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Cadenza Innovation has developed a new design that improves the performance, cost, and safety of large lithium ion batteries. Now, with an unusual strategy for disseminating that technology, the company is poised to have an impact in industries including energy grid storage, industrial machines, and electric vehicles.
Rather than produce the batteries itself, Cadenza licenses its technology to manufacturers producing batteries for diverse applications. The company also works with licensees to both optimize their manufacturing processes and sell the new batteries to end users. The strategy ensures that the four-year old company’s technology is deployed more quickly and widely than would otherwise be possible.
For Cadenza founder Christina Lampe-Onnerud, a former MIT postdoc and a battery industry veteran of more than 20 years, the goal is to help advance the industry just as the global demand for batteries reaches an inflection point.
“The crazy idea at the time [of the company’s founding] was to see if there was a different way to engage with the industry and help it accept a new technology in existing applications like cars or computers,” Lampe-Onnerud says. “Our thought was, if we really want to have an impact, we could inspire the industry to use existing capital deployed to get a better technology into the market globally and be a positive part of the climate change arena.”
With that lofty goal in mind, the Connecticut-based company has secured partnerships with organizations at every level of the battery supply chain, including suppliers of industrial minerals, original equipment manufacturers, and end users. Cadenza has demonstrated its proprietary “supercell” battery architecture in Fiat’s 500e car model and is in the process of completing a demonstration energy storage system to be used by the New York Power Authority, the largest state public utility company in the U.S., when energy demand is at its peak.
The company’s most significant partnership to date, however, was announced in September with Shenzen BAK Battery Company, one of the world’s largest lithium ion battery manufacturers. The companies announced BAK would begin mass producing batteries based on Cadenza’s supercell architecture in the first half of 2019.
The Supercell Architecture
Lampe-Onnerud’s extensive contacts in the lithium ion battery space and world-renown technical team have quickened the pace of Cadenza’s rise, but the underlying driver of the company’s success is simple economics: Its technology has been shown to offer manufacturers increased energy density in battery cells while reducing production costs.
The majority of rechargeable lithium ion batteries are powered by cylindrical sheets of metal known as “jelly rolls.” For use in big batteries, jelly rolls can be made either large, to limit the total cost of battery assembly, or small, to leverage a more efficient cell design that brings higher energy density. Many electric vehicle (EV) companies use large jelly rolls to avoid the durability and safety concerns that come with tightly packing small jelly rolls into a battery, which can lead to the failure of the entire battery if one jelly roll overheats.
Tesla famously achieves longer vehicle ranges by using small jelly rolls in its batteries, addressing safety issues with cooling tubes, intricate circuitry, and by spacing out each roll. But Cadenza has patented a simpler battery system it calls the “supercell,” that allows small jelly rolls to be tightly packed together into one module.
The key to the supercell is a noncombustible ceramic fiber material that each jelly roll sits in like an egg in a carton. The material helps to control temperature throughout the cell and isolate damage caused by an overheated jelly roll. A metal shunt wrapped around each jelly roll and a flame retardant layer of the supercell wall that relieves pressure in the case of a thermal event add to its safety advantages.
The enhanced safety allows Cadenza to package the jelly rolls tightly for greater energy density, and the supercell’s straightforward design, which leverages many parts that are currently manufactured at low costs and high volumes, keeps production costs down. Finally, each supercell module is designed to click together like LEGO blocks, making it possible for manufacturers to easily scale their battery sizes to fit customer needs.
Cadenza’s safety, cost, and performance features were validated during a grant program with the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which gave the company nearly $4 million to test the architecture beginning in 2013.
When the supercell architecture was publicly unveiled in 2016, Lampe-Onnerud made headlines by saying it could be used to boost the range of Tesla’s cars by 70 percent. Now the goal is to get manufacturers to adopt the architecture.
“There will be many winners using this technology,” Lampe-Onnerud says. “We know we can deliver on the [safety, performance, and cost] claims. It’s going to be up to the licensee to decide how they leverage these advantages.”