January 28, 2007 – Vol.11 No.44
LITHIUM: THE PINNACLE OF BATTERY TECHNOLOGY?
Get out your handy Periodic Table of the Elements and ponder it closely. You’ll see that lithium is the lightest solid element on the planet. It weighs about the same as balsa wood, is considered a metal, and is highly electrochemically reactive: Chemical changes within it will provide electric current and, in reverse, electric current passing through it will make chemical changes.
In other words lithium has all the makings of the best rechargeable batteries, particularly for vehicles and other portable things where light weight is the key to success.
Lithium is the best we may ever do. It’s only the variations in battery chemistries and packaging that will make the difference in how sophisticated the technology gets.
The real downer for lithium is its scarcity. It’s the thirty-first most abundant element on the planet. Its rarity, at the moment, will keep raw material prices, thus battery prices, high unless more is found. This is not meant to be discouraging news however. When oil was first discovered in Pennsylvania in the 1800’s it’s likely that geologists at the time under-predicted how much there was on the planet.
(If we can’t get enough lithium on this planet maybe Mars or the asteroids might yield some. Now there’s a reason to go.)
Lithium used in batteries has some other nice qualities as well. Charging times are quick and they’re powerful for their weight and size. The dangers of exploding lithium batteries seem to be going away as the technology improves. And, investment in more research and development in chemistries and mass production processes could drive battery prices down, at least to tolerable levels.
So with more good traits than bad, lithium battery manufacturers are moving forward.
A123 Systems, of Watertown, Massachusetts, has announced it has completed a $40 million round of financing with General Electric Commercial Finance and the Proctor & Gamble Company as new investors.
The company will use the funds to gear up its technology development and manufacturing capacity of batteries for hybrids, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) and other applications such as power tools and consumer electronics.
The company already has a contract to supply batteries for General Motor’s upcoming Saturn Vue Green Line plug-in hybrid, which will be the first PHEV from a major auto maker.
A123 will also be collaborating on future products for the Duracell line of batteries. Duracell is a brand of investor Proctor & Gamble which is better known for dish detergent than batteries.
Other projects the company is working on are batteries for hybrid buses for General Electric as well as for the United States Advance Battery Consortium (USABC), a partnership of US automakers.
And there’s news from another prominent from lithium battery maker.
Batteries from Lithium Technology Corporation (LTC) of Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, are being used in a PHEV now being reengineered by the University of California, Davis Hybrid Electric Vehicle Group.
That demonstration plug-in hybrid is a converted Chevy Equinox SUV, known as Trinity, that can drive 40 miles on an overnight charge and has gasoline fuel economy of 36 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway. (The equivalent fuel economy of combined all-electric and gasoline hybrid modes should be much higher.)
LTC sent 95 cells to UC Davis for the new Trinity battery pack that has an output of 342 Volts and able to be recharged off the grid through a standard outlet, or by Trinity’s motor/generator. Each cell has an output of 3.6 volts and 45 Amp hours.
The new battery pack is much smaller and half the weight of the previous nickel metal hydride pack.
LTC’s specialty is large format lithium-ion cells and batteries offering 10 times the capacity of laptop computers to 100,000 times greater. Large format batteries may, in the long run, prove a better bet for all kinds of electric and hybrid electric vehicle products. The reason? Simplicity.
This new battery pack for the Trinity is an example. It has 95 cells. The lithium battery pack of the all-electric, lithium-batteried roadster from Tesla Motors has 6800. Imagine trying to find and replace the bad cell in that maze.
Trinity is an ongoing project of Team Fate, a student-group entrant in the Challenge X: Crossover to Sustainable Mobility engineering competition sponsored by the US Department of Energy and General Motors.
GM will certainly be keeping a close eye on this project as they move ahead with their PHEV plans.
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