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Battery Startup Planar Energy Devices Eyes Stimulus-Funded Factory

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As the deadline for funding requests under a new federal program for plug-in vehicle battery manufacturing draws near, companies large and small are jostling to get a piece of the $2 billion in Department of Energy grants allocated as part of the stimulus package. Following announcements from General Electric and quiet startup Sakti3 earlier this week, the latest company to jump into the game is Planar Energy Devices, with its work on solid-state, high-capacity batteries and a request for $56 million in grants.

States have entered a high-stakes competition in recent months to lure battery makers with tax credits and incentive packages in an effort to bring in stimulus dollars, jobs and a piece of a growing industry as car-building and other manufacturing work disappears. Planar, like GE and Sakti3, has lined up support from the Florida state government to help strengthen its application — the governor’s office agreed this week to consider putting up matching funds if the DOE grants come through.

Planar’s grant request, announced this afternoon, represents something of a return to the nest for the startup, which spun out of the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory about two years ago. At this point, the Battelle Ventures and Innovation Venture Partners-backed company says it has an exclusive contract to buy a lithium-ion battery factory built in 1997 at a cost of $150 million and shuttered last year. Planar CEO Scott Faris said in a release today that starting production would be “essentially a ‘lights on’ activity” at the Gainesville, Fl., facility, which he calls “the largest rechargeable battery manufacturing facility outside of Asia.”

When we wrote about Planar last fall it had one technology that it wanted to use for micro, mid-sized and large batteries — starting with military applications and smart cards. The company’s thin-film batteries are supposed to charge in seconds, have a high energy density, last 400-500 life cycles, and be safer than traditional lithium-ion batteries. These days Planar’s focus seems to have shifted more to vehicle batteries, at least for the purpose of securing stimulus funds. In all, Planar wants to invest some $120 million ramping up production at the Gainesville facility and creating a center for developing solid-state batteries for hybrid and plug-in vehicles as well as military applications, which energy storage companies are increasingly eying as a potential source of stable revenue in the downturn.

But if you tally up its announced funding, finances could be getting tight at Planar. Faris said in October that Planar was looking to close a $12 million round of Series B funding in the first quarter of 2009 (they have yet to announce any recent funding), and then a $20 million Series C round by the end of 2010. Even with $56 million from the DOE, the initial plan for a 2012 exit may by now have slipped out of reach.