Thursday, April 30, 2009

Alternative Propulsion Systems: ETV Motors gets US$12m in initial round of funding

Alternative energy storage and powertrain investments have been on rise lately. Apart from many venture capitalists taking a U-turn on their investment policies (Vinod Khosla being the prominent one), encashing the old industrial investments and dedicating significant portion of their corpus for clean technology (Former president candidate Al Gore's Generation Investment Management Fund et al). After the recently completed investments of Berkshire Hathaway in BYD and GE’s investment in A123 (battery manufacturer) and Think Global (makers of TH!NK City electric vehicle), an Israeli company has raised US$12m in Series A funding for the development of electric vehicle propulsion technology.
Quercus Trust and 21Ventures LLC jointly invested in ETV Motors. The company is developing micro-turbine technology, another possible ‘game changer’ in plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) market. ETV is contelplating the vehicle propulsion system as a combination of high voltage lithium-ion battery and micro-turbine. The company has replaced the internal combustion engine with the micro-turbine to charge the battery. The development stage miniaturized turbines are smaller and lighter than the traditional internal combustion engines.
Meanwhile another stealth company, EEStor announced the ‘huge milestone’ of verification of its Barium-Titanate powder’s high relative permittivity by a third party.
I am no kill-joy for the new technologies, but I hate it when the new kids on the block often accuse the internal combustion engine for gross inefficiencies. While true in their criticism, they forget that the technology is more than 100 years old and no major changes have occurred in its design till date. Not that the changes were never suggested, but either the cost of implementing the changes was prohibitively high or the changes were difficult to achieve technically. Latest in the series is the Scuderi family trying their hand at a new design which is expected to increase the IC engine efficiency from 33% to 40%.
So far so good, we still have to see a reliable technology which can work on roads, not just the research laboratories.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lead Carbon: Rising upto the challange

Automotive battery market is heating up. Last week, the state of Michigan approved investments by four battery producers amounting to US$1.7 billion. Lithium-ion battery technology, which is often touted as the most mature technology for the automotive use dominated the investment space in the state.
However, the week also witnessed a rather unusual deal between battery major Exide Technologies and relatively unknown Axion Power International. Axion is a small company focusing on Lead Carbon battery technology. The company is working on the similar lines as Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in developing the activated carbon battery. Axion Power is taking a slightly different approach with its battery technology replacing the negative electrode with microporous activated carbon. The company is confident that by doing so it will be able to overcome major drawbacks of lead acid batteries namely high weight and low energy density.
While CSIRO’s ultrabattery has been road tested on Honda Insight for 100,000 miles and licensed to Furukawa and East Penn, Axion power states that battery technology is still in development phases. However, significant cost advantages of lead carbon technology over NiMH and Lithium-ion prompted Exide to enter into a supply agreement with Axion Power.
Lithium-ion is the default choice among the automakers for motive power including GM, Ford, Chrysler and Renault Nissan. Longtime NiMH champion Toyota is also following a Lithium-ion development program for its 2010 model of Prius. However Lithium-ion’s prohibitively high cost makes it unaffordable to most of the buyers. Approximately half of US$40,000 price tag of Chevrolet Volt is attributed to the Lithium-ion battery packs. One of the reasons behind Lithium-ion’s dominance is the absence of a worthy competitor. Large-format NiMH deployment in automobiles is restricted due to Cobasys’ patents and standard lead acid batteries are good for SLI (Starting, Lighting and Ignition) only. Let’s hope the Lead Carbon batteries change the game.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Road to recovery???

Are we out of the woods now??? I'm not sure about it, but going by the laws of physics it looks the worst is over. After the months of bad news flow, even the absence of bad news is positive for the markets. So here we go, US automotive sales in the first quarter is a down by some gruesome number and the US treasury department continues to burn lots of green after the Detroit automakers and their supplier entourage for the cars no one would like to drive five years down the line.
But the government can be spared on the ground of being a mere economic agent for the redistribution of wealth. Some individual portfolio investments in the current gloom however stand out. Warren Buffett has invested in a Chinese automobile and battery manufacturer BYD thinking that electric is the future of automotive industry (People will drive something afterall…the Oracle has also secured a pillion ride in Harley Davidson). This ‘never say die’ spirit is impressive, eventually everything that goes down comes back to equilibrium.
Meanwhile positive effects of the recession back home in India are the low levels of inflation and healthy corrections in the asset valuation across industries. BSE Sensex has appreciated from their October lows to a more encouraging figure of 11,000. A lot of smart money which was sitting on the banks earlier took plunge at the lower levels. Here comes the big question, is it sustainable??? Analysts point out that India’s growth story remains intact but going forward general elections hold the key for Indian stock markets. A mere thought of SP or third front coming into power disrupts my thinking process. Keeping my fingers crossed for now. Ahem!!!