Big investments in lithium batteries

  • 15-Oct-2008 09:33 EDT
Argonne is doing extensive research in both battery and hybrid-electric vehicles in hopes of enhancing energy conservation.

­Hybrids represent a small segment of the auto industry, but electric-­powered vehicles represent a huge growth op­portunity for battery manufacturers. That is prompting global interest from both governments and corporations who want to build a strong market share base.

As automakers scale up their plans to build more hybrids and roll out electric vehicles, there is a flurry of activity in lithium-ion technologies. They­ are expected to replace NiMH (nickel-metal hydride) batteries, though the timetable’s uncertain, according ­to presentations at the 1st International Conference on Advanced Lithium Batteries for Automotive Applications at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

Automakers are bullish on the future of lithium-powered vehicles. Nissan, which has lagged in hybrids, hopes to catch up quickly with electric vehicles—and hybrids.

“We plan to bring new hybrid systems to the U.S. and Japan in 2010; testing started this summer in Japan,” said Shigeru Oishi, Manager of Nissan Motor’s Electric Vehicle Development Department. “Zero-emission electric vehicles will be marketed in the U.S. and Japan in 2010, then globally in 2012.”

Toyota is planning to make batteries a standard offering across its product lines. “By the end of the 2020s, we want to put hybrid technologies in all vehicles from Toyota Corp.,” said Noboru Kikuchi, Vice President of Toyota Research of North America.

Toyota established a new battery research division in June, he added. The formation of new battery operations was a common theme throughout the conference.

Last year, Nissan, NEC, and NEC Tonkin recently teamed up to form Automated Energy Supply Corp., which will invest heavily in battery technology. In Korea, agencies are helping suppliers coordinate their efforts.

“Korea started its main R&D activities on alternate fuel vehicles several years later than other countries, but our technical status is on track because there’s full mobilization of the R&D capabilities of our country,” said Yung Myun Yoo, President of the Korea Automotive Technology Institute.

Earlier this year, Samsung and Bosch formed a joint venture, while SK Energy finished a hybrid battery line that can produce 10,000 packs per year.

China, which made electric power a major part in its promotional activities during the Beijing Olympics, is focusing much of its R&D efforts on phosphate-based lithium cells.

“Development of phosphate technologies for electric vehicles and hybrids is hot and very active in China,” said Jiqiang Wang, a spokesman from China’s Tianjin Institute of Power Source.

These efforts in the Pacific Rim have caught the attention of various American government agencies.

“We can’t have all our batteries coming from overseas,” said Tien Duong, Team Leader for the U.S. Dept. of Energy. “Congress appears very supportive. The budget for storage in 2009 is impressive, and it seems there should be a lot of funding over the next five to 10 years.”

U.S. suppliers are ramping up, focusing on both batteries and system technologies. A123Systems supplies a number of lithium batteries for consumer products and is gearing up for cars. Other startups are also ramping up quickly.

“We were founded in 2004. We’ll go into mass production in 2010,” said Tiason Tan, Program Manager at EnerDel.

While various lithium-based batteries get the attention, it will be quite some time before lithium cells become the norm in cars. NiMH has the low costs of high-volume production, as well as lower material costs.

“Lithium-ion batteries let you pack more kW·h in, but they still cost the customer more per kW·h, said Danilo Santini, Senior Economist at Argonne. “They’re nice batteries, but they don’t beat NiMH on cost per kW·h.”

Toyota has been talking about lithium batteries for quite some time, but it may still be a while before the company makes its changeover. “At this moment, we’ve accumulated so much knowledge in NiMH that simply giving it up might not be a good idea,” Kikuchi said. When the transition occurs, it will probably roll out in phases, which will further extend the NiMH lifetime.

For conventional vehicles, lead-acid batteries will still retain strong market share for years. Even in microhybrids, which turn off instead of idling during stops, lead-acid batteries will suffice for some time, according to a Deutsche Bank study.

Though lithium may be a ways off, its long-term prospects are bright. “We’re not giving up research on NiMH, but we feel in the future it will be better to use lithium or other batteries,” Kikuchi said.

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