The company has its cells in space suits used by astronauts in the International Space Station. They are in artificial hearts, have been in the Mini Cooper, and in a variety of consumer electronics from laptops to power tools. If you are using a hand drill, defibrillator or army radio, your work might be powered by their Molicels.
But this month, the company announced a new deal with Uber to develop a new cell to power a car that will be capable of vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL). It sounds like something out of Star Wars, but the ridesharing and transportation network company is bringing the future into the present with its latest Uber Elevate business concept.
It’s also an opportunity for the local technology company Moli to celebrate its successes over 30 years as a leader in rechargeable lithium ion cells.
Moli director of technology Paul Craig said the company has its products in some amazing places for military, medical and consumer applications, but mostly has signed non-disclosure agreements. The company can’t talk about who is using all its batteries.
So he likes to be associated with Uber’s chest-pounding publicity, and talk about its newest project, as Uber and Moli announced the research and development partnership.
“It is a big deal for us,” he added. “It’s a big deal because it’s in the public eye.”
Uber announced its plans to operate a network of small, electric, aircraft in numerous cities worldwide to enable four-person ridesharing flights in densely populated urban markets.
“These eVTOL differ from helicopters in that they are orders of magnitude quieter, safer, more affordable, and more environmentally-friendly,” said a release from Uber.
In five years, people in Los Angeles and Dallas will be able to contact Uber Elevate via their Uber app, get a quote for the cost of their trip, get picked up by an Uber driver and driven to skyports in the Uber Air network, flown at 320 km/h to the top of a building near their destination, catch an elevator down, and get into another Uber car to get to their final destination.
“Roads are getting too busy in big cities and they can’t move people around, but there’s all this airspace they can utilize,” Craig added.
Uber needs to have a battery for a concept vehicle by 2020 for demonstrations, and have it ready for a commercially available pilot program in 2023.
Uber also said the cells the Maple Ridge company has now are already fairly close to what it needs for its eVTOL vehicle fleet.
The new cell needs to be both powerful, and able to fully recharge within minutes.
“Uber realizes that the battery is key to the opportunity,” said Craig.
The vehicle will be light, with multiple rotors, and wings will give the craft lift as it travels forward. However, the battery will need to be able to power tremendous lift as the vehicle lifts off with up to four passengers.
“It takes a lot of power to lift a vehicle off the ground,” said Craig.
It will need to have a range of travel, and be able to recharge within five minutes.
“This is another step in our path of developing class-leading products for specific applications,” Craig added.
The 150,000 square foot Moli plant opened on Stewart Crescent in Maple Ridge in 1987, churning out two million cells per month on a fully automated robotic assembly line and employing 400 people. Most of the cells went into consumer products such as laptops, and only Moli and Sony were manufacturing them at first..
Now there is more competition, including Samsung, LG and Panasonic.
The Molicels are produced in Taiwan, in a plant that will soon be producing eight million cells per month. The Maple Ridge operation is down to some 70 employees who support North American sales and do research and development, customizing cells for applications.
“Uber Elevate’s mission is to provide, safe, convenient, and affordable air mobility to everyone,” said Celina Mikolajczak, Uber’s director of engineering, energy storage systems.
“Achieving our goal may be years away, but to achieve it we need to start now, and with batteries you always start with the cells. I have admired Moli’s work for almost two decades – over most of my career in batteries – and am pleased that we get to work together on this project.”
Uber is also working with experienced aircraft manufacturing companies to design their new fleet, and other companies on the development of their skyports.