10 January 2007

2007 – Year of the electric car

Cosmos Online
Breakthroughs in battery technology could make 2007 the year that electric cars finally come into their own.
2007 – Year of the electric car

Breakthroughs in lithium ion battery technology give Phoenix Motorcars' new SUT a range of more than 200 km and a top speed of 152 km/h. Credit: Phoenix Motorcars

I opened my spiral notebook, slid it over to Alan Gotcher and handed him my pen. I wanted Gotcher, the CEO and President of the nanotechnology company Altairnano, to explain to me why his company’s battery was different from – and better than – other lithium batteries.

We were sitting in an Irish pub two blocks from Washington, DC’s Union Station. While we sipped our Irish brews and waited for dinner to arrive, Gotcher sketched onto my notepad a pair of diagrams: one, a conventional lithium-ion battery cell and the other, an Altairnano cell. They looked nearly identical, with the exception that Gotcher had left something called the SEI (separator electrode interface) out of the Altairnano cell. But this one small change makes a world of difference.

A conventional lithium ion battery consists of the following layers: an aluminum electrode current collector, a graphite anode, the SEI layer (a layer soaked in lithium salts that acts as the electrolyte to facilitate ion exchange), the cathode and a copper cathode collector.

Gotcher explained to me that the SEI layer is used to keep the lithium from reacting with the graphite anode, but that it also adds a resistive element to the cell, reducing its efficiency. His company’s unusual nano-titanite-based anode doesn’t need the SEI layer because it doesn’t react with the lithium. Instead, its extreme porosity allows the absorption of many more lithium ions, which dramatically improves the storage capability of the battery.

The company claims that their battery shows a cycle life in excess of 20,000 charges and discharges while still retaining 85 per cent of its capacity to store energy. If proven, this would be a revolutionary breakthrough, especially since Altairnano also claims their battery can be recharged not in hours, but in less than 10 minutes.

By way of comparison, the typical lithium battery takes from two to six hours to recharge, its power density is less than 1,000 watts per kilogram (w/kg), and it operates over a temperature range of 0°C to 40°C. In contrast, Altairnano’s data show that their battery has a power density of 4,000 w/kg and the ability to safely operate from -50° C to 75° C. But just how safe is “safe”?

To answer this question, Gotcher gave me a description of the various tests to which the company subjected the battery: short circuit, forced discharge, over charge, over discharge, nail puncture, crush, over temperature, and a drop test. The battery survived all these trials without any smoke or fire.

Just as I was beginning to grasp the exciting potential of Altairnano’s technology (performance and safety in a battery could be the combination of features that gives the electric car a much-needed commercial nudge) our dinners arrived. While I stabbed at a salad topped with strips of chicken breast and Gotcher dove into his fish and chips, he explained that his company is providing the batteries for Phoenix Motorcars’ sport utility truck (SUT).

Equipped with a 35kWh, 386-volt battery pack, the converted, Korean-built four-door utility will have a range of 217 km, a top speed of 152 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of under 10 seconds. Gotcher explained that it will be fully highway capable and as such qualifies as a Zero Emission, Type 3 vehicle by California EPA definition. Gotcher glanced at me to see if I understood the significance of that fact. I didn’t, so he patiently elaborated.

The EPA definition is worth big money to carmakers. Under the terms of the California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, each all-electric, fast-rechargeable, zero emission vehicle (‘type 3′ vehicle) qualifies for 40 ZEV credits. As Gotcher explained it to me, beginning in 2005 the carmakers that sell the most cars in California are under obligation to sell so many ZEVs each. If they don’t, they are penalised for every missing ZEV credit. Each credit is worth US$5,000 (about AU$6,500), so a type 3 vehicle is worth US$200,000 (about AU$260,000) in California. Carmakers either have to build their own type 3 vehicles or buy them from another manufacturer – such as Phoenix Motorcars, which plans to sell the SUT initially for around US$45,000 (AU$58,000).

But aren’t the big carmakers meeting their California ZEV obligations with their hydrogen fuel cell vehicle programs? According to a Toyota executive I spoke with, they are for now, but in the not too distant future the number of fuel cell vehicles they would have to build is daunting.

Toyota has some nine fuel cell cars in California at the moment, each of which cost about US$1 million to produce. While Toyota is in a better position in California than other carmakers because of its RAV4 (a small 4WD) EV fleet, the carmaker would still have to produce 150 fuel cell cars to meet its ZEV obligations. This constitutes an outlay it simply doesn’t want to make, now that the company realises that the technology is at least 10 to 15 years away from commercialisation.

On the other hand, the executive told me that General Motors would have to build 1,500 fuel cell vehicles if the terms of the mandate remain unchanged. You can do the maths on that one.

So, at US$45,000 a vehicle, Phoenix’s battery-powered SUT would be an incredible bargain for carmakers who decided to bet on hydrogen fuel cell technology instead of batteries way back in 1998.

Now I understand the twinkle I saw in Gotcher’s eye. With his battery in an attractive, capable ute that will start deliveries in 2007, he must feel he’s got the world by the exhaust-pipe. But he’s not the only one. In fact, 2007 is likely to go down in history as the year the electric car battery finally became a reality.

Secretive Austin, Texas-based EEStor is expected to unveil their battery in early 2007, which is thought to offer a quantum leap forward in cycle life. It too is likely to have a high power to weight ratio and rapid recharge time, but since the company has been playing its cards very close to its chest, we’ll have to wait and see what actually materialises.

Computer and lithium ion battery maker Electrovaya, based in Toronto, Canada, continues to pursue various electric vehicle projects, the most recent being an all-electric delivery van. Also in California, Tesla Motors has booked 250 pre-orders for its all-electric, lithium-ion powered Roadster, and it’s now talking about selling its battery packs to other car makers.

And, of course, there are other U.S. players such as Valence, Cobasys, Electro Energy, Firefly, the Johnson Controls-SAFT alliance, as well as a bevy of Asian manufacturers from Hong Kong to Tokyo to Seoul, any of which could play a significant role in the emerging hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric car markets.

Yes, 2007 is looking very promising, indeed.

William Moore is editor of EV World, in which this article first appeared.

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