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Some of the scores of cells General Motors tested in its selection process for the Volt battery pack.
Some of the scores of lithium cells General Motors tested in its selection process for the Volt battery pack. The large, black battery is a Panasonic lead acid model used in the EV1 electric car.

AABC: Batteries, Capacitors and Electric Cars

Report from the Ninth International Advanced Automotive Battery and EC Capacitor Conference

By Sam Smith

The 9th International Advanced Automotive Battery and EC Capacitor Conference was held in Long Beach, California, June 8-12, in the Long Beach Convention Center. For those seeking the latest information on energy storage for hybrids and electric vehicles, this was the conference of the year. The content of the conference was comprehensive, in depth and somewhat daunting. The presentations started at 08:00 AM and went to 5:00 PM everyday with several days devoted to a dual track of batteries and capacitors. Attendance was close to 900 and all the sessions I attended were packed.

This is a very critical time in the future of Electric Vehicles. There appears to be widespread support for a transition from the traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to hybrids and pure electric vehicles. We thought this was going to happen twenty years ago when California passed a mandate requiring electric vehicles be developed and sold. This mandate was rescinded and the California electric vehicle market collapsed. The Big Seven (then) automakers said the market should drive the demand for alternative transportation, not mandates. Today it appears the market conditions can support a significant launch of hybrids and electrics.

Engineers and scientists around the world have invested their time and talent in developing the components and systems for hybrids and electric vehicles. Progress has been dynamic in terms of design of lightweight chassis, powerful and efficient drive trains, aerodynamic shapes, and sophisticated computer controllers. However, the same statement can not be made for battery technology. We have progressed from the era of Lead Acid into a dominant Nickel-Metal-Hydride chemistry into the promise of Lithium based batteries. This conference focused on the status of developments in lithium based batteries and capacitors for automotive use.

Trying to condense more than 50 hours of presentations into a single article is difficult; however, there were three main themes I came away with:

In the recent past there have been questions raised about the availability of lithium to support a significant market for electric batteries. Several past surveys claimed that the quantity of lithium required would outstrip the supply and the commodity price would rise to a point beyond affordability. Recent analysis presented at the conference gave a different picture. With the world known reserves quantified, lithium reserves appear to be in sufficient quantity to support a modestly aggressive hybrid and electric vehicle launch. A key to large scale use of hybrids and electric vehicles is the development of a robust recycling industry for lithium on the order of the current lead acid recycling industry.

One of the major OEM’s at the conference shared their experience in selecting a lithium based battery for use in a hybrid due out in 2010. They reported they had identified 160 different lithium based battery chemistries offered by 130 different companies. Using a comprehensive selection process they reduced the number down to a manageable test size and conducted demanding in house testing to settle on a single formulation. It is the right one? That was part of the debate at the conference. It is clear that the demands of a hybrid are significantly different enough from a pure electric vehicle (e.g. power vs. depth of discharge) that it likely will result in different formulations. Coming from the lead acid days of the early 1990’s, I was very impressed with the projected performance of lithium in the future.

As with any conference of this type some of the most valuable information comes from the informal meetings away from the presentations. Over the five days I was able to meet a significant number of people from various elements of the industry. These included material suppliers through battery system engineers. One common concern dealt with the issue of market timing. This is an issue that affects most new technology launches. The question is: Do I believe the hybrid and electric vehicle market will develop fast enough to justify the capital investment required to build the factories required to produce the batteries? If I build a plant and the market is slow to develop, then I have to amortize the cost over a smaller production run causing the unit price to be high. On the other hand if I don’t have the capacity to meet a higher than planned demand, the market could be seriously damaged by the lack of product. What is the right answer? The investment community would certainly like to know.

This conference went a long way to address these issues. The consensus appears to be that now is the time to pick a battery chemistry and launch the vehicles. The history of technology development has shown us that “Better is the enemy of good enough”, now is the time to recognize we can phase in the improvements in later models. We can field a large number of hybrids and electric vehicles that will meet the majority of customer demands now.

Finally a word for the sponsor: This conference was run by Advanced Automotive Batteries, Inc. The organization and execution they provided was superb. The venue was outstanding with all the amenities expected for a major conference. When I viewed the original agenda I doubted their ability to get that much content out in the time allotted. The management and staff that ran the conference accomplished it in a very professional manner. If you want to stay up to date on what is happening in the automotive energy storage world – this is the conference for you!

Sam Smith is the managing partner for EV World & Associates, LLC, a professional consulting group dedicated to paving the way to the 'Future in Motion.'

Times Article Viewed: 12524
Published: 16-Jun-2009

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