Caltech Spinoff Cracks Open Next-Gen Battery


Battery startup Contour Energy Systems says it has developed a new battery technology using the volatile element fluorine that could deliver longer lasting, higher power batteries for devices spanning from smart meters to pacemakers, and — potentially years down the road — electric vehicles and laptops. The startup, which says these batteries can handle extreme temperatures, fired up its first assembly line this summer for its initial line of small, disposable single-cell batteries known as coin cells and today Contour also announced plans to ship that first commercial product next month.

Formerly known as CFX Battery, Contour was spun out of Caltech in 2007 with three co-founders, including Caltech professor and Nobel Laureate Robert Grubbs; Rachid Yazami, who was leading research at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, or CNRS, and had been a visiting associate at Caltech; and André Hamwi, a professor and fluorine researcher affiliated with CNRS. Caltech’s technology transfer office invested in the startup early on and helped Contour raise its first $15 million. Contour says it has now raised a total of nearly $30 million in venture capital.

Over the years Contour has stuck to its guns with a plan to focus first on building “primary” lithium batteries, which can’t be recharged. The idea is to gain a foothold in established, relatively high margin markets, and then reinvest the revenue into the company’s rechargeable battery work for applications that could include electric cars, cell phones and laptops, Eric Lind Vice President of Business Development, told us earlier this year. Among the applications for this first line of coin cells are tire pressure monitoring systems, LED lighting products, smart meters, RFID cards, sensors and bone growth stimulators. Contour has contracts in hand to sell the cells as drop-in replacements in some consumer devices, CEO Joseph Fisher told us in an interview.

Contour’s Recipe

The “secret sauce” for Contour’s technology lies in the cathode, or the material through which electric current flows out of the battery. The company uses a combination of carbon and fluorine in a certain (undisclosed) ratio to one another. This compound is called CFx, with C standing for carbon, F for fluorine and X for the ratio (the genesis for the company’s early moniker).

Carbon fluoride batteries are not new, but traditionally, Fisher explained, carbon and fluorine have been used in a one-to-one ratio to one another, and at that ratio batteries deliver less power and lower performance in very low temperatures compared to Contour’s devices. Contour has changed the “x factor,” or the ratio between carbon and fluorine, as well as the process for “baking” them together. And the company says it can customize the cathode for batteries in various applications by tweaking the process for introducing fluorine into the carbon structure.

Depending on the application, Contour says its cells could last many times longer than state of the art batteries. In a wristwatch, LED product, or pacemaker, for example, Fisher said Contour’s cells could run about 40 percent longer, while delivering twice as much battery time for some drug delivery systems. In certain applications with a very high rate of discharge, such as in defibrillators, Contour says its cells could last 6-8 times longer. For some LED lighting applications, Contour’s battery could mean the difference between 24 hours and 40 hours, said Fisher.

Scaling Up

According to Fisher, Contour’s 45-person team (plus 10 contractors) has kicked into high gear since July, when the assembly line was opened at its Azusa, Calif. headquarters. “Once we got that line in is really when the work started,” he said, noting an effort to increase the line’s efficiency. In addition, he said, the qualification process with prospective device maker customers can’t begin until the production line is up and running. From there, testing can take about 9-18 months for medical and automotive applications and about 3-6 months for consumer devices, said Lind.

Contour is currently producing cells that are about the size and shape of a nickel, in what’s known as a 2032 format (20 millimeter diameter and 3.2 millimeter height). As Fisher put it, the 2032 is like “the double-A of coin cells,” accounting for about 60 percent of the market.

Eventually Contour plans to make 2025 and smaller 2016 coin cells, and beyond that much larger rechargeable batteries. However, the company does not have a large enough supply of carbon-fluoride powder for the cathode to make larger batteries at this point. According to Lind, Contour is now developing rechargeable batteries and hopes to commercialize the technology within a few years.

The company’s grand vision will require some hefty capital to come to fruition. Fisher told us early this year that Contour had a “major effort under way” pursuing government funds from a range of sources, including grants and loans at the state and federal level, military projects, and programs funded by the Department of Energy, DARPA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That effort continues, and Fisher said Contour expects to get “significant assistance” from the federal government. According to Lind, Department of Energy and Defense Department programs are looking the most promising at this point. Last week, Fisher and Lind spoke with us from Washington, D.C., where they said they’re “laying groundwork” for future funding.

Image courtesy of Contour Energy Systems

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