August 30th, 2017 by Steve Hanley
Last week, an email arrived in my inbox. Would I care to have lunch with Christina Lampe-Onnerud, CEO of Cadenza Innovations? A quick Google search revealed that Cadenza was recently awarded a patent for a battery cell that is significantly larger than the common 18650 lithium-ion battery cell. It features new chemistry and packaging that lowers the risk of fires — like the ones that plagued the Boeing Dreamliner, the Samsung Galaxy Note, and a couple of early Tesla Model S sedans.
Anxious to hear more about Cadenza and its “supercell,” I agreed to meet with “The Queen Of Batteries,” who was in Providence to make a presentation at the 68th annual conference of the International Society of Electrochemisty. If that leaves you with the impression that Christina is a laboratory drudge with a bunch of ink smudges on her lab coat, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Christina Lampe-Onnerud is charming, gracious, and bubbling with enthusiasm for her chosen field of endeavor. Her mission is simple — compile the best and most current information from battery experts around the globe and use that data to build better batteries. Her key concerns are lower cost, higher energy density, and greater safety. “My dream is to put 20 years of industry best practice into a battery block you can use.”
Cadenza is a concept familiar to musicians. Christina Lampe-Onnerud is a trained opera singer, among her other accomplishments. The word refers to a section of a song that allows the artist to go off in search of new and creative ways to interpret the composer’s intent. Some might call it a riff or a jam, but it always comes back to the core of the music. So, too, with Cadenza. It starts with the known and explores the possible before ending with a fusion of both.
“Best practices,” Christina Lampe-Onnerud insists again and again — take the best information from the best minds and use it to drive the evolution of battery technology forward. The Cadenza “supercell” differs from conventional lithium-ion batteries by eliminating cobalt from the mix for the cathode. The battery can be manufactured using traditional “jelly roll” production machinery, which helps drive down costs.
The cells are then packaged in a unique matrix that insulates them from each other to prevent cascading failures in the event one cell has a malfunction. Fire retardants are an important part of Cadenza’s proprietary battery block. That’s why it can be shipped anywhere in the world by conventional means. “We can ship this dry, just like books or shoes. This is my new passion. I am so excited about this! Something that doesn’t burn in regular temperatures and has fire retardants mixed in. Each cell is insulated, so if one has an event, it will release fire retardants internally to prevent a cascading failure.” There is light dancing in her eyes as she talks.
Each individual cell in the battery block is surrounded by a thin sleeve of aluminum, which further isolates a damaged cell from the other cells around it. The number of cells in each block can be adjusted to meet the particular needs of the customer. For more energy, simply add more blocks. “Click, click, click,” says Lampe-Onnerud. “It’s not that difficult.”
The way Cadenza’s battery cells are manufactured and assembled reduces costs by 30 to 60 percent. Simpler cooling systems further reduce the cost of the battery blocks. Ultimately, Cadenza hopes to have blocks that require no external cooling at all. The arrangement means if one cell or one block fails, the rest continue to provide electrical power, meaning drivers of electric cars won’t be left stranded by the side of the road. A service technician can easily and quickly replace a damage battery block if needed.
Space is more important than weight, Lampe-Onnerud says. The original bag phones had a large battery pack that had to be lugged around with it. The smartphone has changed the world, but smaller batteries that left enough room inside the case for the circuitry and computing elements made it possible. The Cadenza battery blocks take up less space both because of the size of the individual cells and because traditional cooling between individual cells is not required.
“If we are able to launch this successfully, we will have been able to apply 20 years of lessons learned. You can put new chemistry in and still use this type of architecture. We have a few partners like ABB who are inspired by what we have created. Maybe this is the new Lego block of energy,” she says.
Cadenza is focused on developing prismatic cells for residential and grid storage applications as well as lithium-ion cells for use in electric cars. It is seeking manufacturing and marketing partners. There are so many new companies crowding into the market today, it is hard for customers to know which of them will still be in business a year, 5 years, or a decade from now. Cadenza seeks to build relationships with established companies already recognized as leading brands by consumers. They will license the Cadenza technology, provide technical support, and handle any warranty issues.
Lampe-Onnerud says she can not say which companies Cadenza is working with because of non-disclosure agreements, but does acknowledge that Fiat Chrysler is testing Cadenza’s battery block technology in the Fiat 500e. She also has had a professional association with General Motors in the past.
Christina Lampe-Onnerud has a doctorate in chemistry from Upsala University in Sweden, where her father was deeply involved in the power generation business. She grew up surrounded by thinkers and dreamers focused on what was possible. Later, she was a post-doctoral fellow at MIT. From there, she became a founder of Boston Power, but when that company turned its attention toward China, she decided to remain in the US and helped organize Cadenza Innovations.
“The technical community has been trained never to overstate,” Christina Lampe-Onnerud says, “but things are changing. I think there is a discipline coming which is more willing to take risks.” She credits Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk for some of this. “Elon is saying ‘This is possible.’ He inspires people to think differently.” But being around the kitchen table in her childhood home and listening to the creative thinkers of the day discuss new ideas with her father helped expand her horizons as well.
Christina has appeared on stage with Elon Musk and thinks of JB Straubel as a hero for his technical prowess. But she also believes using her company’s battery blocks would significantly extend the range of Tesla automobiles — by as much as 70% — without raising prices. Perhaps one day Musk and Straubel will come knocking on Cadenza’s door. That would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for “The Queen of Batteries.”
Many thanks to media specialist Chris Carleton who arranged my meeting with Christina Lampe-Onnerud and graciously fielded an unending stream of questions from me afterward.