At Electrofuel the long-lasting battery is finally becoming a reality.
Four years ago Electrofuel Inc., Toronto, was spun off as from Electrofuel Manufacturing, an 18-year-old company that was involved in the development of lithium ion (Li-ion) super polymer technology. Electrofuel Inc. was formed to raise capital for an IPO, which was accomplished last November when the company debuted on the Toronto stock Exchange.
The new Li-ion super polymer, introduced last year, can develop battery cells as small as 2 to 4 mm, in form factors not achievable with regular Li-ion batteries. Li-ion may still be relatively new, says David Murdoch, vice president of marketing, but Li-ion super polymer is "a major jump in function. Regular Li-ion batteries didn't hit the level of appeal in the market that allows them to be differentiated [in terms of run time]. People come back to us and say that they're pleasantly surprised by our products, especially since they do provide such a major jump in functionality. The super polymer technology is the "biggest breakthrough in the history of battery technology--one that's breaking new thresholds in terms of performance."
Electrofuel's first volume-produced products will be the PowerPad external battery packs for notebook computers. Depending on the version purchased, users can expect run times of 9, 16 or 21 hours in addition to whatever their internal battery pack provides. Since the battery is about the size of a spiral notebook, it's easy to throw in the laptop case-and the AC adapter can be left at home for shorter trips.
Providing different versions of the PowerPad gives users flexibility, says Murdoch. "They have their choice of run times and cost, and each battery just needs an AC adapter in order to be charged. The battery doesn't have to be replaced when the company updates its laptops for their mobile workforce, which is important since many companies get new computers every 1.5 years or so and need new accessories. In many cases, that means they have to change their internal battery packs as well."
Electrofuel's PowerPad 160 enables up to 16 hours of run time, depending on the power requirements of the applications being run. Obviously, running DVDs will use more power than simply typing up reports in Word. The suggested retail price for the PowerPad 160 is $499.
"It's an aggressive price when you consider the typical battery pack costs $250 for only two to three hours of run time," says Murdoch. "You can buy two standard batteries for the price of the 160 and only get five to seven hours of run time. The 160 is very economical for intensive battery users. Also, internal battery packs must be charged within the computer-what's the user going to do, get up in the middle of the night to switch battery packs so that both get charged?"
The product is not available directly from Electrofuel but rather various dealers such as iGo and thus far have been a real hit with enterprise customers, says Murdoch. "They want to achieve a new level of battery performance to move beyond the two- to three-hour run time they've been getting up to this point."
Electrofuel also offers the PowerPad 210 with up to 21 hours of run time. At three pounds, it's more expensive than its PowerPad 160 cousin at $799 but can certainly solve run time problems for the world traveler. Combined with a laptop's internal battery, a user can work virtually an entire day if he so chooses; he's likely to sleep long before the computer does.
Both the 210 and 160 batteries are three-eighths of an inch thick in a titanium casing of 8.75 by 11.75 inches. The 160 is approximately 2.4 pounds; the 210 is only one-half pound heavier. Both will charge to 80 percent capacity in less than five hours; a fuel gauge blinks every seven seconds while charging and stops blinking to indicate a complete charge.
There are future plans to produce the PowerPad 120 with a lower, but solid, eight or nine hours of run time that will reduce the cost to create a viable price point for a mobile work force. "We're holding off on determining an exact price for the 120," says Murdoch, "because we expect a very high demand and must wait until we're production-capable to make that kind of decision."
The company's new Toronto facility, which will be ramping up during the next six to nine months, will enable volume production of approximately 30,000 units per month. "We expect mass production at the end of this year," explains Murdoch. "Right now, we're still not adequate to serve the demand of major OEMs. We're production limited for the foreseeable future." A second manufacturing plant, likely to also be in North America, will double production levels, but even that is not expected to meet market demand.
Although the PowerPads work with most notebooks--IBM, Acer, Compaq, Toshiba and Gateway, among others--they currently are not compatible with Sony, Dell or Apple. However, Murdoch expects this problem to be solved by mid-year.
"The full potential of the PowerPad hasn't been realized yet in a number of verticals," insists Murdoch. But he's getting people to turn their heads and think twice. NBC employees ran their laptops off PowerPads while covering the Sydney Olympics last fall. The NBC vice president approached Murdoch at Electrofuel's Comdex booth to thank him for eliminating one concern for the network's stable of associates.
Murdoch expects the PowerPad to be a boon for workers in a number of industries including healthcare, insurance, sales and warehouses. For example, hospitals with a wireless LAN could place a notebook computer on a cart for mobility and enable ready access to patient information.
"It's not a cost effective use of labor to have someone responsible for changing the batteries in all the notebooks in the hospital or even each individual floor or department," says Murdoch. "There's no notebook company out there right now that can deliver a run time of eight hours. We can give them 12 or 13--easily." With 2,000 to 3,000 hospitals in the United states, he adds, "it's a great opportunity for VARs to offer value-added solutions."
Even those workers who are traditionally office-bound can benefit from extra battery power, says Murdoch. "Accountants who work two extra hours on a plane flight can accumulate an extra two hours of billing time at $250 an hour. Workers are becoming untethered now."
Electrofuel is also developing a lithium polymer battery for PDAs. "It's a dramatically growing market," says Murdoch, "particularly for Windows CE-based products because they will sync with notebooks. But the PDAs weakness is run time. To boot up, you need to run applications in the background, so they run more power than Palm [-based PDAs]." A lithium polymer-based product could increase a PDA's run time by 60 to 70 percent, predicts Murdoch.
The Electrofuel 2100 cell phone battery should also be in great demand because of the proliferation of cell phones--some five million units are predicted to be sold in 2001, Murdoch says. People want the latest model and the best battery option they can get, so they'll buy a new phone if they feel that technology has improved over their old models. The talk time of the 2100 is touted at 7 to 10 hours for digital talk time and one to two hours for analog phones; the standby time is 130 to 150 hours or 35 to 55 hours, respectively. The battery weighs only 65 grams and charges in just over two hours. The 2100 is not in commercial production now but might be by the end of the year.