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Electrovaya: all charged up to start making electric car batteries in Mississauga

When Gitanjali Dasgupta was a little girl, she remembers her father's passion for his work when she visited his lab for Take Your Daughter to Work Day. And she also remembers how much her father, Sankar Das Gupta, now chairman and CEO of Mississauga-based Electrovaya, disliked the smell and toxicity of chemicals when he worked for an environmental cleanup business that removed heavy metals from water for the mining industry. He wanted to find a cleaner way of doing things.

Years later, when her father and the co-founder of Electrovaya, Jim Jacobs, were trying to commercialize their clean-tech battery research, Dasgputa found herself back at her father's workplace. All grown up, with a master's degree in economics from Oxford University, she helped grow the business while her father and Jacobs navigated the patents for their lithium-ion battery technology through the approval process. Electrovaya now has more than 150 patents.

"I never thought I'd be working for my dad," says Gitanjali Dasgupta, who now heads Electrovaya's electric vehicles division. As Ontario (and the rest of North America) finally embraces plug-in electric vehicles in a committed way, the company has been able to build on the battery research Sankar Das Gupta and Jacobs, an electro chemist and a solid-state physicist respectively, started back in the early 1980s. Launching with a two-person operation on Hanna Avenue in Liberty Village "way before it was chi chi," says Gitanjali Dasgupta, they've grown to a staff of almost 100 people.

In the race to bring electric cars into the mainstream, it's all about the batteries. Just like computer chip makers, battery makers are driven to put more power into cells that are smaller and lighter than their predecessors. Electrovaya and their competitors are finally seeing the results of automobile manufacturers' newfound appetite for greener vehicles. The company's first quarter results in 2011 show revenue up by 143 percent to $2.2 million, with profits up by 335 percent. Consumers first got their first look at Chrysler's Ram truck Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV), equipped with Electrovaya's 12 kWh lithium-ion SuperPolymer battery system, at a Washington, D.C. auto show this winter. Electrovaya announced in January they would soon be supplying another (as yet unnamed) major U.S. auto manufacturer with e-car batteries.

"The Ram truck is a workhorse. People who drive that vehicle demand a lot from it. It's considered a gas guzzler but the hybrid will deliver 65 percent fuel savings," says Gitanjali Dasgupta.

After an early career spent working with nasty chemicals, the company's founders wanted to make sure their manufacturing process was as clean as possible -- zero emissions, non-solvent and non-toxic, which is one of their key selling points, along with the high energy density of their batteries.

"It's a platform innovation, which means it's not the material or a secret sauce, it's how the cell is structured," says Gitanjali Dasgupta. "So when you think that there's about $1 billion globally spent in new materials research, our nano-structure innovations could be applicable across a lot of other products." That includes electricity storage for smart power grids, so excess electricity generated from, say, wind or solar power can be effectively stored until it is needed by consumers.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, electric vehicles held the world land speed records. But gasoline-powered vehicles became the dominant form of transportation, condemning the electric-car industry to the hinterland. But with pressure coming from both the gas pumps (in the form of rising gas prices) and governments (in the form of commitments to fight climate change and reduce air pollution), almost all the major automobile manufacturers are expected to release new plug-in electric or hybrid vehicles in the North American market over the next two years.

"A change like this happens so rarely, especially in the automotive industry," says Gitanjali Dasgupta. "It's exciting to see it happening."

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based freelance writer who lives in the emerging Brockton Triangle neighbourhood.

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