Friday, June 26, 2009

Assault on Batteries!

Electric Vehicles (EV) and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) are an emerging technology that could change the way the world fuels personal transportation. At least nine car companies worldwide say that by 2013 they will offer plug-in vehicles (EV or PHEV) that use electric motors as their primary means of propulsion, according to Plug-in (See the list here.)

Electric motors are available to power anything from scooters and golf carts to trains and giant earth movers. But an affordable energy storage system to power them is the problem yet to be solved. Technologically, freeway speed plug-in cars have been possible for a decade (or more); however, an affordable battery pack with a 200+ mile range is still not possible. You could argue (and I would) that most people don't need 200 miles daily; nonetheless that is want most people want.

The crux of a plug-in vehicle is the batteries.

Tesla got around this problem by starting with a high-priced car. ‘The reason we started with a $100,000 sports car is that when technology is new it tends to be expensive,’ says Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal who is the chief executive of and a big investor in Tesla. ‘It just takes time to optimize the right design and work up to economies of scale... Why we didn’t start with a Honda Civic is that it would be a $70,000 to $80,000 Honda Civic.”

Tesla has been given much grief over their choice to make a high-end sports car. However, given the state of the technology, the plan is brilliant. It almost seems obvious now, but it is not what the Big Three were (or are) doing. After the Volt launches, GM plans to have Voltec (volt-tech) in more expensive cars such as the Cadillac Converj and possibly the Chevy Orlando where they can develop the technology with less losses (maybe even profitably).

What will it take to make a long-range high performance battery pack? Innovation. Looking at the chart above and the second chart to the left, you can see that the energy density of batteries has continued to improve over time as breakthroughs big and small are realized. These breakthroughs correspond directly to price since fewer batteries can be used.

There have been breakthroughs in battery chemistry and advances using nano-technology. New materials such as zinc-air batteries or ultra-capacitors are under development that could be the next jump in energy storage performance.

So who is going to deliver the next great battery that makes all this possible? Japan and China both already have strong development efforts in the battery field.

A new foreign dependence?
Opponents of plug-in vehicles claim that moving to batteries just changes who we are dependent upon from Middle Eastern oil to Asian battery manufacturers or Bolivian lithium suppliers. America can become a leading technology developer and manufacturer of batteries.

The USA is not just sitting by idly; 14 American manufacturers and Argonne National Labs created the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture. The founding members of the Alliance include 3M, ActaCell, All Cell Tech, Altair Nano, Dontech Global, EaglePicher, EnerSys, EnviaSystems, FMC, MicroSun Tech, Mobius Power, SiLyte, Superior Graphite, and Townsend Advanced Energy. Additional battery developers and materials suppliers are expected to join the alliance.

Dave Vieau, CEO of lithium battery leader A123 is planning a state-of-the-art 300,000-square-foot battery facility in Michigan, buoyed with $100 million in state tax credits. A123 will soon be equipped to turn out as many as 500,000 battery packs a year. A123 is partnered with Chrysler (if the latter survives) to provide batteries for the ENVI line EVs.

Through its U.S. subsidiary Compact Power, Korea's LG Chem will be building the battery packs for the Chevy Volt. With GM, LG Chem is investing $244 million in production capacity and development. Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions is spending $220 million for a factory that will equip the new Ford plug-in hybrid.

The Michigan legislature passed House Bill 6611 that provides tax credits up to $335 million between 2011 and 2016 to develop high-tech electric car batteries in the state. Governor Jennifer Granholm hopes her state "will become a battery epicenter and draw a piece of an estimated $1 billion in investment from the federal government.”
Indiana is also getting into the game. Its largest city and state capital is home to EnerDel with the only US-owned lithium ion battery plant dedicated to electric vehicle batteries. EnerDel is now scrambling to keep its business plans on track as Th!nk Global struggles.

To help bolster their case, U.S. Senator Evan Bayh spoke at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway proposing "$1.6 billion in federal grants to accelerate growth of America’s advanced hybrid-electric and electric car industry [that] is crucial for American competitiveness in automotive and high-tech manufacturing."

Elsewhere in Indiana, Bright Automotive is designing a 100-mile-per-gallon PHEV light truck with a massive lithium-ion pack. The plan is to have the high-tech truck in production by 2012.

Peak Lithium?
Opponents of plug-in vehicles further claim that we are just trading peak-oil for peak Lithium. There are a few obvious retorts to this assertion. First, unlike oil, Lithium is not consumed. Lithium batteries can be recycled and made into new batteries. Second, batteries can be made from many other things. Zinc-air batteries are currently being used in hearing aids because they are lighter than lithium. If these can be scaled up, they are an excellent material since zinc is cheap and abundant.

What happens next?
While new battery technology continues to evolve, so have the solutions for how to utilize them. AFS Trinity has a creative solution that uses a small, off-the-shelf ultra-capacitor to buffer the battery pack. The ultracap absorbs energy from regenerative breaking and provides much of the power for initial acceleration. This increases the energy output rate and reduces wear and tear on the batteries since much of the cycling is done by the ultracap. AFS claims to be able to get near Li-ion performance with lead-acid batteries in this hybrid storage system. Coupled with Li-ion, such a system could further improve its performance or lifespan. Argonne National Laboratory seems to think there is merit to the idea.

Electrically powered transportation will continue to grow more viable. It won't be easy, battery technology is still expensive. Government incentives will be needed to move this technology into the economy of scale volumes where it can be made affordable. A goal of the Obama administration is to have one million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015. The administration’s stimulus package allocates $2B for advanced batteries, $300M for federal and states new clean fuel vehicle fleet purchases and $7,500 tax rebate for individuals who purchase a plug-in vehicle, with even more money for the Auto Industry Re-tooling Fund.

Innovation can produce the next great car, there is a boom of new car companies including Tesla, Fisker, Aptera, Bright, Miles, Zenn and others that are bringing plug-in cars to market with the batteries that we currently have. Meanwhile, the major auto companies are not ignoring this market; whatever short comings they may have, they know how to bring a mass produced car to market. And all of them are looking to companies like A123, LG Chem, EnerSys, BYD, EEStor and others to tackle the energy storage challenge.
No one has a lock on this future; everything is up for grabs.

Electric cars around the corner
The Race to Plug-In Hybrids Is On


  1. While the race is definitely on to break through to the next level of battery performance, the winner in this race will be everybody. Batteries for EVs will get better and cheaper and so the cars will become more affordable.

    Combine this with a green energy grid and we're really getting somewhere.

  2. IBM's recent breakthrough

  3. Yet another battery technology


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