Battery company hopes expansion leads to bigger business

Steve Tarter

Firefly Energy Inc. has increased its power.

The battery firm's new home will allow the high-tech spinoff of Caterpillar Inc. to manufacture battery components in addition to expanding its research efforts.

"We're running prototype batteries now, but our goal is to be in full production by the first quarter of 2009," said CEO Edward Williams.

Full production could mean providing foam components for up to 200,000 batteries a year, he said. The lightweight foam component would be shipped to battery manufacturers around the country for inclusion in the finished battery, said Williams.

The first product off the Firefly assembly line is the company's Oasis truck battery, designed to take advantage of the huge U.S. truck market, said Firefly senior vice president Mil Ovan.

Known as a Group 31 battery in the trucking industry, the Firefly product is expected to stake a claim among the 9 million truck batteries sold each year in North America, he said.

Firefly officials look to have an immediate impact in the West. On Jan. 1, California implemented a law limiting diesel trucks to a five-minute idling limit.

Traditional batteries face real challenges in trying to support a trucker's needs such as air conditioning, TVs and microwave ovens, previously powered by diesel engine idling, said Ovan.

"For millions of commercial truckers, the sleeper cab represents an oasis," he said, in explanation of the Oasis name put on that Firefly battery.

Ovan said Firefly's truck battery would give truck drivers more time to rest in their rigs during mandated rest periods since the Oasis is expected to deliver 50 percent more run time than existing batteries.

Firefly expects to reach the $20 million mark in battery sales in the truck market, said Williams, citing the fact that environmental restrictions on truck operations will likely expand to other states. "The game is now changing, and battery performance will become much more important in its contribution to trucker safety, comfort, and productivity," he said.

Firefly's game-changing battery technology, using a carbon-graphite foam lead acid battery, isn't limited to the truck market, said Williams.

Firefly is involved with the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago in testing a prototype battery for the hybrid vehicle market, said Williams.

"The automotive industry has always been a target (market) of ours. We've been waiting for the right time to go after that market. With the increase in anxiety the auto industry has experienced with the rise in oil prices, that may define a more aggressive posture on our part," he said.

The company also has contracts with the Army for batteries to be used in military vehicles, said Williams. "We look for a prototype to be produced early next year (for the Army) with production to start in the fourth quarter of 2009," he said.

All this activity follows a steady pattern of growth since Firefly spun out of Caterpillar in 2003 as a separate company with just three employees, Williams, Ovan and Kurtis Kelley, a former Caterpillar employee and Firefly's chief scientist.

Now there are 45 employees with that number expected to climb to 65 over the next 12 months, said Williams.

Firefly's new headquarters provides plenty of room for growth, he said. "We had between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet at Illinois Central College North," said Williams of Firefly's previous research center. "Now we have 40,000 square feet.".

Williams said ICC played an integral part in helping the company get off the ground. "ICC was a very gracious landlord during our incubating years. We wouldn't be here without their help," he said.

Williams also acknowledged the part played by the city of Peoria and Peoria County as well as area legislators for their assistance to the company. He cited G&D Integrated, the Peoria truck company owned by Joe O'Neill, for helping jumpstart Firefly's battery program. "Their help in purchasing the (new) building has been invaluable. They're a real partner," he said.

Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260

--Origin: Peoria-based battery company was started with technology spun out of Caterpillar Inc. in 2003.

--Goal: To develop a lightweight, high-tech lead acid battery to provide a more efficient and longer-lasting power source for a variety of vehicles.

--Market: The lead acid battery represents a $25 billion market worldwide.

--Accomplishments: Firefly has contracts with the U.S. Army on developing a battery for use in military vehicles. The company also looks to enter the truck market with its Oasis battery early next year.

--Employees: 45