The hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) using lithium-ion batteries emerges as a major force

Assault with battery

18 February 2009 17:53  [Source: ICB]

Hi-ho lithium! The electric car is coming - again

Consultant's Corner

Faruq Marikar/Nanobiz


REVA, IN Bangalore, India, is the world's largest manufacturer of on-road electric vehicles (EVs). Launched in 2001, and available in Europe and Japan, there are now 2,000 Revas on the road. Manufacturing capacity is said to be 30,000 vehicles/year.

Only four years after terminating its EV1 electric vehicle program and rounding up the thousand vehicles it built for lease, crushing and shredding them, US-based General Motors (GM) introduced its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid concept vehicle at the 2007 North American International Auto Show (also known as the Detroit Auto Show).

With a steady drumbeat of publicity in 2008, pictures and specifications for the 2009/10 model emerged. Then, in September 2008, Chrysler announced four pure electric models to debut in 2010.

In October, an upstart Chinese battery company, BYD, announced it was launching a plug-in hybrid in China in November. BYD had attracted one of the world's most famous investors Warren Buffet's holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, invested $230m (€178m) in BYD.

At the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, nearly every major automaker announced electric car plans, and most prominently, US-based GM and Ford, and Japan's Toyota and Honda. BYD pitched its F3DM plug-in electric hybrid, having already kicked off sales in China. BYD also said that it aspires to be the world's largest automaker by 2025.

I WANT MY EV?

The 1974 US movie Blazing Saddles opens on an 1874 scene of public transporation (railroad) construction, and moves quickly to the newly anointed black sheriff riding to his new job on his nineteenth-century personal vehicle - the horse. The movie ends with the sheriff and his gunslinger pal riding their horses to the outskirts of town where they are quite incongruously picked up and driven into the sunset in a 1974 model chauffered limousine.

This, of course, is no history of transportation - just another Mel Brooks romp purveying the pleasures of poor taste (the first Hollywood film depicting gas-related humor - we won't go there) crafted to offend all.

Paradoxes, anachronisms and inappropriate humor are quite what we need in examining the future of land transportation, especially in North America, which dominated this realm in the 20th century.

Early in that century, there was a brief policy pause as people wondered whether the electric car was a better option than the belching, coughing, sputtering combustion automobile that frightened the horses plying the roads then.

Compared to horseless carriages, the ones with horses were at an obvious disadvantage in the tailpipe-emissions domain, but this was 50 years before city smog was recognized and 100 years before global warming was acknowledged.

The pause was fleeting, and what won the day was cheap oil and the exhilaration of speed on open roads. What made the choices enduring was the building of more roads (accompanied by the systematic abandonment of urban street cars, such as what happened in Los Angeles, California, US), and the creation of the idea of a "romance" with the automobile in American popular culture.

Ideas have consequences - regardless of whether they are good or bad. By the middle of the century, the American automotive industry put the innovation and manufacturing culture firmly in the past, coalesced into the Big Three - GM, Ford, and Chrysler - and fed the auto-romantics chrome and glitz, while fighting every call for change, tooth and nail.

The US passing its peak oil phase in the 1970s and OPEC's muscle flexing were shrugged off as bad interludes. And ironically, just as we began to recognize the frightening fact that known oil reserves might be exhausted in several decades if we continue to consume at this rate (and by the mid-century if our consumption continues to ramp up at the current rate), the Big Three cried "let them drive SUVs [sports utility vehicles]" and saw the profits roll in.

According to pop culture expert and Wisconsin, US-based St. Norbert College professor Michael Marsden: "In an SUV, you're isolated from the road, above it. So you're in a cocoon, well insulated. You've arrived at a level of success in which you don't have to deal with the world."

For the Big Three, which have always defended their reason for building their oversize offerings as "making products that our customers want to buy," the Detroit Auto Show this year was an uncomfortable stage.

Having driven themselves to the brink of bankruptcy, and seeking government assistance with a promise to bring about a dramatic shift in the company's US portfolio toward more fuel-efficient cars and crossovers, they are finding that the trend is shifting again.

"We can't sell small cars right now. People are buying trucks again," GM vice chairman Bob Lutz lamented. As the nation shrugs off the summer of $4.00/gal gasoline, there is the wish on the part of the largest US automaker that the new president will create an energy policy that encourages consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles.

THE POINT OF PLUGGING IN

The internal combustion engine is not an efficient energy converter. After accounting for conversion losses, idling, driveline losses and powering accessories, only one-eighth of the energy in the gasoline is available for propulsion - and a significant proportion of that is squandered in braking.

All that the Toyota Prius "parallel hybrid" does is improve energy efficiency by recovering the braking losses. The auxiliary battery is small, and stores a bit more than twice the energy in your car battery, which is enough to drive just a few miles on electricity alone. When you are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the battery is a great boon. Cruising the expressway, it contributes little.

An EV running on batteries alone is a far superior energy-conversion device. Starting with 35% efficiency of generating electricity from coal (the primary source for power generation in the US and most of the rest of the world), 10% loss in grid transmission, 15% loss in battery charge/discharge, and another 10% loss in moving the energy from the battery to the wheels (regenerative braking, built in), one ends up with 24% conversion efficiency from coal to wheels.

Not only does the EV give off zero emissions while driven, it also causes less carbon dioxide (CO2) to be released into the environment compared with an internal combustion engine.

