Tampa, Fla.—Already intense, the global auto industry’s interest in lithium-ion batteries for electrically driven cars came into sharper focus at the largest-ever Advanced Automotive Battery & Ultracapacitor Conference (AABC). Fully 30 percent more people than last year—close to 1000 altogether—registered for this year’s event, held in the pleasant May sun of this Gulf Coast city.
Much has changed since last year’s AABC, in Long Beach, Calif. Several automakers have now committed to dates for using lithium battery packs in vehicles, ranging from Mercedes-Benz’s S400 hybrid, a mild hybrid to go on sale later this year, to the much-vaunted Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle, targeted for November 2010. Japanese makers continue to test and plan for the limited production of small all-electric cars. And while the pace of rollout will be slow, the main question has moved from ”Are the cells safe and reliable?” to ”Will they be affordable for mass production?”
Befitting the global nature of the battery industry, AABC provided simultaneous translation into (and from) Japanese for all presentations. ”I wanted to present in Japanese,” joked Sung-Soo Kim of Samsung SDI, ”but my boss says I must do it in English!”
One well-attended presentation was given by Nobuaki Yoshioka of Automotive Energy Supply Corp. (AESC), a recent joint venture between Japan’s NEC Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., to design and build batteries for electric vehicles. While his talk largely dealt with the company’s current generation of cell, he described in general terms a better-performing cell that AESC plans to introduce in coming years, based on manganese cathodes in very thin sheets that are laminated to form cells. Not only will this cell power small EVs in 2010—for both Japan and export markets—it will also provide the basis for the much-discussed Project Better Place.
This ambitious effort, launched last October by entrepreneur Shai Agassi, aims to provide Israel and Denmark with electric vehicles by 2011. (Why those two countries? Because they have committed to significant tax incentives for pure electric vehicles.) The cars will be built by Renault and powered by AESC’s cells, in leased battery packs that can be ”hot swapped” in just a few minutes at a charging network. In this case, hot-swapping—usually applied to changing electronic components—means removing a battery pack of 100 kilograms or more from the car’s chassis and replacing it with another one while the driver waits. Project Better Place’s goal is for the entire process to take no longer than a full fill-up for a gasoline vehicle. Drivers, meanwhile, will pay based on the distance they travel, even if longer trips require such pack swaps.
In theory, this would permit EV owners unlimited local range without the fear of fully discharging their batteries and having to wait hours for a recharge—not to mention paying thousands of dollars for a replacement pack if theirs goes bad. Many auto engineers are highly skeptical about the technology for swapping a heavy, and most likely structural, battery pack, but Agassi has commitments for US $200 million in funding, so clearly the industry is intrigued by his attempt to shift the paradigm of vehicle operating costs.