The slow, painful process of improving batteries takes another small, but somewhat important, step forward today.

Hewlett-Packard will offer lithium-ion batteries made by Boston-Power as an upgrade option on select consumer notebooks in early 2009, said Christina Lampe-Onnerud, Boston-Power's CEO.

Boston-Power will also "absolutely" announce another deal with a notebook vendor in 2009. It is additionally working with HP on possibly putting its batteries in other types of portable electronics. Boston-Power will analyze ways it can participate in the market for electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

What makes Boston-Power's Sonata batteries greener than other lithium-ion batteries on the market? They can last three years, or 1,000 charging cycles, before the battery's capacity to hold power becomes substantially diminished. Conventional lithium-ion batteries might only go 300 cycles or less. Thus, fewer replacement batteries are required. As a result, HP is giving a three-year warranty with the battery. HP will sell the batteries under a new brand name, the HP Enviro Series batteries. 

The Sonata only takes a half an hour to charge one up to 80 percent capacity, versus two hours for a regular battery. It can get to 40 percent in ten minutes, she said. The company hopes to show how much power quick charging can save in a study in 2009. But an easy test is to grab the notebook. A computer powered by one of the company's batteries will exude far less waste heat.

"There is also no cadmium, no arsenic and no mercury" in the materials used inside the battery, she said. Sometimes, these elements become incorporated into battery components as artifacts of the lithium-mining process.

The Sonata batteries are also housed in a wrapper that contains no PVC. "It was actually pretty difficult to find a shrink wrap that didn't contain PVCs," she said.

Batteries are one of the slow learners in the high-tech world. Engineers can improve the performance of processors and other types of silicon chips by 60 percent a year or even more, thanks to the fact that transistors can be shrunk in size at a regular pace. Not so with batteries. Battery capacity increases only about six percent a year. Thus, it takes around ten years for performance to double.

Besides capacity, battery engineers also have to grapple with things like increasing the number of charge/discharge cycles a battery can endure, performance degradation over time, and "thermal runways" which can lead to explosions.

Large corporate customers are leery about working with startups or adopting components that boost up their costs (the Sonata will add a bit to the overall price.) HP, in fact, has been working with Boston-Power for a few years. Back in 2007, Lampe-Onnerud predicted that HP might come out with a notebook with its batteries that year.

Some of the new age battery companies such as A123 Systems, Altair Nanosystems and EnerDel have tried to improve lithium-ion batteries by replacing the traditional lithium cobalt cathode, an electrode that circulates electrons in a battery, with cathodes made of lithium phosphate or other materials. This decreases the energy density of batteries but increases reliability and safety.

By contrast, Boston-Power has stuck with lithium cobalt and instead has worked to improve the other elements of the battery, i.e., eliminating materials that can cause a battery to short circuit, tinkering with the manufacturing process to prevent the incorporation of contaminants. The cells inside of a Sonata are also twice the size of an average lithium-ion cell.

The company was founded in 2005 and has raised $70 million in VC funds.

Lithium also isn't the only battery story in town anymore. PowerGenix, which makes a rechargeable zinc-nickel based battery, is expected to release batteries soon. The battery, marketed in conjunction with a name-brand manufacturer, will be sold under the manufacturer's name.

ZPower (formerly Zinc Matrix Power) is also expected to unfurl a deal with a notebook maker for its rechargeable zinc batteries in the relatively near future. ZPower has been trying to perfect its product since the '90s. Earlier, it had hoped to have a notebook deal in 2007.