Battery-powered business drives new technology to market, cost savings to consumers

Tinkering in his downstairs shop several years ago, Ed Shaffer started a series of homegrown experiments that involved dissolving assorted materials in Mason jars filled with battery acid. A few questioned his hobby at the time, but the experiments eventually led to an important discovery: technology that increases the efficiency, extends the life, and lowers the cost of batteries.

Most high-profile battery headlines coming out of Midland these days are coming from Dow Kokam, the advanced battery company that will produce lithium ion batteries to power electric and hybrid vehicles. By the time the $600 million, 800,000-square-foot plant opens its doors in 2015, it will employ about 800 people.

This is in sharp contrast to Shaffer's startup company -- Advanced Battery Concepts -- which employs six people and operates out of a quiet, unassuming 1,000-square-foot laboratory across town. Nestled in the middle of a business incubator -- the MidMichigan Innovation Center -- Shaffer and his team are hard at work on a battery that's about to turn a century-old technology on its head.

Lithium ion batteries like the ones Dow Kokam will produce are considered relatively new technology. By contrast, Shaffer's approach is to reconfigure and reinvent existing battery technology. Lead-acid batteries, which sit under the hood of most vehicles today, were invented in 1859 by French physicist Gaston Plante. But Shaffer has discovered a novel way to improve on the 151-year-old technology.

This fall, Shaffer is hoping to pack a big punch in a small package when he field-tests his new technology in wheelchairs, electric scooters, and other personal mobility devices. Shaffer and his staff have developed battery electrode technology called GreenSeal™ that enhances the performance of lead-acid batteries, and lowers the cost of operating them.

Shaffer, a former business development manager at Dow Chemical, says his technology extends the life of lead-acid batteries. Eventually, the technology could be used in vehicles, solar and wind energy applications, and in other devices. The technology might even allow someone with a solar-powered home to operate completely off the grid on battery power.

"We're very excited about the potential of this technology," he says.

For now, Shaffer says he's starting out small. And while he shuns fanfare, Shaffer recently received $25,000 and the state's top award for the emerging companies best business plan category in the Great Lakes Entrepreneur's Quest competition.

The award was a nice boost, Shaffer says. But he's now focused on the task at hand -- getting ready for the field test this fall when he will take the technology he's developed out of the lab and put it to the test. He has partnered with a couple of Michigan companies for the field testing, which will help Shaffer and his crew refine the technology and iron out any kinks for about four to six months. They'll put the batteries to use in personal mobility devices here in Mid Michigan. Provided all goes as planned, the next step will be to partner with another company to produce the batteries on a larger scale.

People who use wheelchairs, scooters, golf carts, and other personal mobility devices will get more mileage out of their batteries with GreenSeal™ technology.

Most wheelchair batteries last about a year. But the GreenSeal™ rechargeable battery that Shaffer and his crew have developed will last two or three. And at about $125 for a typical wheelchair battery, the technology that Shaffer and his team have developed will mean a savings of about $250. And instead of buying three batteries over a three-year period, people will only have to buy one. The batteries also run about two hours longer than existing lead-acid batteries, so they will not have to be recharged as often. They also can be recharged using existing equipment.

When compared to existing lead-acid batteries, GreenSeal™ technology provides 200 percent more energy and 1000 percent more power. Shaffer's batteries also use 25 percent less lead and last three to four times longer compared to conventional lead-acid batteries. Given existing technologies, they also are 100 percent recyclable.

These differences may not sound like much to the average consumer. But in fact, it's changes like these that make alternative energy technologies more accessible to more people, Shaffer says.

And while Shaffer does not intend to compete in the lithium ion battery market, he's quick to point out the cost difference between the two technologies. A lithium ion battery -- the kind used to power electric and hybrid-electric vehicles -- can be expensive for users. Lithium ion batteries can cost around $20,000. That's five to 10 times more than a standard lead-acid battery.

The personal mobility market in North America nets about $1 billion a year. For example, lithium ion batteries for electric scooters run about $3,000, and go for about 50 miles before they need to be recharged. By comparison, a lead-acid battery with GreenSeal™ technology would cost around $1,000 and would power a scooter for about 35 miles before it needed to be recharged.

"So we believe our technology offers a cost-effective solution," he says. "To help people move on to alternative energy solutions, you have to make them cost-effective."

Providing affordable, meaningful technology as a business model is, in part, what motivated Shaffer to get into the battery business in the first place. And it's one of the reasons why he decided to leave his 19-year career at Dow Chemical to launch his own company.

Aside from the technology itself, Shaffer is a Mid Michigan success story. In two years, Shaffer has taken his basement shop experiments with battery acid and turned his findings into a burgeoning business. And the company -- which he originally self-funded with his 401k and launched in his garage -- is now a multi-million dollar company on the edge of hitting it big. Really big.

"I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit," he says.


Photos:

Dr. Edward O. Shaffer II sits on a scooter powered by a battery developed by his company, Advanced Battery Concepts, LLC.

Dr. Edward W. Shaffer II often uses a small scooter powered by one of his batteries when talking to groups about the new battery technology being developed by his company.

Michigan State University intern Alex Poznak makes some test battery cells with help from Guy Payne.

Several different sizes of batteries are always in various stages of testing at the Advanced Battery Concepts labs in Midland.

The developers at Advanced Battery Concepts are constantly building and testing different sizes of batteries.

GreenSeal™ is the technology that Advanced Battery Concepts has developed and will be field-testing this fall.


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