Metal alloys that store hydrogen have been around since the early 1960s. And recently, companies such as Sanyo and Toshiba have been replacing conventional nickel cadmium batteries in video cameras and radio gear with rechargeable nickel hydride units that last twice as long between charges.
Now, the technology is getting new attention for use in electric cars. Last week, Matsushita Battery Industrial Co. unveiled the world's first nickel hydride batteries for autos. Expected to hit the market around 1995, the batteries will cost up to five times as much as their rechargeable lead acid counterparts. But with one of them under the hood, electric cars will do 43 miles on a 15-minute charge--double the distance for a typical lead battery. The new units can also be recharged 1,500 times--triple the number for lead batteries.
Matsushita's worry now: the U.S. competition. By 1995, the Energy Dept. and Detroit's Big Three auto makers plan to spend $260 million on improved batteries. On May 19, the consortium awarded an $18.5 million contract to Ovonic Battery Co. in Troy, Mich., a subsidiary of Energy Conversion Devices Inc., to develop a nickel hydride battery.