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Car Makers Seek Battery that Keeps Going

NEW YORK, February 12, 2008 (The Associated Press) The linchpin to the development of electric vehicles still comes down to developing the right battery.

Many of the major auto makers have gravitated toward lithium ion — the type of battery used in smaller devices such as notebook computers and digital media players. It is lighter, holds a stronger charge and has the potential to last longer.

But safety and cost issues remain. Critics, meanwhile, remain skeptical about the battery’s environmentally friendly credentials, especially the concept and practicality of “zero emissions.” Still, major players predict 2010 will be a turning point for clean electric and next-generation hybrid cars as the new battery comes on the market.

“The early phase will begin in 2010 as many companies intend to introduce electric vehicles,” said Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president of the technology division at Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. . “It’s the starting point, and there will be very tough competition.”

The auto makers will have to overcome the shaky reputation pure electric vehicles have earned. The cars offered limited range and horsepower, and there were too few of the required charging stations to make long-distance traveling a practical option.

But demand for eco-friendly vehicles is high, as illustrated by the strong sales of hybrid cars, which have both gas- and electric-powered motors to provide better acceleration and distance. With gas prices high and a focus on environmental responsibility a new priority for companies, auto makers want to go even further.

General Motors Corp. is hyping its Chevrolet Volt, which uses a pure electric engine but has a back-up gas-powered engine after the car goes further than 40 miles.

Nissan, meanwhile, expects to test an electric car in addition to its hybrid cars by 2010, with a mass-market version roughly two years after.

Nissan and GM, among others, will use lithium ion batteries to power their electric vehicles. That differs from the nickel-metal hydride batteries that hybrids typically use.

Lithium ion batteries have several advantages. They are lighter and hold a larger charge, and test vehicles using the battery performed twice as well as current hybrid cars, Shinohara said.

But safety remains a major issue. In 2006, a rash of exploding laptops plagued the PC industry and forced a massive recall by several computer makers. The cause: unstable lithium ion batteries that overheated.

The laptops left tables scorched, so imagine the damage a battery big enough to power a car could do.

“The jury is still out on (lithium ion) battery technology,” said Robert Goebel, vice president of sales and marketing for Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. . “It’s still in development.”

Altair is developing a battery called lithium titanate, which would be similar to lithium ion, but the company uses nano titanate particles to replace graphite, the element blamed for the overheating. As a result, the battery is more stable, but holds less of a charge.

“In our case, we broaden the safety field,” Goebel said.

The major auto makers are looking at Altair’s technology, and the company has partnered with “prominent tier-one suppliers,” although Goebel declined to specify any companies.

Nissan, meanwhile, is focusing on stabilizing the materials around a lithium ion battery. The company uses manganese-based material, which is more stable, Shinohara said. Additionally, the battery uses an aluminum casing, which is better for cooling efficiency, and a process of “laminating” the battery that also makes it thinner. Nissan is drawing from a decade of experience, as it has put out a handful of vehicles using lithium ion batteries over the past several years.

“We’re confident about the safety,” he said.

Another impediment to electric vehicle technology is cost.

“The price of the battery is almost equivalent to the car itself,” Shinohara said. “It’s not very practical right now.”

The cost will only go down after the cars go into mass-market production. Nissan has set up a joint venture with NEC Corp. (6701.TO) to mass produce the batteries, and intends to supply the batteries to other auto makers.

While the ultimate goal is a car that doesn’t emit any waste that can harm the environment, it probably isn’t within anyone’s grasp for the near term, said Perry Stern, senior editor at MSN Autos.

“Getting 90 percent of the way isn’t that expensive,” he said. “The closer you get to 100 percent, the more expensive you get. The last 5 percent is exponentially expensive.”

The closest anyone has gotten to a purely clean car is Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and its FCX Clarity, Stern said. The FCX also uses a lithium ion battery, but uses hydrogen fuel cells to store power. Few manufacturers are looking for a pure electric car, Stern said, adding that they will likely go the route of the FCX and use hydrogen fuel cells. One limitation for the vehicle is it only works with specific charging stations, which are currently only located in southern California.

The Volt may also be another prototype for future configurations of electric vehicle, he added. The car only needs to be plugged into a standard outlet and requires a six-hour charge.

While everyone is pushing for more environmentally friendly cars, one issue that gets glossed over is how to dispose of old batteries. The first batch of nickel metal hydride batteries from hybrid vehicles are expected to die out soon.

“No one wants to address what to do with them when they’re dead,” Stern said.

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