Hybrid vehicles could become US vehicle standards - consultant

28 April 2009 21:01  [Source: ICIS news]

STERLING HEIGHTS, Michigan (ICIS news)--Hybrid- and electric-vehicle drive systems could become standard on automobiles if engineers resolve cost and safety issues, a representative of North America’s only hybrid battery supplier said on Tuesday.

Oliver Gross, advanced products development manager for Michigan-based battery maker Cobasys, said the advanced systems could break out of their niche market if they can be designed to last the 10-year or 150,000-mile (241,000 km) standard for other key auto systems.

“Cost and availability remain the overriding challenges ... but some people are talking about these becoming standard pieces of equipment, like air bags or anti-lock brakes,” Gross told the audience at the Society of Plastics Engineers’ Auto Epcon conference.

The lithium-ion battery used in some electric cars has attracted attention from chemical companies, which could charge a premium for plastic parts used in production. ExxonMobil recently opened a $300m (€231m) plant in Gumi, South Korea, to manufacture lithium-ion-battery separator film to meet expected demand growth.

There are more than five different types of hybrid batteries, ranging from 12 to 1,000 volts. Nickel hydride batteries - which power the Toyota Prius - are the most readily available and currently dominate the market.

Asia is the current leader in battery technology, but Gross said there is growth potential in North America.

General Motors (GM) is banking on lithium-ion batteries to power its Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that the company plans to release next year. The company says the car will drive 40 miles on a single battery charge.

Michigan, home to all the major US automakers, recently announced that four companies would start developing and manufacturing lithium-ion batteries in the state.

The batteries that will drive the Volt have the potential to open new markets, Gross said. They are lighter and smaller than the nickel hydride batteries, provide better voltage and are more tolerant of a wider range of temperatures.  

They could also be cheaper to mass produce than nickel hydride batteries, which are vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices, Gross said.

Holding back lithium-ion batteries is the need to further develop the required production infrastructure.

“A factory which builds enough [nickel hydride] batteries for a typical 150,000 vehicles/year is a $300m-500m capital investment. If you’re talking about plug-ins, it’s close to a billion,” Gross said.

While metals currently dominate the hybrid battery market, plastics makers could find their role growing, Gross said.

Battery producers generally prefer metals due to their advantages in structure moulding and fire resistance, but metals pose challenges in weight and high-voltage safety. Plastics are lighter and offer better safety, but are sensitive to the chemicals in battery cells.

“Most battery designs employ both metals and plastics, although there is a preference to move toward more plastic/polymer-based materials," Gross said.

In all, engineers have to treat the technology as a standard piece of equipment and not something that needs changing throughout a vehicle’s life, as with traditional batteries, Gross told the audience.

“You have to treat it something more like the transmission – not something that will last three years and you expect to replace, but something that will last 10 years and will cost in proportion,” he said.

($1 = €0.77)

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By: Ben Lefebvre
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