Long-life battery maker targets more laptop brands, but not netbooks

Boston-Power Inc. is ramping up the distribution of its long-life batteries for laptop computers as its CEO remains coy about when -- or if -- they will ever become available on most notebook systems.

The Westborough, Mass.-based startup makes Lithium-Ion batteries rated for 1,000 charge-discharge cycles, meaning it can hold most of its capacity for at least three years. Conventional Lithium-Ion batteries are rated at 300 cycles and start degrading after the first year of use.

Boston-Power's laptop batteries also recharge faster, expend less heat, and are safer than mainstream batteries, says CEO Christina Lampe-Onnerud.

The company, which is backed by $125 million in venture capital funds, currently has an exclusive deal to supply its long-life batteries to Hewlett-Packard Co.

HP began offering Boston Power's batteries for a trio of its business laptops and a wider variety of consumer models this spring . HP packages the batteries under the Enviro moniker, which the company said which highlights their "green" credentials.

HP is now selling the Enviro as a replacement battery . The product is available on the HP site.

HP charges $150 to $170 for an Enviro battery, which Lampe-Onnerud said is $20 to $40 more than equivalent 6-cell batteries (the Enviros are currently discounted by 25% as part of HP's Labor Day Sale).

HP recently began letting enterprise and consumer buyers configure notebooks online with Enviro batteries, said Lampe-Onnerud. HP will soon begin shipping notebooks into its distribution channels with an Enviro battery instead of a conventional one, she added.

Both moves should boost shipments of the Enviro, Lampe-Onnerud said. However, she declined to disclose sales figures for the battery.

Lampe-Onnerud also said that the company expects to eventually sign deals with other PC vendors. "We had to choose a champion -- and that is HP," she said. "But I'm sure you'll see the batteries come through other brands."

By year's end, Boston Power plans to start selling its batteries into vertical markets such as healthcare, military and homeland security for a variety of potential applications, such as medical carts in hospitals and electronic military gear, said Lampe-Onnerud.

Boston Power is also targeting the electric and hybrid car market, though those efforts hit a speed bump last month when the company lost a bid for a huge Department of Energy grant to retrofit a Boston area factory to build car batteries based on its technology.

Lampe-Onnerud said the company has little interest in supplying batteries for netbook systems -- whose long runtimes -- sometimes eight hours or more -- have been touted as one of their chief advantages over conventional laptops.

But their low price and high portability makes users more likely to dispose of damaged netbooks rather than fix them -- rendering a long-life battery moot. "I'm ok with staying at the high-end and high-performance segments," she said.

Boston Power remains a small player in a multi-billion dollar battery market, which has long been dominated by Japanese and South Korean electronics firms like Sony and Samsung.

Those firms, whose reputations have been periodically damaged by reports of exploding batteries and subsequent recalls, are also working to upgrade their technology.

Last month, Sony announced a new lithium-ion battery using olivine-type lithium iron phosphate that Sony claims would be able to last 2,000 charge-discharge cycles, or about six years.

Lampe-Onnerud is unworried by that report, or another that Nokia plans to introduce its Booklet 3G netbook with a 16-cell battery that would keep it running for 12 hours on a single charge.

"With 16-cells, you are begging for [technical] problems," she said. By contrast, Boston Power can provide "the same amount of watt-hours in a 3-cell battery," she added.

The company already has the technology to deliver ultra-large-capacity batteries that could deliver all-day runtime using fewer cells than rival, she said.

That coming era of all-day battery life will inspire notebook and portable electronics makers to design a plethora of new devices, she said.

"We are on the verge of an electronics revolution, such that portable power is going to become a key differentiator," Lampe-Onnerud said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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