Electrification effort a long road, according to SAE Congress panel

  • 14-Apr-2011 07:45 EDT

"The introduction of [electric] vehicles into the wider scale hangs on the development of efficient batteries," said Mohamed Alamgir, Research Director, LG Chem Power Inc.

For participants in the “Top 5 Electrification Technologies for 2011” panel at the SAE 2011 World Congress in Detroit, recognition that a shift toward electrification is not simply a welcome change but also a necessity was clearly evident.

“The issue is that we’ve got a petroleum supply that’s going to be outpaced by demand,” said Larry T. Nitz, Executive Director, Hybrid & Electric Powertrain, General Motors Co. “That petroleum supply delivers 96% of the transportation energy that we use on a daily basis. We know that our industry is going to be growing over the next many years and put a big tax on this petroleum supply. Over the next 25 years, just to replace the oil fields that are going out of production, we’re going to have to bring on board oil fields on the order of magnitude of six Saudi Arabias.”

While the recent launches of the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Roadster, in addition to the many other forthcoming electric vehicles, can be viewed as great strides in the automotive electrification effort, panelists also are aware that this is just the beginning.

“Even though this is a very, very significant event, the overall volume is still quite insignificant compared to the total number of vehicles used in the world,” said Mohamed Alamgir, Research Director, LG Chem Power Inc. “The introduction of these vehicles into the wider scale hangs on the development of efficient batteries. The battery is the weak link in this context, and what we have to do in this context is we have to improve the energy and, more importantly, the cost. And also, the robustness of this lithium-ion technology has to be improved.”

Alamgir noted that current Li-ion batteries are limited by cathode capacity, so much work is currently being done with respect to high-energy cathode development that will increase capacity as well as the range. Work is also being done to gain a better understanding of the amount of available power, as well as the management built into the battery systems.

“We cannot really make use of the entire state of charge window open to us because of either they are not stable at high voltage or they are not very stable at low temperatures," Alamgir said. "There are quite a bit of challenges on the battery engineers’ part to resolve this issue.

“The other key item is the optimization of the design and manufacturing, as well as the system components. Currently, we put a lot extra management into the battery without really knowing how these batteries will actually perform in the field. As we get more knowledge of the actual usage in the field, we might be able to tweak this margin, as well as the system optimization that will also enable us to bring about cost reduction.”

In the 20 years that Li-ion batteries have been in production, prices have dropped almost fourteen-fold, and the cost scenario will be further improved due to economies of scale, said Alamgir. “As the volumes go up, the material costs will go down. Currently the volume is very small, so we believe this will be significant in lowering the cost of the batteries."

Electric motors are also expected to undergo a bit of a transformation in coming years as concern over the availability of rare-earth metals grows.

“So far in this industry, the theme has been permanent magnet dominance,” said Jon Lutz, Vice President, Engineering, UQM Technologies Inc. “I think the near-term trend will change that a bit.

"There’s a new dynamic here, and it’s called the cost and availability of rare-earth metals. Concern over those materials has been a catalyst to now begin looking at incorporating or adopting new motor technologies. Induction machines and wound fuel synchronous are two technologies that will find their way into more applications.”

Relative to neodymium and dysprosium used in magnets, Lutz noted, the price of exported raw materials has quadrupled over the past year.

“China monopolizes the technology; they make 99% of the rare-earth materials and it’s their monopoly and their decisions that are driving the price up, so the rest of the world is reacting. Competition is coming, but it’s a long-term process—another five to ten years before these other mines come on line. What’s resulting is uncertainty over the next several years with regard to rare-earth pricing,” Lutz said.

Some of the other near-term technologies discussed include; the eAssist system on the 2012 Buick LaCrosse, which provides a “light level of electrification”; active coaching technologies that educate drivers on how their driving affects fuel efficiency; regenerative braking systems, which squeeze every bit of energy and efficiency out of deceleration. These easy-to-understand technologies can help consumers in the shift to more complex electrification systems.

“We’re in a period today in 2011 of technology in transition,” said GM’s Nitz. “We’re moving from the era of liquid fuels to one where we’re going to consider conservation in a practical and effective way with vehicles like the eAssist Buick Lacrosse, other hybrids on the road now, and those coming in the future through an era of transition that takes us to vehicles like the Chevy Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle, an EV for commuting, and a practical EV for countries like the U.S., Canada, Europe—a balance of distance driving and shorter-distance commuting where we can have EV characteristics for that commuting.”

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