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EuroAuto: Lithium-ion: Here At Last?

It has been a long time coming, and it looks like there is a whole lot of energy behind bringing the battery technology to the automotive market.

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have become a hot topic. After years of being the almost-ready technology-as far as automotive applications are concerned anyway-they are now on the verge of being brought on board vehicles on a massive scale. The main advantage they offer over conventional nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) ones are compact dimensions and superior performance and while they have been a stable diet for the electronics and cell phone industries since Sony commercialized the technology in 1991, when it comes to vehicles, there has always been the worry that they are too unstable. Not only are they very sensitive to temperature change, they are also very fragile and need a protection circuit to maintain safe operation. However, they are seen as one of the most important technologies for the use of electric motors in vehicles.

Over the last few years there have been a number of concept cars displaying Li-ion battery technology. The Volvo 3CC-Environmental Concept Car-made quite an impression when it was taken to the 6th Michelin Challenge Bibendum in Shanghai in 2004 where it was a gold star winner. A concept developed by the Volvo's Monitoring and Concept Center think-tank in California, it was fitted with 3,000 small Li-ion cells that provided between 330 and 420 volts at up to 250 amperes, or the equivalent of 105 horsepower. As Ichiro Sugioka, project leader, stated during the time the car was being taken around various shows, it was not the ideal solution but there was nothing smaller available. However, it showed what could be achieved with what was available at the time-and that was only four short years ago. Not resting on its laurels, though, Volvo has become involved in another plug-in hybrid vehicle research project in Europe with fellow Swedish manufacturer Saab. Key to the program is ETC Battery, which is developing the Li-ion battery technology, Vattenfall, the battery chargers, and Fuel Cells Sweden. The project calls for 10 hybrids being constructed over the next 12 months and tested on the public road with a view to evaluating the batteries and refining the simulation software. Although Saab and Volvo have little to say publicly about the project, a grant application to the Swedish National Energy Agency, which is providing half the $10-million funding, states the goal is "to demonstrate what a simple, marketable, full solution for plug-in hybrids would look like" and to create a Swedish market for plug-in hybrids.

It was three years ago that Toyota announced that it was developing lithium-ion battery technology believing that this was a way of keeping costs under control as it strove to meet its targets of selling more than a million hybrids every year. The goal was to halve the cost difference of hybrids in as short a timeframe as possible, something that was impossible to achieve with the NiMH batteries that continue to be used under the hood of the Toyota Prius. The Japanese carmaker has since developed the Vitz CVT4 for its home market only in which the air conditioner, lights, heater and radio are powered by a Li-ion battery pack which allows the engine to switch off when idling. The late Dave Hermance, who was Toyota's executive engineer of environmental engineering at the time of the announcement, stated, "We are going to need new better technology if we are going to make this great leap forward."

Other manufacturers that have made a public showing of their Li-ion battery technology thinking include General Motors with the Chevrolet Volt and its revolutionary E-Flex propulsion system, Nissan with both the Mixim and the Denki Cube, and Subaru, with its Stella model. While all have expressed intentions to take such vehicles to production, it is Mercedes-Benz that is leading the way.

Earlier this year, Mercedes announced that it was on the verge of a breakthrough in lithium-ion battery technology that it claimed would enable it to be the first manufacturer to bring the technology into mainstream automotive applications, the S400 BlueHYBRID, which is due to be launched next year, featuring it as part of its climate control system. One of the principal benefits of this is that with the optimal system temperatures being between 15°C and 35°C, the battery's life is extended. The main benefit, according to Mercedes, is that the average fuel economy will be around 30 mpg, nearly double the 16 mpg combined rating of the V8-powered S550 and yet the power is rated at 299 hp and 375 Nm of torque, allowing a 0-62 mph acceleration time of 7.3 seconds while it can reach a regulated top speed of 155 mph.

All this lithium-ion battery activity is causing quite a ripple effect in the supply chain. Germany's Robert Bosch and Samsung SDI of Korea have announced that they are forming SB LiMotive, a 50:50 joint venture headquartered in South Korea that will manufacture automotive Li-ion batteries. With Bosch projecting the sales of electric and hybrid vehicles being around three million cars, or around 3% of total vehicle sales in 2015, they are gearing up to service this expanding market with the start of production scheduled for 2011. According to Dr. Menahem Anderman, president of Advanced Automotive Batteries, basing a forecast on his work with automotive OEMs, battery manufacturers and materials suppliers, stated at a conference in Florida in May that the lithium-ion market could be worth $337-million in 2012. However, it will then see a fivefold increase to be worth $1.6-billion in 2015 with hybrid applications accounting for 78% or $1.26-billion of it. From an original $20-million investment, the joint venture will be in receipt of around $400-million over the next three to four years. Samsung has also publicly stated that it sees the sales in re-chargeable batteries, that includes lithium-ion ones, to account for more than 20% of its battery sales by the end of the year, up from 18% last year.

Lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems has recently filed to go public in which it expects to raise $175-million, despite posting losses, having already raised $132-million from a list of blue chip companies including General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Motorola, Qualcomm, FA Technology Ventures, OnPoint, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its list of vehicle partners includes General Motors and Think Global, which involves supplying batteries for 11 different vehicle powertrain systems. It is also supplying British Aerospace with its batteries for the Hybridrive propulsion system being used in the Orion VII hybrid electric buses that are being trialled in various cities around the world. Such is the bullishness associated with the growing automotive market for lithium-ion batteries that the company has even been valued at more than $1 billion. 

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