Going the Distance: Is the Super Battery a Reality for Next-Generation Autos?

“Battery power has greater potential to positively alter the future of American competitiveness – and American freedom – than any other technology in the 21st century.” That’s what David Benjamin of Design News recently wrote in his article: “Superbattery: The Next Great Triumph of Engineering.”

The promises of the super battery (also known as the lithium-ion battery) for use in electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrids, and hybrids are enormous – more jobs, decreased oil dependency, and a cleaner environment.

Here are a few of the economic and environmental promises of the super battery from the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

  • As of August 2011, 54,000 new jobs were created in the electric vehicle industry in the U.S.
  • The average American could save $1,400 annually with an electric car
  • Plug-in hybrids could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent

“If all of our cars and light trucks ran on electricity, we could cut American oil consumption by more than a third—roughly 7.2 million barrels of oil a day,” says Eric Isaacs, director at Argonne National Laboratory.

According to a Roland Berger Strategy Consultants study, there are over a hundred companies worldwide in the electric-car market today, with projected growth of $9 billion by 2015. By then, the study predicts, there will be 2.5 million hybrids, 300,000 plug-in hybrids, and 500,000 electric vehicles produced yearly.

The study also notes that companies AESC, LG Chem, Panasonic/Sanyo, A123 and SB LiMotive are expected to be the top producers, with a market share of almost 80 percent by 2015.

A123 Systems, mentioned in the Roland Berger list, is a developer and manufacturer of Nanophosphate lithium-ion batteries and systems and one of the top five global electric vehicle battery manufacturers.

Headquartered in Massachusetts, the company has factories in China and Korea, and recently hired its 1000th worker at its new stimulus-backed manufacturing plant in Michigan. A123 supplies the batteries for the new BMW ActiveHybrid 3 and ActiveHybrid 5 hybrid electric vehicles, which were on display at the 2012 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit.

In January 2012, the U.S. announced that it intends to open a new advanced battery research center later this year for the purpose of “making batteries that last longer, go farther, and cost less.” And the government has already funded 48 battery and electric drive projects as part of the American Recovery and Investment Act, 30 of which were manufacturing plants for battery and electric vehicle components.

While the future of the super battery looks promising, there are still significant market challenges. Popular Mechanics automotive editor Larry Webster shares his thoughts on this:

“When the Volt came out we heard that a lithium-ion battery cost about $1000 per kilowatt hour, making the battery (16 kwh) alone $16,000. The Volt is a normal car that has several thousand dollars worth of battery on board. The total cost (around $40,000) is why it’s not selling so well. Gas is still pretty cheap, so only those with an eco-mindset will spend the extra money.”

Projections say that the cost of the battery will drop – anywhere from a third to half of its current cost within 3-10 years.

With the super battery, there is the typical engineering challenge of doing more, in less space, for less cost. Engineers are looking for ways to power a car for more than the average 30 miles provided by today’s batteries. They are also working on issues such as higher voltage chargers, temperature tolerances, battery degradation, cooling, safety, and casing size, to name a few.

New advances are being made every day, such as IBM’s recent announcement of a lithium air battery that can power a vehicle 500 miles, which promises to be on the market by 2020.

With breakthroughs like this, along with government backing and grandiose promises, this is certainly an exciting market to watch.

Do you think there’s a future for the super battery?

About Nancy Langmeyer

Nancy is a freelance writer and marketing consultant. She works with some of the largest technology companies in the world and is a frequent blogger. You'll see some under her name...and then there are others that you won't see. These are ones where Nancy interviews marketing executives and leaders and turns their insights into thought leadership pieces..
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