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The battery bottleneck

The battery bottleneck

Electric vehicle (EV) batteries need considerable improvement in terms of energy storage capacity, size, weight, and cost. [And] the rapidly developing and evolving market for EVs is boosting demand for new battery technologies … causing a potential bottleneck in battery supply.” –Robert Outram, global program manager for transportation chemicals, Frost & Sullivan

Whether we’re talking about all-electric vehicles (EVs) or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), they both require large battery capacity to operate. Indeed, for these vehicles to truly make a positive connection with both consumers and commercial fleets, batteries that are lightweight, last a long time, and deliver long range in excess of 100 miles per charge will be critical.

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Yet this is exactly where a big logjam may be developing – in terms of the pace of battery technology improvements as well as supply – which could hinder the big expectations for sales of EVs and PHEVs.

Take the projections from Pike Research, for example, which projects worldwide adoption of PHEVs and EVs should grow quickly over the next five years, with sales totaling 3.2 million vehicles between 2010 and 2015 – resulting in a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 106%.

“EVs will follow the lead of hybrids and will be launched in the small car segment for consumer markets initially, with the small SUV [sport utility vehicle] segment close behind,” said Dave Hurst, a senior analyst with Pike.

“Because of their low weight and good aerodynamics, smaller vehicles are far more efficient to better extend the electrically powered driving range, and the smaller vehicle segments also allow the use of a smaller, less expensive battery,” he noted.

[Here, Nancy Gioia, director of global electrification for Ford Motor Co. gives an OEMs view of the potential global EV and PHEV market down the road.]

Hurst added that China is expected to be the largest market for electric vehicles, with more than 888,000 PHEVs and EVs sold by 2015, representing 27% of worldwide sales. Yet he also forecasts that the U.S. will be close behind with 841,000 vehicles sold, or 26% of the global market.

However, those numbers might be problematic if battery capability and supply can’t keep up. Robert Outram, global program manager for transportation chemicals for research firm Frost & Sullivan, noted in recent analysis that the rapid expansion of the EV industry developed, after decades of slow development, is causing a potential bottleneck in battery supply.

“All the major automotive manufacturers are developing EVs – considered the next generation of vehicles and a means for OEMs to differentiate themselves to stay ahead of the competition,” he explained. “Escalating oil prices and environmental concerns are driving governments to grant incentives and encourage zero emission vehicles, further endorsing the importance of EVs and stepping-up the demand for EV batteries.”

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Outram said lithium-ion batteries currently offer the best potential in terms of a lightweight design providing long life and long distance per charge, with expectations that demand for this type of battery will result in a CAGR of 125% from 2010 to 2016.

Yet only a few of what Outram dubs “market participants” can readily supply the components that go into making lithium-ion batteries, such as separators, anodes, cathodes, electrolytes as well as binders and casings, with beefy enough suppliers particularly in short supply in Europe.

That could potential cause a bottleneck for the entire EV batteries market, he said.

“Chemical and battery companies have failed to keep pace with the development of vehicles as electric vehicles have been promised for many years,” Outram said. “Up until recently the market has failed to materialize causing chemical companies to develop a ‘wait and see’ attitude toward battery material development.”

Now, with the market finally taking off, very few companies are in a position to capitalize on the opportunities, he believes. “EV batteries need also considerable improvement in terms of energy storage capacity, size, weight, and cost,” Outram stressed.

The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is taking a step in that direction after receiving a contract from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) for $1.2 million to develop advanced anode materials for lithium-ion batteries – one of several such awards from the LBNL’s Batteries for Advanced Transportation Technologies (BATT) program.

SwRI said its lithium-ion project is scheduled to begin in January 2011 and should be completed by December 2014. “The objective of this project is to investigate how silicon clathrates can be used to improve the performance of lithium batteries,” said Dr. Kwai Chan, the project manager for SwRI’s four-year effort. “The primary application for the technology is electric, hybrid electric and plug-in hybrid electric automobiles.”

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Currently, he said most lithium-ion batteries have a 10-year life expectancy and a range of 10 miles between charges. Thus the goal of the DOE’s lithium-ion research effort is to quadruple the range and double the energy density of these batteries within the next four years while extending the battery life to greater than 10 years.

“Silicon clathrate is a form of silicon with a cage structure that researchers believe can be used to store lithium at the battery anode, and the clathrate’s soccer-ball-like structure would trap the lithium ions in a compact space, thereby providing a higher energy density and longer battery life,” noted SwRI’s Dr. Michael Miller, who is also on the project team.

OEMs are pushing forward on their own, as well. Ford, for example, is deploying heated and cooled liquid lithium-ion batteries for increased life and range for its Ford Focus Electric, which rolls out in the U.S. late next year and in Europe in 2012.

The automaker said thermal management of lithium-ion battery systems is critical to the success of all-electric vehicles because extreme temperatures can affect performance, reliability, safety and durability – and that’s why Ford chose to use an active liquid-cooling and heating system to regulate the temperature of its lithium-ion battery packs, noted Sherif Marakby, director of Ford’s electrification program and engineering

“All-electric vehicles do not have a conventional engine on board, so it is critical we maximize the performance of the battery under various operating temperatures,” said Marakby. “Active liquid systems are more effective than air systems at regulating lithium-ion battery temperature.”

The active liquid cooling and heating system also enables the Focus Electric to automatically precondition the battery pack temperature during daily recharging, Marakby added.

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On hot days, chilled water absorbs heat from the batteries, dispersing it through a radiator before pumping it through the chiller again. On cold days, heated water warms the batteries, gradually bringing the system's temperature to a level that allows it to efficiently accept charge energy and provide enough discharge power for expected vehicle performance, noted Anand Sankaran, Ford’s executive technical leader for energy storage and HV systems.

"Extreme temperatures impact a battery's life and performance, making it crucial to have an effective cooling and heating system to regulate temperature for these demanding applications," Sankaran added.

Delivering battery systems like what’s powering Ford’s EV on a mass scale with consistent quality is what’ll be the real truck here, I think – and that’s but one of the critical factors that’ll make or break the acceptance of EVs by the consumers and commercial fleets alike.