Contour Energy Systems will start to ship its novel fluorine batteries in volume starting October 1, says CEO Joe Fisher, and things that run on them will likely start to appear after the first of next year.

The company -- founded by a blue-ribbon group of chemistry and battery scientists from Caltech and France -- has come up with a way to make high-power, long-lasting batteries with fluorine ions instead of lithium. In terms of energy density, fluorine batteries have the potential to perform two to three times times more effectively than lithium batteries and provide have better power performance, i.e., they will be able to deliver more power on demand. A smoke detector or automated water meter reader powered with one of these batteries could stay powered up for years.

Fluorine batteries actually exist now; you can buy them in drugstores for cameras. While these batteries can hold quite a bit of energy, they can't release it rapidly. Instead of delivering electrons like a fire hydrant, they act more like garden hoses, according to Fisher. Contour has effectively come up with a way to keep the high energy density while cranking up the power density.

Contour's first batteries will be non-rechargeable coin batteries. Consumers will be able to buy them and manufacturers, ideally, will embed them into smart meters, home automation equipment, medical devices, tire pressure sensors and other devices. Some manufacturers have already been testing the batteries, but it can take a manufacturer nine to 12 months to fully qualify a new part.

Why the coin form factor? The Azusa, California-based company has a limited manufacturing capacity for producing its magic powder that gets coated onto anodes and/or cathodes.

"On a price-per-gram basis, coin batteries are very attractive," Fisher said. "The limiting factor is being able to use enough powder."

Later, Contour will produce cell and other larger format batteries as well as rechargeable batteries. The company may also sell the powder and license intellectual property so that others can make batteries from its formula.

Secret sauce time. Traditional fluorine batteries from Japan employ a carbon monofluoride structure. That is, a battery component will have one fluorine for every carbon. Contour has developed a process to vary the basic formula that will allow a battery component to contain more, or even fewer, fluorine atoms to carbon atoms, depending on the desired result and application.

The company was originally called CFX Battery, with the C standing for carbon, the F for fluorine and the X for the ratio that can vary. (More in this story from August with Contour investors Maurice Gunderson.)

While lithium currently sits atop the battery world, other chemistries have emerged in recent years that may begin to go mainstream. GE and other large industrial companies are devising sodium batteries for grid storage, while a host of companies have put their hopes into zinc for batteries to be used in personal electronics and cars. Zinc may also get deployed in solar fields to store energy on the grid. Others advocate solid-state lithium batteries and lithium air batteries. (More chemistry fun: Linde, Masdar PV and others advocate swapping nitrogen trifluoride with fluoride in solar panel manufacturing.) 

Another interesting trend: solid state batteries. By swapping the liquid electrolyte with a solid, the volume and weight of the batteries decreases, which in turn boosts the range on an electric car.

Tags: batteries, caltech, cmea, contour, electric cars, energy efficiency, fluorine, france, home automation, sakti3, smart grid, start-ups