Worldwide race to make better batteries
The US is a late entry, but new domestic projects are revving to go.
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“I applaud the new money going into battery research,” Sadoway says. “We’ve been underspending on something that’s vital to our national security and economic well-being.”Skip to next paragraph
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In the near term, however, the US is playing catch-up. For more than a year, General Motors has said it hopes to launch the world’s first mass-produced PHEV, the Chevrolet Volt, in 2010. But until recently, GM executives had been damping expectations, saying a battery with the right performance and cost still didn’t exist.
That changed last week when GM named LG Chem, a Korean company, as the lithium-ion battery cell supplier for the Volt. It is also working with A123Systems, officials say. Not to be outdone, Toyota announced it would sell some PHEVs with lithium batteries late this year.
“When we introduced this [Chevrolet Volt] concept not long ago, it seemed to resonate,” says Robert A. Kruse, GM’s executive director of global vehicle engineering for hybrids, electric vehicles, and batteries. “We said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to figure out how to do this. The battery didn’t exist. We went through a very elaborate search of cell chemistry and construction.” (For the full interview with Mr. Kruse, click here.)
Finding the right battery recipe
The beauty of lithium-ion is there’s not one single chemical, but many variants involved. As a result, the race isn’t over making a Chevy Volt battery designed to run 40 miles on a single charge that could cost as much as $10,000. Instead engineers hope to create a cell that could last perhaps 80 miles per charge and cost half as much, battery experts say.
“There aren’t any showstoppers,” Sadoway says. “We’re not asking for light to travel 10 times faster than it can go. We’re not asking for science fiction. Most remaining problems involve engineering. So I’m optimistic that these problems that remain can be solved.”
Still, he worries the US and the rest of the world could become “hooked on lithium” just like oil, since places including China and South America have the richest lithium deposits. So down in his lab, Sadoway’s students are exploring “earth abundant” compounds other than lithium.
The LG Chem lithium-ion cell is reportedly based on manganese. But other flavors of lithium-ion are emerging, too.
A123Systems’ lithium cell, for instance, is an iron-phosphate variety that’s said to be very safe and stable, a key attribute.
“By tinkering with the materials involved, one can address the various challenges. And that’s what we’re seeing now,” says Jim Miller, a senior electrochemical engineer involved in battery research at Argonne National Laboratory, which is providing research support to the National Alliance.