Saturday, August 02, 2008

Lithium-ion Batteries for Automotive Propulsion

I promised someone on the Newstalk forum that I'd blog this. It's kind of a long story and there was no sense in doing all the typing and letting it slip into the archives never to be seen again.

So there I was at the AIPAC policy conference last June (2008) and we're at the break-out session on energy independence and what Israel is doing in that field. As I mentioned in my last entry, I hit it off immediately with Dr. Robert Zubrin who was sitting to my left on the panel of four presenters. Unfortunately, I can't remember for the life of me who the others were.

So anyway, for those of you who don't know, the State of Israel is embarking on a bold new adventure with electric cars. Because Israel is so tiny, commute distances aren't that great and electric cars are viable there.

Here's a brief article on the project:

The Israeli car will be developed by a joint-venture between Renault and Nissan. The cool thing about this car is that it will have a drop-out battery. Rather than requiring recharge, there will be special stations that are much like those 20-minute oil change places. You pull over the hole. The old battery is dropped out and a new one is plugged in. The whole process takes just a few minutes; probably no longer than it takes to pump gasoline in the car you own now.

So here's the rub. The guy presenting the Renault-Nissan prototype was sitting on the far left. He mentioned that this car would have a 110 mile radius on one battery charge. This immediately perked my ears for one basic reason: right now the "talk of the town" in electric cars surrounds the Tesla Roadster being developed in England. I'd also digress to point out that there is at least one person in Tesla's management from my Alma mater (University of Illinois College of Engineering) and also one from Israel.

Here's the link for the Tesla roadster:

If you go over to the Performance tab on the web site, you'll notice that the Tesla Roadster has a radius of 220 miles on a single battery charge. This is TWICE that being quoted for the Renault-Nissan prototype.

So back to the AIPAC conference. It was now the question-and-answer period and I got up to the microphone. I introduced myself and asked the guy on the left a simple question: "The Renault-Nissan prototype gets 110 miles to a battery charge. Tesla motors is getting 220 miles to a battery charge. What is Tesla doing different?"

So the presenter on the far left stumbles and says: "Well... if you want a car that goes from 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds, that's a whole 'nother thing. We're not trying to accomplish that here."

I felt like he was ducking my question so I pressed him and answered: "But WHAT IS TESLA DOING DIFFERENT THAT THEY GET 220 MILES ON A SINGLE BATTERY CHARGE?"

He responds: "We feel that the Tesla Roadster uses unproven technology. They use Lithium-ion batteries and we use conventional Nickle-Metal-Hydride batteries."

I thanked him for answering my question and let it go because I knew he was looking for an "out" and this was the best he could do. And besides, I kinda understood what he was saying, even if I didn't agree with him.

Just to tell you how lame this response was, a mere two weeks later, the wire services (AP, Reuters etc.) all ran stories about how Toyota can't keep up with demand for their hybrid cars. The bottleneck is that they can't make enough batteries quick enough. That was the bad news. The good news is that help is on the way. Toyota and Matsushita Electric (aka Panasonic) were building a joint-venture factory to make even MORE batteries for their hybrid cars and better yet! The new batteries were going to be Lithium-ion packs which were smaller, lighter and held more charge.

SO... apparently the world leader in hybrid cars thinks that there's nothing "unproven" about Lithium-ion battery packs for automotive propulsion. I think perhaps the Renault-Nissan folks need to strongly consider this improvement for their upcoming Israeli vehicle.

In all fairness to the presenter at AIPAC, the Tesla Roadster is hardly a family car. It's a two-seater built for performance. Moreover, it's battery pack is not designed to be conveniently swapped out like the Renault-Nissan prototype. This is a key feature of the Israeli car and essential to it's commercial viability. Designing a Lithium-ion battery pack that is also easy to swap out is a significant technical issue; one not to be taken lightly. Nonetheless, the notion that Lithium-ion batteries are "unproven technology" for automotive propulsion is definitely not shared by Toyota Motors. Frankly, I think the subject of Lithium-ion battery packs needs to be re-visited by those working on the Israeli project. Even if the first cars have the older Nickel-Metal-Hydride batteries, I'd like to think there would be little trouble upgrading once a newer Lithium-ion battery pack is developed.


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