Bob Stempel
With the market for battery electric vehicles slow to develop, ECD has turned its attention to exploiting its knowledge of hydrid materials to create devices that will help propel a hydrogen-based economy and hydrogen-powered cars.

ECD Sees Hydrogen Future Ahead

An Interview with Bob Stempel, President & CEO, Energy Conversion Devices

By EV World

June 2000 -- When Texaco invested more than $60 million dollars in Energy Conversion Devices (not the $123 million I refer to in the introduction to the audio version of my interview with Bob Stempel), it marked a sort of coming-of-age for the little Troy, Michigan-based R&D firm who has long championed the use of nickel metal hydride batteries in electric vehicles.

But it wasn't for its advanced battery technology (ECD owns the global patent rights to all advanced NiMH battery technology, as well as other cutting-edge technologies) that the giant American oil company was investing in. It is ECD's (stock symbol:ENER) promising new hydrogen storage technology that got the attention of the folks at Texaco.

Why? Because it offers a potential breakthrough in the onboard storage of gaseous hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe and one of the hardest to contain, a breakthrough that could speed the introduction of simple, low-cost, direct hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

So, when Dick Thompson, the former public relations manager for GM's ATV Center, now "semi-retired" and working part-time for his "old friend" Bob Stempel, himself the former head of General Motors Corporation, offered to help arrange an interview with Bob, I jumped at the opportunity.

The EVolution To Hybrids

When I first interviewed Bob Stempel two years ago, it seemed only a matter of time before we'd see the widespread use of battery electric cars. All of the major car companies, and many of the smaller one had already introduced EVs. GM had the EV1, Honda, its EV+, Ford had its Ranger, Chrysler its EPIC minivan, Toyota its RAV4 and Nissan its Altra, all of them reasonably well performing vehicles that were certainly a cut above all previous technology.

But just a few months prior to my first interview, Toyota had introduced the Prius hybrid-electric car in Japan (now available for sale in North America). That vehicle would eventually alter the evolution of advanced automotive research away from pure battery electric cars to cars that use both an internal combustion engine and an electric-drive system.

Stempel now agrees that hybrid-electric vehicles appear to be the direction the industry is taking.

"I think what's happened is once we had the controls developed for the pure electric car, that is the battery-only powered electric, all of a sudden we began to realize that now we had nearly licked the problem of electromechanical devices. We had solid state. It was only a small leap then to tie in the computer to that and begin to bring in the internal combustion engine, smaller displacement, of course, but it fit naturally to move to the hybrid. I think the successful electric car really made it possible for the hybrid to come along."

Stempel added that most of the information he has on hybrids comes from Honda (maker of the Insight) and Toyota (maker of the Prius). Both cars rely on NiMH batteries for their electric-drive systems, but not ones built by ECD's joint-venture battery company, GM Ovonics. ECD, however, does enjoy royalties from the use of the NiMH battery technology in these two vehicles.

He said that both companies report that consumers like the ease with which they can operate these cars. Rather than having to plug them in to recharge, they simply refuel them with gasoline. "They both make the point with me it's easy to use and it's a good transition vehicle as they move forward on electric vehicles."

To meet this developing market, GM Ovonics has developed a battery specifically for use in hybrid vehicles, one which is not only liquid-cooled but also tailored to the different power demands of hybrid-electrics.

However, Stempel does still see a roll for smaller, two-seat pure battery-electrics like the Toyota E-Com, Nissan HyperMini and Ford Th!nk City, especially in station car-type applications. He also sees a market developing in Europe for battery-electric delivery vans where more and more city centers are limiting or blocking the access of gasoline or diesel vehicles for environmental reasons. He said his company is working with people in Europe on just such a vehicle.

Stempel's View of CARB Battery Report

As might be expected, while Bob Stempel agrees with the technological assessment of the California Air Resource Board's (CARB) Battery Panel, he did take exception to its cost conclusions.

