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Mercury News Interview: Atul Kapadia of battery-maker Envia Systems

The electric car industry faces two major challenges: the high cost of batteries and their limited range between charges. Envia Systems, a startup based in the East Bay city of Newark, made a big splash in February when it claimed it achieved a milestone: a rechargeable lithium-ion battery with an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram, the highest “energy density” known.

Since then, the company has been pretty quiet and has yet to announce any customers. Atul Kapadia, Envia’s chairman and CEO, recently talked with this newspaper. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You were the first investor in Envia and are now the CEO. How did you come to get involved
Atul Kapadia, chairman and CEO of electric vehicle battery start-up Envia Systems in Newark, Ca. (courtesy of Envia)
in the company?

A: My wife and Sujeet Kumar, our co-founder and chief technology officer, were graduate school classmates at the University of Rochester, so that’s how I knew him. He started the company out of the Palo Alto Public Library when he didn’t have office space. I wrote the first $3 million check to help start the company. In August 2010, Envia was out of luck and money, and Sujeet asked me to come in and raise more capital. He then hired me to be the CEO.

Q: Consumer demand for electric vehicles is picking up, but it’s not as robust as some had initially hoped. Some people say America still isn’t “ready” for electric vehicles. How bullish are you about the electric vehicle market overall?

A:
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I’m very positive. Electric vehicles represent a very big and long-term market. It’s a 100-year market that will be the largest market the world has known. The bad news is that the battery technology is still expensive. The cost, usually measured as dollars per kilowatt hour, has to come down. Most electric vehicles are using consumer batteries in the car. The current cost curve for lithium-ion doesn’t take you to the promised land. You need a new cost curve, which relies on a fundamentally different chemistry.

Q: The basic guts of a battery include a negatively charged anode, a positively charged cathode and the electrolyte. When a battery is fully charged, the lithium ions are concentrated in the anode. As the battery discharges, the ions flow to the cathode and current flows through the electric circuit, releasing energy. Many battery startups are experimenting with battery chemistry, and Envia has developed a cathode material based on manganese, an inexpensive metal that is key to driving down the overall cost of the battery. Why is this such a breakthrough?

A: Most cathodes use a combination of nickel, cobalt and manganese. Cobalt is a very expensive metal. We’re trying to increase the energy density and decrease the amount of cobalt. We use more manganese and less cobalt.

Q: In February, Envia made a big splash when it announced it achieved a critical milestone: a rechargeable lithium-ion battery with an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram, the highest energy density known. What’s happened since then? Are you in commercialization?

A: We now have to prove our business model, and that means getting Envia’s battery into a car. We’re working with several automakers. We currently have more customer traction and partnerships in Japan than in the United States. 2013 is all about customers and proving the technology.
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