, we may have lost an important solution.