"We disagree with their cost assessment, as you might expect," Stempel said. "When you're building at a very low volume, you don't make the target costs. We've designed this to be a continuous process and we're building on a start-and-stop mode and so there is some expense with it. But we believe we will make our target costs and we've already demonstrated to CARB that on a lifecycle basis we think the nickel metal hydride will be the most economically-effective. That will take some additional volume. We are working on that to have that happen. We are going ahead with some additional automation that will help us get costs down further. But the combination of technology and volume will make it practical. "

"The other thing we're looking at in Europe is the potential of not having you own the battery, but much like you buy gasoline for your car, pay as you go. You'd lease the battery through the utility company and in addition to the small amount of money it takes to charge it, you'd have a monthly fee, which would gradually pay for the battery over time. That means that the utility would then own the battery and when the electric car service is finished, it simply means the battery no longer takes a full one hundred percent charge. It probably takes around an eighty percent charge. The utility can still use that battery for stand-by power or other uses. We're looking at spreading the cost over a couple owners and I think we'll see some interesting developments in that area."

Stempel said that GM Ovonic's target cost is $150/kWh. More interestingly, he stated that $200-210/kWh is "within our reach."

Where Is The Next Market?

With the sporadic production of cars like the EV1, Stempel believes the next market for large EV-sized NiMH batteries is in buses and trucks.

"We've had a great deal of interest in the intracity bus and we've had a number of vehicles now demonstrate the superior range capacity of nickel metal hydride. We're focused on a couple of bus companies and some truck companies."

Stempel explained that manufacturers of large, over-the-road trucks are particularly interested in hybrid-electric technology because it allows them to pull heavy loads with smaller engines that use less fuel and produce fewer emissions.

Thrilled With Their Cars

Many of the newer, Generation II EV1 electric cars in operation in California are equipped with GM Ovonic NiMH batteries, and Stempel reported that their owners are very enthusiastic about the improved performance of their cars.

"Most of them tell us that they car really handle their daily driving needs very well. Many of them report mileages that even we have a hard time with, but they're all doing very well in a driving situation."

Stempel reported that the federal government tested the EV1 with NiMH batteries and got ranges of 220 miles at a constant speed of 45 mph. At 60 mph the little two seater turned in a range of 160 miles and 140 miles on the stop-and-go urban driving cycle.

"Most of the drivers are telling us that they are getting between 160 and 180 miles on a charge up and down hills and so on, and are very, very pleased with the car."

Interestingly, now that drivers are getting such remarkable ranges, they are doing less overnight charging, often going two and three days between recharging.

A Global Battery

I asked Bob Stempel about whether or not NiMH batteries are adversely affected by extreme summer temperatures like those in Phoenix, Arizona.

He replied that he believes ECD has not only a national battery but also a "global" one. He explained that in the case of the EV1s with GM Ovonic batteries, heat build-up is controlled by a system of fans to help cool the battery pack, which in 110 degrees ambient temperature can reach as high as 130 degrees.

However, he acknowledged that his customers are asking for liquid-cooled batteries, "and with that we don't expect any problem in high temperature." He thinks we'll see the first of GM Ovonic liquid-cooled batteries appearing in domestic manufacturer's hybrids when they begin to appear.

Coming Full Circle

We turned out attention to another technology pioneered by Energy Conversion Devices, hydride storage of hydrogen. Stempel pointed out that one of ECD cofounder Stanford Ovshinsky's early discoveries was a way to store hydrogen in metal hydride materials. He explained that hydrides are simply combinations of metallic elements with the hydrogen atom inside. No one was quite sure what to do with the discovery in 1980, so the company went on to use the technology to develop a high energy density battery with a hydrid electrode.

"We simply keep the hydrogen in the battery, moving it between the negative and positive electrodes, charge, discharge and it's captured, if you will, inside."

