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Building better batteries

Obtaining and developing the right sources of energy is key, but there’s plenty of scope to improve its storage too. Giles Crosse looks at how new technology could impact on the cars we will drive in the future.

Electric vehicles are gaining more and more importance, as rising prices on oil and emissions standards seek to change the way we travel.

These trends are fuelling ever-increasing interest in energy storage technologies, and this is attracting an increasing number of competitors to an already-crowded market. Soon, some commentators are suggesting it will be impossible for all of these companies to survive, making strong partnerships a necessity.

Reporting on potential areas where firms might team up, on July 12 Lux Research ranked technology developers in both Li-ion batteries and supercapacitors, to help determine which will make the strongest potential partners as the electric vehicle market matures.

“The electric vehicle value chain is growing so integrated that battery makers must have strong partnerships with one or more automakers,” said Kevin See, a Lux Analyst and the report’s lead author. “These relationships are necessary to build credibility and drive new business, as illustrated by Li-ion battery-maker LG Chem, whose strong partnerships propelled it to the top position in our rankings.”

Key report findings on batteries

• LG Chem Power leads the Li-ion battery-maker pack. LG Chemical subsidiary LG Chem Power sits atop the rankings, with strong technical value, due to its high energy lithium-manganese-spinel-based cells and strong cycle life, at costs that are among the most competitive in the market. Its multitude of supply partnerships with the likes of GM, Eaton, and Ford, however, are what justify the company’s strong business execution score.

• A123 and Ener1 garner more headlines than momentum. Media darlings A123 and Ener1 land well out of the Dominant quadrant of the Lux Innovation Grid. Motivated by the potential for major automotive supply deals, both were originally building significant manufacturing capacity. But despite a few minor partnerships, neither has scored a major deal that will drive significant revenue.

• Among supercapacitor suppliers, Maxwell stands alone and leads the rankings for supercapacitors. Its high score for technical value derives from cost competitiveness and strong device performance, while its high business execution score stems from multiple partnerships, among them, supply deals for applications including hybrid buses and micro-hybrids, and more recently in starter modules for commercial diesel vehicles.

To assess the partnership potential of energy storage developers targeting the electric vehicle market, Lux assigned scores for each company’s technical value, business execution, and maturity. Based on these scores, analysts plotted each company’s relative potential on the Lux Innovation Grid, which comprises four quadrants: Dominant, High-Potential, Long-Shot, and Undistinguished.

Making “in-roads” for electric vehicles

The Lux findings come as Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) selected AeroVironment to transform Interstate 5 and US 2 into the premier interstates of the 21st century, serving the latest generation of electric cars, on 18 July.

Under the plans, AeroVironment will manufacture, supply, install and operate a network of nine fast-charging stations for electric vehicles. Stations will be located every 40- 60 miles along stretches of I-5 between the Canadian border and Everett and between Olympia and the Oregon border, as well as along US 2 between Everett and Leavenworth.

“A network of charging stations linking Washington to Oregon and Canada will make electric vehicles more attractive to consumers and businesses, and transportation better for the environment,” said Paula Hammond, Washington secretary of transportation.

The fast-charging stations should be operational by 30 November, and should power an electric vehicle from zero to fully-charged in less than 30 minutes. Each station also will include a Level 2 “medium speed” charging station, which will cost less for users and take up to four to six hours for a full charge. The stations will be located at private retail locations such as shopping malls, fuelling stations and travel centres with easy access to the highway.

In the area between Everett and Olympia, additional charging stations will be installed through a federal programme, The EV Project, administrated by the US Department of Energy. “As the leading hydroelectric power producer in the United States, Washington state is ideally suited to support emissions free electric vehicles,” said Mike Bissonette, AeroVironment’s senior vice president and general manager of Efficient Energy Systems.

“Electrifying I-5 is not just a vision about a cleaner future, it’s about American jobs and building the economy today. We’re working with Washington to turn that vision into reality.” Washington’s electric highway infrastructure is a key component of a future West Coast Green Highway. When complete, it will extend a seamless network of recharging stations along all 1350 miles of I-5 from Canada to Mexico, serving more than 2m electric vehicles that market analysts say will be sold in Washington, Oregon and California in the next decade.

Other key technical issues

Of course, there are many other key technical elements involved in the rush to bring disruptive electric vehicles to market. Kevin See described the future:
“Besides Li-ion and supercapacitors, which were the focus of the report, advanced lead acid batteries stand to grow quickly based on applications in micro-hybrids, for features such as idle start-stop and regenerative braking, as well as e-bikes.

“Outside of energy storage there is increasing interest in power electronics that can improve the efficiency of energy transfer from the battery to the wheels. This includes inverters, as well as motors.”

Nonetheless, without seeming overly negative, surely lack of charging points remains the key stalling point for this tech, not batteries, as evidenced by recent moves in Washington?

“While the lack of charging infrastructure certainly affects demand, we believe the key issue is the substantial premium that the consumer must pay compared to similarly equipped gas-powered vehicles,” suggests See.

“Battery cost is the crucial factor, and issues like limited range and infrastructure definitely hurt but are secondary. With internal combustion powered vehicles constantly improving fuel efficiency and micro-hybrids emerging that further save fuel, the cost/performance comparison creates a tough atmosphere for electric vehicles.

“There is substantial investment globally from governments, including US$5bn from the US DOE, and China aiming to invest US$15bn,” See continues. “South Korea recently rolled out its Battery 2020 Project, which seeks to invest US$12bn in battery technologies with the aim of becoming the global leader in advanced battery technology and manufacturing.

“This money is flowing to various activities including research as well as manufacturing. With this support, the potential for disruptive improvements in Li-ion technology or next-generation storage technologies becomes more likely.”

One of the main challenges facing electric vehicles is that they’ve inherently been seen as more suited to short journeys within urban complexes. Is this true, and what might be done to mitigate this?

“If you mean full electric vehicles powered solely by batteries, than yes the limited range lends itself to shorter journeys,” agrees See. “Plug in hybrid vehicles like the Chevy Volt have significantly more range because they also allow the use of gasoline to extend range. All electrics also see some traction in commercial vehicles, where there are known, consistent routes and frequent starting and stopping which can typically consume a lot of fuel. That said, the payback period remains high for these applications but the driving factors could enhance the value proposition there.

“As discussed, cost is a major issue but you hit on other key ones,” he continues. “Cycle life is crucial to extending the lifetime of the battery, and safety is a major issue because Li-ion batteries of this size could do considerable damage because of the amount of energy stored and the reactive nature of typical components.”

Other interesting questions touch on issues surrounding end-of-life or recyclability for batteries? How are these being addressed?
“There is definitely activity here as automakers have pursued Joint Ventures, such as Nissan and Sumitomo, or GM and ABB, to recycle batteries for other uses including grid applications to bring down costs. We focus on Li-ion batteries and supercapacitors in this report. Certainly some of the battery companies are involved in other applications like grid storage; our focus in the report is for transportation.”

Finally, which actual car manufacturers are taking the lead, and why? And what true potential is there for real world rollouts?
“In terms of production, Nissan is extremely aggressive but one question is whether that is a good thing. We project the market for all electric vehicles to be more limited compared to more incremental methods of electrification like micro-hybrids and hybrids,” concludes See.

There are plenty of other cities, like Amsterdam, which are investing in charging points and electric futures through a subsidy scheme, which will reimburse businesses in Amsterdam for up to 50% of the additional cost of purchasing an electric vehicle. It does seem likely that something of an electric revolution really is just around the corner.

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