According to a 2006 US Department of Energy (DOE) study, switching to plug-in EVs would yield an average net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 27% per car. In California, which has the country's cleanest electric-generation system, the figure would be 40%.

EVs powered by the US electricity grid are cleaner than natural gas, E85 (85% ethanol), biodiesel and fuel cell cars. The EV is also cheaper to operate on a dollar/mile basis, even at $1.50/gal gas prices.

A fully electric Prius-type vehicle could squeeze 7 miles (11km) out of 1kWh of battery energy the heavier Toyota RAV4 EV can be driven half that distance on 1kWh.

Even if you pay a 100% premium over the $0.10/KWh generation cost to have the electrons brought to an outlet near you, EVs cost you less to drive.

BUT HOW MUCH IS THAT BATTERY?

Yes, the battery will cost you a few thousand dollars. On the other hand, there are none of those headaches of tuning the ignition, lubrication, changing the oil and filters, complex transmissions and associated maintenance expenses.

But there is the issue of range. We are accustomed to vehicles that take us 300-400 miles with no preplanning, and replenish at bathroom break intervals and durations. The rest of the world isn't quite so hung up on range and distance. Even in the US, 50% of cars are driven 25 miles or less a day and 80% at 50 miles or less, says the US Department of Transportation.

GM's EV1 went 60-100 miles on lead-acid batteries and up to 160 miles on nickel-metal hydride. The daily commuting range can also be extended by recharging while parked, perhaps by clean power from solar panels mounted on parking structures.

If retaining flexibility in range is crucial, there is the EV with an insurance policy - the "plug-in hybrid," which adds a small gasoline engine that kicks in and recharges the battery while still moving. This is a serial hybrid where the intention is to run the vehicle off the battery first.

WAITING FOR LITHIUM

Lithium rechargeable batteries pack more energy per unit weight and volume than most other batteries, which is why they are preferred for mobile phones, laptops and other mobile devices, even though they are more expensive than other batteries.

As battery packs are scaled up in capacity and used in modes that draw high power, they heat up, and since lithium batteries employ flammable solvents, there is the hazard of fire. Newer chemistries and better thermal management systems are being devised, and high volume production is expected to bring down cost.

Despite appearances, the world doesn't have to wait for lithium batteries to make EVs viable. The EV1 ran on lead acids, and improved lead acids are capable of providing cost-effective power for mass market EVs. It is just that "hi-ho lead" sounds so leaden.

SO WHEN CAN I BUY THAT EV?

The Reva is not offered for sale in the US, but BYD may offer vehicles soon. 2010 appears to be the target year for Ford, Chrysler, GM and Toyota. Enough excess generating capacity exists at night in the US to charge 180m EVs without adding any new capacity (no new coal or nuclear power plants), according to the US Department of Energy.

ENERGY INDEPENDENCE

Electric vehicles essentially shift our transportation energy source from oil to coal. This will reduce our extreme dependence on oil imports, which account for two-thirds of the oil we use.

The US has 3% of the world's oil reserves, which would support less than three years of our consumption if we declared "independence." Our largest oil imports are from our neighbors, Canada and Mexico.

While the concept of energy independence is a good subject for discussion in an election year, it is useful to ponder the following statement from Andy Grove, former CEO of US-based semiconductor company Intel.

"To avoid battery manufacturing becoming the next source of dependency, we have to build domestic technical and manufacturing capability. This will require large and patient investments. We estimate the price tag of such a pilot project to be $10bn," he has said.

Grove calls this "energy resilience." GM just announced at the auto show that the Volt's lithium battery supplier, South Korea-based LG Chem, will manufacture the batteries in Michigan, US.

Faruq Marikar is president of Nanobiz, which offers business, investment, patent and legal guidance on alternative energy, materials, cleantech and nanotechnology commercialization to a global clientele. Earlier, with Hoechst, Celanese, Gould, and SGL Carbon, Marikar planned and developed new businesses through global cross-sector alliances. Marikar has lived on three continents and followed energy issues for 35 years. www.nanobizllc.com

WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?

The California Air Resources Board Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate originally specified that by 1998, 2% of all new cars sold by the seven major auto manufacturers in California were to meet "zero emission" standards as defined by the board. The requirement rose to 10% by 2003.

But the mandates were dismantled, the EV1s were shredded, and the Toyota RAV4 was discontinued. Ardent EV fans pieced together a documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? that suggests an oil industry hand in all this.

Among the more interesting observations in this 2006 documentary is the ominous, Night-of-the-Living-Dead style of the commericals that pitched EV1 - a far cry from the curvaceous model-draped car commercials that usually promote the sizzle of new model cars.

Keep your eyes on those upcoming electric car commercials, people.

ROCKING PROFITS

Joseph Chang/New York

US-based lithium producers Rockwood Holdings and FMC, as well as Chile's Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile (SQM) stand to benefit from the move toward electric cars.

Rockwood, with around $550m in annual lithium product sales, has the capacity to produce 180m lbs (81,646 tonnes) of lithium carbonate, around 30% of the global market.

The company has six lithium production sites in the US, Chile, Germany and Taiwan.

While a mobile phone battery contains about one-third of an ounce of lithium, a hybrid plug-in car would contain about 15lbs and an all-electric vehicle about 30lbs, according to Rockwood.

"We're talking huge quantities here," says Tim KcKenna, vice president of investor relations and communications at Rockwood.

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