"Well, the hydride storage can also be designed such that you can release the hydrogen to be the fuel for a fuel cell or the fuel for an internal combustion engine when you run on pure hydrogen," he continued. "What we've done is develop a system now where the battery contains about two percent hydrogen by weight. We now have a hydride that will hold seven percent by weight and what that means is that for every hundred grams of hydride we have seven grams of hydrogen captured. At that size we do very well in terms of what we can hold for mileage on a hydrogen storage system."

To put this in practical terms, Stempel explained that Ford's fuel cell vehicle uses compressed hydrogen at 5,000 psi. For every liter of storage volume, the tank holds a mere 31 grams of hydrogen. BMW's cryogenic hydrogen system uses liquid-hydrogen at -250 degrees C. For each liter of volume, their system stores 71 grams of hydrogen. By contrast, ECD's metal hydride system can capture 100 grams of hydrogen per liter volume. This will allow "fuel" tanks of the future to be smaller than they might otherwise have to be. A tank approximately the size of the gas tank in a Ford Taurus will take a fuel cell vehicle 300 miles and a hydrogen-burning internal combustion engine 350 miles.

Another breakthrough with ECD's hydride storage technology is its rapid refueling time. Stempel remarked that critics have for years said that magnesium-based hydride might be great for storing hydrogen, but that it would take hours to refuel. ECD's scientists and engineers have developed technology to solve this problem. Stempel said that they are now able to charge their system to 80% capacity in just five minutes time.

Texaco's $68 Million Investment

Recently Texaco invested nearly $68 million in ECD, announcing they were primarily interested in two technologies, ECD's fuel cell technology and its hydrogen storage system.

"Texaco believes you can actually move right to hydrogen from where we are with gasoline," Stempel stated. "So, they are encouraging us to move towards the commercialization phase and that's what we're doing now. We're developing it. The idea is that within a year and a half, two years, we'll be actually able to demonstrate running prototypes to the automakers and others, then at that point we'd be on our way to commercialization. So, we feel it's quite close, relatively speaking and of course, we're very pleased that Texaco's due diligence convinced them that the technology was real."

Bob Stempel pointed out that magnesium is the 6th most abundant element on Earth, which means that it plentiful and safe to use. More importantly, apart from a small amount of nickel in the hydride, the materials in storage system pose little environmental risk. He also added that because the hydrogen is stored as a solid in the hydride metal powder, there is no danger from explosion or fire.


As might be expected with any new technology, there are definite obstacles confronting the folks at Energy Conversion Devices, the Troy, Michigan R&D firm that is developing a solid hydride storage system for hydrogen. Bob Stempel, the company president explained what those obstacles are.

"I think the biggest obstacle is the heat transfer. Hydrogen, of course, when you move it back and forth you are going to get heat and the key to that is how we are going to capture the heat. We want the total system efficiency to be good, we also know we need to remove the heat so we can keep putting the hydrogen in and so heat transfer is going to be an issue and we think we'vegot some solutions for that."

The other thing, of course, is making sure we have customers ready to use this and that means the auto guys have got to be ready with either fuel cell or running their engines on hydrogen. It's pretty neat you know when you run a regular gasoline engine on hydrogen because the only thing that comes out of the exhaust is water."

According to Stempel, ECD isn't waiting for carmakers to decide which type of power plant they are going use in the cars of the future. Instead, his company is also talking to small engine makers. He stated that ECD has demonstrated how a lawn mower engine could be run of a hydride storage container no larger than a propane gas tank. "The emissions from it is the water," he added. "The folks who make the "Weedwacker" they're pretty interested because as you know the EPA is sort of hard on two-cycle folks. It's pretty nice when you run a little engine and the only think out is water... pretty clean.

Making Hydride Storage Affordable

Obviously, a hydride storage tank is going to be a lot more expensive than a conventional gasoline fuel tank. EVWorld asked Stempel if his company had given any thought as to how this technology might be made more affordable to consumers.

Stempel responded with the example of Ford Motor Company, who he regards as the leader in this type of analysis. He stated that if you look at the total systems cost of a conventional gasoline engine with all its required emissions systems such as catalytic converters and electronic controls, the gasoline tank is certainly one of the least expensive items in the system. However, switching to hydrogen would eliminate or reduce the need for many of these systems and thereby make the inclusion of hydride storage more affordable.

