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New race for automakers: build a better battery

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 12, 2007

Can you imagine this scenario: An American automaker leapfrogs its Japanese competitors with a gasoline-electric hybrid that gets 150 miles to the gallon and can travel 40 miles on battery power alone?

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General Motors set out that possibility when it unveiled on Sunday the Chevy Volt, a concept car with a much larger electric motor than today's Toyota Prius.

If it's ever built, the car could push the venerable manufacturer to the forefront of next-generation car technology. But to win that contest, GM will have to win another: the auto industry's increasingly heated race for a new kind of battery.

The benefits are potentially huge. A more robust hybrid car could reduce America's reliance on oil and trim its greenhouse-gas emissions while giving a major boost to carmakers that find the winning technology.

"What you're seeing with GM is that they're going for broke on batteries," says Tom Gage, president of AC Propulsion, a San Dimas, Calif., company that retrofits hybrid cars. "There is a very real race going on here, but not just with General Motors and Toyota. All the car companies understand battery technology is key to electrifying the automobile."

This week, the Big Three automakers asked the federal government to fund a $500 million five-year battery-development program. To support their proposal, GM, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler submitted to the White House a study indicating that the US was lagging Japan in battery development, according to press reports.

Experts say the contest amounts to a search for a technology that can power a car for 40 miles, discharge most of its power, and be recharged thousands of times without major deterioration. The technology should be reliable enough to carry warranties of 150,000 miles and 10 years. The search ranges from lithium-ion batteries, used in cellphones and laptop computers, to experimental systems that aren't batteries at all, such as capacitors.

The biggest and most visible contestants in the battery race are GM and Toyota. Besides unveiling the Volt concept car, GM plans to introduce a new version of its Saturn hybrid SUV. Both would be plug-in models, which means that, in contrast to the Prius, they would use much larger battery packs and come with a plug for recharging when the car wasn't in use. Two days before it showed off the Volt, GM announced two major battery partnerships that pit existing technologies against one another in search of a winner.

At the same time, Toyota is busy developing its own battery partnerships and systems for its plug-in program.

The battery race began in earnest in the early 1990s with GM's all electric EV1. It used lead-acid batteries, but later switched to lighter and more powerful nickel-metal hydride batteries, also used by Toyota's Prius, which arrived in the late 1990s.

But plug-in hybrid cars use larger electric motors (and smaller gas engines) than today's hybrids. That's why the search is intensifying for a new power source, such as lithium-ion batteries, which offer about twice the power and half the weight of today's nickel-metal hydride batteries.