19 February 2012
Last Monday, Energy Conversion Devices Inc. sold its subsidiary, Ovonic Battery Company, to BASF for $58 million. Ovonic is a global leader in nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery technology, holding 97 U.S. and international patents and patent applications in that field. All major producers of NiMH batteries in the world today work under license from Ovonic.
Despite the attention garnered by lithium-ion technology over the past few years, NiMH batteries remain the most common type of traction battery used in automobiles. More than 2 million hybrid cars worldwide run in part on NiMH batteries, including Prius, Lexus (Toyota), Civic, Insight (Honda), Fusion (Ford), and others.
But what has been most noteworthy about NiMH technology in recent years has been the lack of much news about its progress. Billions of dollars have flooded into the development of lithium-ion batteries. Announcements about new innovations and improved efficiencies in lithium-ion technology are a common feature in the news. Recent news about NiMH technology, by contrast, has focused on a series of patent disputes and on a purported plot by Chevron, a former owner of Cobasys (another global leader in NiMH technology), to inhibit the development of NiMH batteries as a means of stifling the electric vehicles they might power.
Others suggest that NiMH batteries are technologically obsolete and have already been pushed to the limits of their potential. Relative to lithium-ion, of course, NiMH is a more mature technology, pre-dating lithium-ion in the market by about a decade. But reports of NiMH’s technological obsolescence may be greatly exaggerated. Just a few years ago, the most mature battery technology of all, lead-acid technology, was assumed to be dirty, antiquated and fully played-out. Yet today the market outlook for advanced lead acid batteries may be the best for any battery technology in the automotive sector.
The truth about NiMH battery technology may have less to do with conspiracies and technological obsolescence than with money. It takes a lot of money to play the R&D game in advanced automotive batteries. And it takes even more to build, manage and prosecute a portfolio of battery patents. BASF is the largest diversified chemical company in the world, with a market capitalization of about $58 billion and a history of successful research and development programs. By contract, Energy Conversion Devices declared bankruptcy the day after selling Ovonic. With a sophisticated and deep-pocketed company now backing the technology, the next few years could be very interesting for NiMH batteries.