The general manager of Saft, Lou Kilmer, describes some of the uses for the high performance batteries that are manufactured and designed by the company. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)
When a Boeing-made satellite launched from French Guiana in early June, it carried a kitchen table-sized battery designed to keep it powered during times when the Sun's rays were blocked by Earth's shadow.
"We'd get a lot of angry phone calls if it stopped working," said Mike Mitchell, a Boeing project manager, about the communications satellite capable of providing homes across the nation with such services as XM Radio and DirecTV. "Once you launch it, you never see it again. It has to work once you put it up there."
While many Americans may not think about how their television or radio programs make it to their home or car, this is the daily burden of engineers and technicians at Saft America, a battery manufacturing and research facility in Cockeysville.
Workers there develop some of the nation's most high-tech batteries for use in satellites, weather balloons, rocket ships, military Humvees, fighter jets and even Formula One race cars. A Saft battery powered NASA's Mars Pathfinder rover for three months in 1997 though it was only expected to run for a week to a month.
The Boeing satellite's battery was designed, produced and tested in a set of nondescript warehouses in an industrial area not far from the Beaver Dam Swim Club, where the company has operated for decades.
"They are an amazing company that people in Maryland don't know about," said Eric D. Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center, which has worked with Saft to develop the most state-of-the-art batteries and remain competitive with other high-tech battery makers.
"These are very unique applications," he said. "These are not your usual consumer batteries made in China at a low cost and high volume. Performance is critical. They have to keep making the batteries better and better."
The Saft facility — with 275 employees including 15 in research and development — is a small piece of Maryland's nearly $20 billion manufacturing industry that employs more than 100,000 people and includes the operations of the aerospace and defense giants Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin. (Company officials declined to disclose sales or what its batteries cost.)
Besides the government and racing syndicates, Saft's customers include defense electronics, aeronautics, systems engineering, medical diagnostics and aircraft engine companies, many of them located in Maryland. That makes the state a good location for Saft to stay and grow, Wachman said.
The company, an affiliate of Total S.A., the $150 billion French-owned oil and gas company that has been investing in sustainable energy, is constantly on the lookout for other customers, both locally and around the world, said Lou Kilmer, the Cockeysville facility's general manager.
For example, he said, if Under Armour founder Kevin Plank decided to commission energy efficient water taxis to service his new Port Covington headquarters, Saft can make him some batteries.
The batteries made at Saft are rechargeable lithium ion, and specialists there are reworking the recipes constantly to get the most and longest lasting power and at the lightest weight without compromising the level of safety essential for use in the water, on the battlefield or in zero gravity, Kilmer said.
Engineers at the company bristle at the talk of cell phones, laptops and hoverboards whose batteries have burst into flames.
"Wouldn't happen," said Dave Reynolds, Saft's director of operations, about any of the 50,000 cells made into batteries there each year — none to power such personal devices.
The Boeing satellite will orbit the earth 25,000 miles away for up to 18 years, and officials can't call AAA for a jump start if the battery died, he said.
Saft workers spend a good deal of time, often months of the year-or-so-long production time, just testing the batteries using various equipment that mimics the vibrations of aircraft and the weightlessness of space, Reynolds said.
Saft currently has more batteries in orbit than any other company, said Reynolds while on a recent tour of the Saft plant for customers and journalists. Wall posters tracking the batteries shows about 30 satellites already in space or about to launch carrying more than five dozen Saft batteries.
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The batteries are far more powerful than the 12-volt lead-acid batteries used in most cars. They work by allowing ions to pass between positive electrodes (cathodes) and negative electrodes (anodes) as the battery charges and discharges energy through an electrolyte that serves as a conductor. Sheets with the cathodes and anodes are rolled with separators into canisters that resemble metal hair spray bottles.
They are grouped, from two to 192 cells, to make batteries for different needs — such as giving a Ferrari race car an extra boost of acceleration coming out of a curve or to overtake another car.
"They are a great specialty designer and real technology asset in Maryland," said Aris Melissaratos, who worked with Saft as a vice president at Westinghouse Electronic Corp. and later as the state's chief economic development officer in the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"Batteries are always a challenging," said Melissaratos, an engineer by training and now dean of the Stevenson University Brown School of Business & Leadership. "But battery technology is extremely important. You can't do anything high tech without an energy source. They are a real jewel in our high tech crown."