"It's true the storage tank we have envisioned is more expensive, but on a system's basis, we think we can be pretty competitive," he stated.

Keeping Technology Off The Market?

EVWorld asked Stempel if he had any concerns about Texaco's investment in his company, that the oil company giant was buying into ECD's hydride storage technology as a way to prevent it reaching the marketplace. He replied that he wasn't at all concerned and that he's talked to representatives of many of the major oil companies and they all are working towards becoming energy companies and not just oil companies.

"The folks at Shell tell us, 'Keep in mind the stone age did not end because we ran out of rocks.' And what their feeling is that people keep talking about running out of oil and they feel they'll be a change before they run out of oil. And what they firmly feel is that hydrogen is going to be one of the answers to that. The work is quite serious and it is a real shift. If you look at oil company statements over the last two years... Recall that a few years ago a great deal of concern that maybe global warming isn't real, maybe climate change... let's forget about that and do more scientific studies... You haven't heard that recently from oil or car companies."

"The feeling is," he continued, "Okay there may be something there in climate change but the issue is, we know even as clean as today's cars and trucks are, and they are very, very clean, there's more of them...people driving more miles and more countries are motorizing. And even though the emissions are low when you start multiplying how many you have, the emissions increase, so you just can't keep doing business that way. So, we are going to see a shift in fuels. It may take a few decades, but the work is really starting to begin in earnest. I think Texaco is really quite committed to that... Their recent corporate statements certainly underscore that."

Stempel added that Texaco has created a new unit called Texaco Energy Systems, which will focus on various alternative energy systems including hydrogen and hydride storage technologies. "They're very serious about moving in a direct that would change the way they do business," he stated.

His Views of Global Warming Stempel, himself, acknowledges the global warming phenomenon, but he is uncertain as to what role mankind plays in it. "We do that Mother Nature is a huge force globally," he said, "When you see the forces that nature can unleash whether it's flood or tornado or volcano, we know in many senses that Mother Nature is more destructive than man in many cases."

"On the other hand, we can see the effects of man on Earth pretty clearly," he said. "We know that with the deforestation, for example, in South America, we've seen what happens down there in terms of the impact on the climate. We know that in our coast cities where we have a concentration of people building up, we see effects on the atmospheric air. We're not of the mind that we're making a huge impact, on the other hand, let's face it, there are more of us doing more things, using more energy and it is starting to increase our share of what's going on in the atmosphere. I think we're always going to be facing global climate change. The issue is we don't want to get it distorted or create unforeseen things. We won't be quite able to hold it in balance, but certainly we can have an impact on the added materials we're putting into the atmosphere."

Whether ECD ?

After hovering in the $10 a share range for many months, ECD (stock symbol: ENER) recently participated in the rise in energy technology stocks earlier this year steadily climbing to the mid-$20 per share range. (At this writing it was just under $30 a share. It should also be noted that I hold a few shares of company stock). Interestingly, ECD's stock has remained relatively stable despite the collapse of tech stocks in March, 2000. Stempel attributed this to investors beginning to realize that ECD's "gee whiz" technology isn't decades away from commercial application, but now only months away. He would not, however, speculate on how high the company's share price could go, concerned about what market regulators might do. "We think that the key will be that as we get into a commercial mode, I think people will be more attracted to the stock."

As for where Bob Stempel plans to take ECD in the next five years, he told EVWorld that the technology pioneered by the company founders, Stan and Iris Ovshinsky, is now reaching the point of practical commercialization where it can be cost-competitive with conventional energy sources. "We have technologies that are enabling technologies for others. Our goal here is to now move from the R&D phase and move truly into the commercial phase where we're manufacturing product. That will improve the cash flow of this company and should put us on the path to profitability and clearly that's where I want to take us in the next five years."

Times Article Viewed: 6476
Published: 01-Jan-2000


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