Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Batteries are included

Original Article

They are used to power laptops, mobile phones and hand tools. Now the car industry is convinced they will be the driving force in a brave new world of cheap, clean fuel. Lithium-ion batteries have been essential to the rise of the mighty notebook computer. They are light and powerful, the ideal combination to give hybrid cars that extra punch.

General Motors is already sold on the idea and believes that lithium-ion batteries are the way ahead.

GM will use the technology in its Flextreme ‘series’ hybrid which is as green as it gets, according to the American company. This ‘plug-in’ concept is now the cornerstone of GM’s development plans.

The GMFl extreme concept car and the Chevrolet Volt are classed as “series” hybrids and their primary energy source is a lithium-ion battery. For the normal commuting run, the battery is plugged into mains electricity to recharge. Once on the road, the battery is ‘topped up’ when the car brakes. With lithium-ion battery technology, it means you can travel to work and back without creating CO2 emissions.

As for performance, a fully-charged GMFI concept car will do around 40 miles before it needs to be plugged in again, which is major drawback for long-distance travel, but ideal for the school run. Under the bonnet, the Flextreme has a fairly regular 1.3-litre turbodiesel engine, similar to the one found in the more mainstream Astra, which GM produces through its subsidiaries Vauxhall and Opel.

According to Autoblog, a car industry website, GM appears to be on the right track. “Under the skin, the Flextreme and Volt are largely the same, save for the engine supplying power to the car’s on-board generator,” Autoblog said. “The Flextreme utilises a 1.3-litre Ecotec turbodiesel instead of the 1-litre 3-cylinder turbo E85/flex-fuel unit featured in the Volt. A lithium-ion battery pack provides the juice for the car’s front-mounted electric motor. Battery-only range on a full charge is 40 miles, and when battery power has been exhausted, the diesel will kick in to start replenishing it.”

The main advantage of using a diesel or a petrol engine to recharge is that electric cars are far more energy efficient. They require less fossil fuel to ‘top up’ the battery as oppose to a ‘plug in’ stop. But the secret behind the stats is the power generated by lithium-ion batteries.

Ric Fulop has been a convert for years. His company A123Systems will help develop the lithium-ion batteries for the Chevy Volt and its other hybrids as well as ‘plug-in’ electric cars. Over the years, Mr Fulop has built his company’s fortunes on manufacturing the batteries for power hand tools. Now he has a bigger dream.

“I think people will be pleasantly surprised when they start driving these vehicles,” Mr Fulop, who has been behind the wheel of countless kinds of hybrids and electric vehicles, said during a panel discussion of future energy sources at SAE International’s World Congress.

Mr Fulop talks about lithium-ion batteries in evangelical terms. “This technology is one of the things that differentiates us from the consumer electronic type of batteries,” the vice president of business development and founder of the American company said on the AutoblogGreen website. “This technology has about ten times better cycle life than the conventional lithium-ion system.

“You probably get about 700 cycles from a conventional cell phone or laptop battery. This system can give you over 7,000 cycles. So significant improvement. In addition to that, our nano-phosphate chemistry has a benefit in terms of safety,” he added. “The fact that you don’t involve oxygen. The cathode when you expose it to elevated temperatures allows you to have a much safer system than the conventional chemistry, which is the reason why people like Black & Decker use this technology . . . it’s safer.”

So far, A123Systems have concentrated on commercial batteries for power tools. Last year it was mass-producing them for 65 different makes. Mass production will be the key in supplying GM. “It’s a lot of collaboration,” he added on AutoblogGreen. “We’ve been working on these programmes for quite a while. Our whole company is geared around delivering. This is a key part of what we’re doing.”

A123Systems is one of the world’s leading suppliers of high-power lithium-ion batteries and employs around 1,000 staff. But the biggest manufacturers are Sony, Sanyo and LG. Sanyo, in fact, yesterday announced that it will link up with the German car maker, Volkswagen, in a joint venture to develop a lithium-ion battery to be used in hybrid and electric cars.

Volkswagen will aim to start importing and using the battery by 2012, the Nikkei financial daily reported. The move comes after Nissan and NEC revealed plans to mass-produce lithium-ion batteries, considered more environmentally friendly than nickel-hydrogen ones.

Sanyo makes nickel-hydrogen batteries that can be recharged repeatedly. The new energy-fuel system will be used by Volkswagen and its subsidiary Audi in the group’s first hybrid model, to be rolled out as early as next year.

But the lithium-ion battery to be jointly developed would be smaller and lighter than the nickel-hydrogen components and this would cut the weight of the car to around 200-300 kilograms (440-660 pounds). The new battery would also allow for better fuel efficiency and acceleration. Sanyo, which has the biggest global share of lithium-ion batteries used in personal computers and mobile phones, plans to invest nearly 100 billion yen (US$973 million, Dh3.57bn) to make and develop them over the next three years.

While GM will be keeping Nissan and Volkswagen in its headlights, the company will be more concerned with Toyota’s move into the market. The world’s biggest car maker is already a street or two ahead of the rest in pioneering petrol-electric hybrids such as the Prius saloon. Toyota has now short-circuited GM’s year-old effort to bring the first ‘plug in’ electric cars to the mass market.

“We welcome competition because that is how new technology is developed for consumers,” the Toyota president, Katsuaki Watanabe, told reporters at the Detroit Motor Show last month. “But we don’t want to lose.” Mr Watanabe announced that Toyota will market a test fleet of rechargeable hybrid vehicles to companies or government agencies by the end of 2010. The company has already begun preparations to build a factory that will produce the next-generation lithium-ion batteries needed for plug-ins and purely electric vehicles.

“Hybrids are a core business for Toyota,” Mr Watanabe said. “That strategy has absolutely not changed.”

His comments were the clearest statement yet from Toyota of its commitment to ‘plug-in’ vehicle technology and amounted to a direct challenge to GM, which won nods of approval when it revealed plans to build its own rechargeable vehicle, the Volt.

But Toyota’s confident and aggressive tone was in contrast to a briefing in Detroit by Bob Lutz, the GM vice chairman and design chief, who has championed the Volt in a move to tempt “green” consumers concerned about global warming and fuel efficiency.

“The end of 2010 is a big stretch,” Mr Lutz said, when asked if the Volt was on track for production in two years. “It means everything has to go right and so far everything has gone right. Right now we are very confident of getting it. But normally, for a programme this complex and with a technology the company has never executed before, you would like to give yourself more time.”

Unlike petrol-electric hybrids, which run on a system that twins battery power and a combustion engine, ‘plug-ins’ are designed for short trips powered entirely by an electric motor and a battery charged through a socket at home.

Environmental groups advocate ‘plug-ins’ as a way to cut fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. A point the head of GM’s North American operations, Troy Clarke, highlighted when he said that the company may launch a ‘plug-in’ version of its Saturn Vue 4x4 in two years. “It could precede the Volt,” said Mr Clarke, adding that the Saturn Vue would run 10 miles on battery power alone.

An official for Ford said its own tests on a ‘plug-in’ car should last several years and are not based on being the first to launch an all-electric vehicle.

“This is not a case where we are being driven by first-to-market [strategy],” Derrick Kuzak, the company’s global product chief, said in Detroit last month.

Still, being “first” will be crucial as well as getting the technology right with the help of the humble lithium-ion battery.

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