From Laptops to Saabs: Boston-Power's Lego-Like Fast Track

Last Updated May 13, 2010 4:14 PM EDT

One of the novel aspects of the Tesla Roadster story is that the high-performance electric car is powered by 6,800 connected laptop batteries. Tesla's thinking, logical enough, is that these batteries have proven their durability in the crucible known as the on-the-go personal computer.

Taking that same approach is Boston-Power, a five-year-old company that made its reputation supplying its Sonata high-density lithium-ion batteries to Hewlett-Packard (sold under the "Enviro" name). But Boston-Power, headed by Sweden-born, MIT-trained Christina Lampe-Onnerud, is moving rapidly into the electric car space, with one auto OEM deal signed, a second pending, and side projects in plug-in scooters. Its modular packs of 2,000 small Swing cells are packed into prototype Saabs that the company is testing right now.

"I love Tesla's story," the CEO said. "These small, energy-efficient cells are like Legos -- they're very scalable."

Boston-Power's EV agreement with Saab and other Swedish partners (funded by the Swedish government) was announced last December and predates the sale of the automaker to Spyker last February. But new CEO Victor Muller is an enthusiastic proponent of the project.

Lampe-Onnerud says the Boston-Power pack can fit neatly into the existing shell of the small 9-3 model, but she declines to identify the prototype platform. Another possibility is that the electric Saab will be a variation of the new and even smaller 92, which according to Motor Trend bears some retro resemblance to the very early and aircraft-inspired 92 that launched the company in 1949. Saab has made the 92 a high priority car. "I'm very impressed with the Saab team," Lampe-Onnerud said. "The engineers are very skilled and methodical--we are negotiating a centimeter here, a centimeter there."

It probably didn't hurt the growing relationship that both Lampe-Onnerud and Saab are as Swedish as Ikea furniture, but Boston-Power's batteries have made headway on their own virtues -- primarily excellent energy density, the ability to stand up to fast charging, lab-tested longevity and a strong emphasis on safety.

The first 10 electric Saabs with Boston-Power Swing batteries will be on the road at Saab's Trollhattan, Sweden headquarters this summer. Lampe-Onnerud said that development testing has projected seven to 10-year life in auto applications, which should quiet concerns about frequent, expensive battery replacement.

Boston-Power has installed one of its packs into a Ford Escape Hybrid, and is able to add energy density and get 43 miles of electric cruising range. Lampe-Onnerud explains on video:

Boston-Power, with 110 employees in the U.S., has green-themed modernist offices on a bucolic campus in Westborough, Mass., near Boston. It currently has manufacturing operations and 350 employees in Taiwan, and is in the last stages of negotiations to build a second plant in China, west of Shanghai. The expansion will give the company the ability to produce 100 megawatt hours of batteries per month, Lampe-Onnerud said.

They may need the extra capacity, because Boston-Power is supplying battery packs (300 to 400 connected cells) for an Asian-made scooter that will be sold primarily in Europe. The company is also in negotiations to provide batteries to a major Asian carmakers' EVs. Other projects are under consideration: Another company's electric scooter sits in a corner, awaiting a possible Boston-Power battery transplant.

Lampe-Onnerud's 20 years of battery experience includes stints at Arthur D. Little and Bell Labs, but she is hardly a typical CEO. Unlike many Swedes, she is an exuberant presence, making frequent use of the word "fun," as in (during an office tour) "here's a fun laboratory." Her husband, also Swedish, is the company's chief technology officer, and both of them play jazz (she's a singer; he blows trumpet) on infrequent off-hours.

A major criticism of EV battery packs is that they're still very expensive, which has made Lampe-Onnerud into a relentless cost cutter. "When we first looked at producing car batteries five years ago, it was totally cost-prohibitive," she said. "Now it looks better, but if high pack costs mean the car will be sold for $40,000, we look for ways to get it down to $20,000."

Bob Purcell, who directed the EV-1 battery car program at General Motors, is a board director at Boston-Power. "I've been in and out of every major battery company," he said. "Every company makes tradeoffs in system design, but Boston-Power has made the smartest set of tradeoffs, giving the packs both high energy density and good fast charge acceptance. The Swing batteries have the best chance of living as long as the car will. I was approached by a lot of companies after retiring from GM, but this is the first one where I agreed to go on the board and take an active role."

Lampe-Onnerud describes Boston-Power as "a small company with extraordinary depth in batteries." That sounds about right.