Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
March 16th, 2007

The Quest for the Perfect Battery – Chapter 1

One of the most important research and development efforts in the world today is the quest for the perfect battery to power electric cars.  We all know that there is global warming, air pollution, and an increasing dependence on imported oil.  We know that petroleum is a finite resource that will be depleted in this century.  We live in a country whose culture and functionality is so dependent on the automobile that an alien might think the car is the dominant form of life.  Therefore, the solution to all of these problems and situations is to reinvent how the 200+ million vehicles in this country are powered. 

It has been 120 years since the internal combustion engine was invented and first utilized for a personal mode of transportation.  In that time, the 20th century, practically every technological aspect of our lives has been consistently upgraded, changed or replaced by a new invention.  Not so the power train of the automobile, which, at its essence, is still the mechanical, internal combustion engine we were using in 1900.

This then is the historical context for what the automotive industry and many of its suppliers are attempting to do regarding the invention of an electric power source for all the vehicles we drive. As readers of this blog know, I had been invited by General Motors to meet with some of their top management last month prior to the Chicago Auto Show.  In follow-up to that, GM invited me to come to Detroit to attend both a breakfast meeting and a briefing on the status of the development of the battery technology for the electric car.

 [Formal disclosure:  GM paid for my trip to Detroit from Chicago for an incredibly full schedule of events and meetings.  This was done because they had identified this blog as one of a select few blogs that are thought leaders and opinion shapers in the area of alternative energy and transportation.  At no time did they ask me to write anything specific or to make a case for anything. They were incredibly open and made all executives available to answer any and all questions.  More on that later.] 

While there are other automotive companies that are working on hybrid and electric cars, most notably Toyota and the yet to come to market Tesla, it is GM that has opened itself up to me, so it is GM that I will be writing about in this on-going series of posts on the automotive quest for the holy grail: a battery technology suitable for powering all our vehicles. 

There were several events I attended during the 24 hours in Detroit.  The major one, and the subject of this post, was the battery briefing.  GM had assembled not only several of their top executives and engineers, but also executives of the companies selected to help GM develop the battery technology needed, first  for the Chevrolet Volt and then for the rest of their product line.  GM has selected two suppliers for advanced battery development.  One is a joint venture between Johnson Controls and Saft, and the other is Cobasys who will work in partnership with A123 Systems, a company I mentioned here.

All executives made short presentations and then were all available for questioning.  These presentations were extremely informative to me as I am not conversant in battery technology nor am I an automotive expert.  For those of you who would like an excellent, detailed and thorough automotive analysis of the presentation, along with some of the slides used in the presentation, please go to Sam Abuelsamid’s post.  For a more environmentally oriented point of view  of the presentation, click on Jeff MacIntire-Strasburg’s post.  Sam and Jeff , along with Ed Ring, were the bloggers that joined me at the invitation of GM.

The basic message is that the lithium ion battery technology is the one that GM has chosen as the best to develop going forward into the future.  Current hybrids, such as the Prius, use nickel-metal hydride batteries which are not good enough for the plug-in concept of the Chevrolet Volt.  While current hybrids use batteries to help power the car and the gasoline engine for greater mileage, the plug-in concept of the Volt uses a small gas engine to help recharge the battery, and it is the battery that powers the car.  Since nickel-metal batteries are not up to that task, the full force of the GM effort is to develop the lithium ion battery so that it is suitable for a mass production vehicle.

What is needed is a battery pack that can last for 5,000 charges, will last for 100,000 miles, can power the car for at least 40 miles on a charge, can be mass produced at low prices, is completely reliable and will not overheat.  There is currently no battery pack that meets all these criteria.  Lithium ion batteries power the laptops we use, and we have all read about the combustibility problem there.  Powering up a car and driving it 60 miles an hour, in temperatures that range from below 0 to over 100 degrees is an entirely different task that powering up a laptop.  Tesla is coming up with a battery pack, but the price of the auto is $100,000, in large part due to the high cost of the battery pack.  GM is a mass production company, so it must develop a battery that can be mass produced at a low cost.  If the electric car is to become transformative, the masses must be able to buy reliable, affordable, long lasting electric cars that cost the same as gasoline powered cars.  Otherwise it will be a technology limited to the rich and will have limited global effect.

The questions to the executives at the battery briefing pointed out two dominant lines of questioning.  The first is obvious to anyone who saw “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, and that is to openly doubt the commitment of GM to follow through on its claims to want to ‘reinvent the automobile’.  The second is to call into question the position that GM has taken that they will not bring out an electric car until a perfect battery pack has been developed.  In other words, why wait until 2010 — the stated expected launch year for the Volt — to deliver an electric car that, though not perfect, could be used by a number of drivers in this country to start to solve all the issues stated at the top of this post?  Since I have run out of room for this post, I will address both those challenges in Chapter 2.






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