NiMH Batteries: Obsolete Technology or Suppressed EV Solution?
Frank, Gage and Straubel all agree that the safety issues associated with lithium batteries have been solved through refinement in battery chemistry and implementation of computer-controlled battery management systems. Straubel points to a white paper on the subject, available on the Tesla website. Gage believes that Li-Ion batteries are safe, but that overly-enthusiastic media attention might create a false impression of danger. “The perceived safety will depend on the how serious the inevitable events are and how they are portrayed in the press.”
Gage also believes that the performance and safety of Li-Ion batteries will continue to evolve in the future. “I believe there will be a beneficial convergence of the high-safety [lithium] batteries like Valence and the high-energy batteries like commodity 18650s as Li-Ion cells are optimized for vehicle applications.”
It is also important to note that there are large-format NiMH batteries available which are not subject to control by the Cobasys patents. Electro Energy Inc. and Nilar Inc. both manufacture large-format NiMH batteries, but the bipolar design used in these batteries is fundamentally different from the design of the Cobasys batteries, so these batteries can be produced without paying licensing fees to Cobasys. Both companies are actively building batteries. Electro Energy works primarily on contract-based projects, but Nilar is selling batteries to multiple customers and is actively recruiting EV designers and builders to use their product.
I asked Richard Howlett, director of programs at Nilar, whether the company is concerned with regards to patent infringement issues. His answer was carefully crafted and approved by the company lawyers. “Our patent counsel and others have carefully reviewed the patent landscape relevant to our products and we, to our knowledge based on publicly available material, do not infringe on the intellectual property of any other company.”
It would seem that most technical people tend to look beyond the patent controversy surrounding NiMH batteries. Whether they look to Li-Ion, bipolar NiMH or any other battery design, their emphasis is on working with the batteries that best suit the requirements for an electric vehicle. While most “techies” admit that standard NiMH batteries covered by the Cobasys patents work acceptably well in PHEVs, their creative energy tends to be focused on Li-Ion batteries and other chemistries which can store more energy in much smaller packages.
As a proud techie, I am inclined to agree with the likes of Gage and Straubel. I have spent years working with various different battery types, and I have actively taken part in the design and manufacture of widely-used battery management systems. I know that lithium-ion batteries can be made to operate safely in electric vehicles. Furthermore, I know that Li-Ion cells are immediately available from a variety of sources. Additionally, any number of engineers could design inexpensive packaging for the Li-Ion cells that would allow them to be sold and installed as modules made up of multiple cells. Instead of using hundreds or thousands of individual cells in an EV, companies could purchase a drastically-reduced number of modules, each of which could come with its own battery management interface. These modules would communicate to a central controller, ensuring safe, optimized operation. Finally, I am certain that Li-Ion cells are available right now and that the price of Li-Ion batteries is falling quickly. Increased production will continue the trend toward lower price, and this trend will be very rapid if demand increases dramatically.
Still, I appreciate Sherry Boschert and the other NiMH proponents of the world. Perhaps their campaign played a role in General Motors’ recent decision to use Cobasys NiMH batteries in a soon-to-be-released Saturn hybrid SUV. These people are working hard to achieve the same goal as the techies. We are all trying to make sure electric vehicles, whether they be BEVs or PHEVs, become the “standard” automobile in the very near future. We are pursuing parallel paths to the same destination and harnessing the energy and intelligence of many good minds on either path.
blog comments powered by Disqus