Many media eyes are watching the auction of bankrupt battery-maker A123 Systems, which is currently underway in Chicago. Bids were accepted starting December 6, but the auction apparently could run into next week before a buyer is announced because of the complexity of the deal.

Some of those watching, also including politicians and military leaders, have expressed concern that the A123 lithium ion battery technology, much of it funded by the U.S. government, could wind up in foreign hands, according to

Photo courtesy of AP

Photo courtesy of AP

the Chicago Tribune (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-a123-auction-20121206,0,359683.story). The Tribune notes that A123, which was once called “one of the most promising U.S. innovators in the clean fuel auto industry,” was awarded a $250 million grant in 2009 and had drawn down about $132 million of it before bankruptcy.

While none of the companies has commented publicly since the bidding opened, four suitors, including one American company, have qualified to bid, according to the Tribune story and other reports: Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI) is the American company and NEC Corp of Japan, Siemens AG of Germany and Wanxiang Group Corp of China (the largest automotive components maker in China) are the others. The Tribune notes that Johnson Controls bills itself as “one of the last standing American companies competing in and building this U.S. advanced battery industry.” (New Castle, PA-based Axion Power International, among some others, would argue with that statement. See below)

As we noted back in August, Wanxiang made a bid to buy A123 back and thought they had a solid agreement, according to the Tribune. But apparently, due to concerns politics would be problematic, A123 never agreed to make the deal.

Other companies are apparently interested in buying parts of A123, according to the Tribune, but no names have yet been made public.

There are a few small cap battery makers that could be considered peers of A123, although most of them are not in the lithium ion battery business. They include:

Newark, NY-based Ultralife Corp. (Nasdaq: ULBI, http://www.ultralifecorp.com/) designs, manufactures and offers services for power and communications systems, including rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries as well as communications and electronic systems and accessories, and custom engineered systems. ULBI operates in two segments: Battery and Energy Products, and Communications Systems. The battery segment includes lithium 9-volt, cylindrical and various other non-rechargeable batteries, as well as rechargeable batteries. ULBI has a 52-week trading range of $2.39-$5.50 and a market cap of $46 million. It closed Dec. 7 at $2.62, down 8 cents on the day.

Salt Lake City-based Oak Ridge Micro-Energy Inc. (OTC: OKME) is a development stage company that licenses thin-film, solid state batteries for industrial, medical and government applications. The applications include wireless smart sensors, security cards, RFID tags, semiconductor memory chips and implantable medical devices. The thin-film lithium and lithium ion batteries are ideally suited for a variety of applications where a small power source is needed. OKME has a 52-week trading range of $0.06-$0.51 and a market cap of $20 million. It closed Dec. 7 at $0.20, down 3 cents for the day.

Carrollton, TX-based Universal Power Group (AMEX: UPG, http://www.upgi.com/) is a supplier and distributor of batteries and related power accessories. UPG sells, distributes and markets batteries and related power accessories under various brands and its own brands. Back in August, UPG’s market cap was $11 million and was trading for about $2.15. Its current 52-week trading range is $1.26-$2.35 but its stock has fallen. It closed Dec. 7 at $1.66, down 3 cents for the day. Its market cap is now $8.3 million.

New Castle, PA-based Axion Power International * (OTCBB: AXPW.OB, http://www.axionpower.com/) manufactures high-performance, low-cost lead-carbon (PbC) batteries for a variety of markets, including mild- and micro- hybrid vehicles, which may be the commonest form of hybrid in the US within a couple of years (and already the most common in Europe). AXPW announced in May that the U.S. Department of Energy had awarded it a $150,000 grant toward the commercialization of its PbC batteries for micro hybrids. PbC batteries are as easy to manufacture as the older lead-acid batteries, but they use activated carbon instead of half the lead and are lighter, 100% recyclable, have a higher charge acceptance and faster recharging rates, all ideal for the micro-hybrid and mild hybrid markets.  AXPW has a 52-week trading range of $0.20-$0.64. It closed Dec. 7 at $0.30, no change on the day.

*Denotes a client of Allen & Caron Inc., publisher of this blog.

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