Can you feel the electricity? There's a growing consensus that the next generation of automobiles will, to one degree or another, be powered by batteries. The most likely scenario is that a fling with plug-in hybrids will lead to a serious romance and eventually marriage to pure battery electrics. Yes, to make this sustainable we'll have to shift some of our electric grid from its current 50 percent dependence on coal power, but that is an achievable goal.
It may be that the batteries themselves will be harder. The marketplace has arrived at a consensus that the lithium-ion (li-ion) battery is the only real choice for the coming electric cars. But li-ion is also kind of problematic. Sony commercialized lightweight lithium-ion batteries for electronics in 1991; since then, most of us use them every day in laptops, mobile phones and other devices.
The Th!nk City: a 110-mile range.
The great advantage of li-ion (aside from the fact that it's relatively non-toxic) is that it has twice the energy density of, say, nickel-cadmium batteries. But what works great in your relatively coddled cellphone is a challenge in the automotive environment, where the batteries will have to withstand extremes of temperatures and go through really fast charging cycles. Li-ion has also had stability issues -- remember those Sony laptop fires? Well, that company just recalled 100,000 more laptop li-ions because of fire hazards.
I hear that some of the most interesting approaches to li-ion car batteries increase energy storage using the controversial engineering of tiny materials known as nanotechnology.
The li-ion contenders are mostly small companies contracting with automakers. Johnson Controls/Saft has worked on batteries for the Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid. A123 had been a frontrunner to deliver batteries for the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt plug-in, but it now appears that the contract is going to the South Korea-based LG Chem.
A bit of a wild card is Ener1, whose subsidiary EnerDel builds li-ions in a factory in Indiana using technology developed at the Argonne National Labs. "The company's new, highly reliable and safe batteries are designed to be lighter in weight, occupy less space, provide more power, more energy, and have a longer life than the nickel-metal-hydride batteries found in today's hybrid vehicles," Ener1 says. But it would say that, wouldn't it?
Since Korean technology is key here, Ener1 just bought a controlling interest in one of that country's biggest li-ion producers, Enertech International. In announcing the deal, CEO Charles Gassenheimer says he sees a potential market for automotive li-ion batteries at $20 to 30 billion, dwarfing the $7 billion spent annually on consumer electronics.
Charles Gassenheimer: It's the batteries! Courtesy Ener1
I caught up with Gassenheimer as he was taking off for a flight to Miami, where his company operates a fuel cell and nanomaterials division. It's a chicken-and-egg problem right now," he said. "Battery makers can't go out and build plants without volume orders, and car companies can't give those volume orders without knowing the battery guys have the capacity to deliver. The batteries are there -- we have developed an industry-leading technology that does not heat up, that has excellent thermal performance and long life, and will cold-crank at negative 20 to 30 degrees Celsius."
Ener1 has a deal to build batteries for the Th!nk City, a tiny Norwegian battery car already on the market in Europe and due in the U.S. next year. It is to be priced at under $25,000, with a 110-mile range and 95 percent recyclable parts. The City's parent company was at one time owned by Ford (which made an abortive attempt to introduce the cars to the U.S. market, then sold the company in 2003). The Th!nk/Ener1 deal, initially valued at $70 million, with an option for an extension, was the largest li-ion contract when it was announced last year. Gassenheimer says Ener1 has also done R&D work for GM, Ford and Chrysler through the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium. "We're in active discussions with 30 car companies," he said.
Given what he knows about li-ion battery development, could we actually achieve Barack Obama's goal of a million plug-in hybrid cars on American roads by 2015? "Yes, absolutely," Gassenheimer said. "It's viable." He quoted Nissan/Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn as saying his consortium alone will have a complete range of electric vehicles in every large auto market by 2012. "Nissan is a sleeper," he said. "They really know what they're doing in this area."
Writing in the Detroit News September 29, Gassenheimer expressed concern that the U.S. could lose its li-ion battery lead if the country fails to subsidize battery development as, for instance, the Japanese have done. "We need to make sure that whatever strategy Washington adopts to revive the automakers doesn't forget that batteries are the one ingredient most needed for success," he said.
Nevertheless, Gassenheimer is convinced that the revolution has begun. "All the automakers have hybrid electric vehicle programs," he said. "This is not a fad. We're talking about the electrification of the automobile, and this time it's really going to happen. It's all about the batteries, and it's really exciting."
It's either exciting or scary. For the cars to go into showrooms, the batteries have to be dead reliable, as the nickel-metal-hydride batteries in today's hybrids have mostly proven to be. There's a lot riding on the li-ion battery.
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