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.”
At MIT, Where “Data Gets to Speak”
Lampe-Onnerud and her husband, Per Onnerud, who serves as Cadenza’s chief technology officer, held postdoctoral appointments at MIT after earning their PhDs at Uppsala University in their home country of Sweden. Lampe-Onnerud did lab work in inorganic chemistry in close collaboration with MIT materials science and mathematics professors, while Onnerud did research in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. The experience left a strong impression on Lampe-Onnerud.
“MIT was a very formative experience,” she says. “You learn how to argue a point so that the data gets to speak. You just enable the data; there’s no spin. MIT has a special place in my heart.”
Lampe-Onnerud has maintained a strong connection with the Institute ever since, participating in alumni groups, giving guest lectures on campus, and serving as a member of the MIT Corporation visiting committee for the chemistry department — all while finding remarkable success in her career.
Lampe-Onnerud founded Boston-Power in 2004, which she grew into an internationally recognized manufacturer of batteries for consumer electronics, vehicles, and industrial applications while serving as the CEO until the company moved operations to China in 2012. In the early stages of the company, more than seven years after Lampe-Onnerud had finished her postdoc work, she discovered the enduring nature of support from the MIT community.
“We started looking for some angel investors, and one of the first groups that responded were the angels affiliated with MIT,” Lampe-Onnerud says. “We support each other because we tend to be attracted to intractable problems. It’s very much in the MIT spirit: We know, if we’re trying to solve big problems, it’s going to be difficult. So we like to collaborate.”
The high-profile experience at Boston Power earned her distinctions including the Technology Pioneer Award from the World Economic Forum, and Swedish Woman of the Year from the Swedish Women’s Educational Association. It also led some to deem her the “Queen of Batteries.”
Immediately after leaving Boston-Power, Lampe-Onnerud and her husband went to work on what would be Cadenza’s supercell architecture in their garage. They wanted to create a solution that would help lower the world’s carbon footprint, but they estimated that, at most, they’d be able to build one gigafactory every 18 months if they were to manufacture the batteries themselves. So they decided to license the technology instead.
The strategy has tradeoffs from a business perspective: Cadenza has needed to raise much less capital than Boston-Power but will allow licensees to generate topline and bottomline growth while it receives a percentage of sales. Lampe-Onnerud is clearly happy to leverage her global network and share the upside to maximize Cadenza’s impact.
“My hope is that we are able to bring people together around this technology to do things that are really important, like taking down our carbon footprint, eliminating NOx [nitrogen oxide] emissions, or improving grid efficiency,” Lampe-Onnerud says. “It’s a different way to work together, so when an element of this ecosystem wins, we all win. It has been an inspiring process.”