The Quest for a Better Battery

EnerDel's Ulrik Grape on the challenges of building lithium ion batteries, Japanese competition, and what cars we'll be driving in 2013

This interview series about the future of the car is produced in collaboration with Auto Futuretech—Summit 2008, a gathering of leading auto industry executives to discuss critical environmental and energy issues. Auto FutureTech will take place in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, from Mar. 12-14, 2008.

At some point in 2007, an unsuspecting car buyer purchased the one-millionth gas-electric hybrid car in the U.S.. As remarkable as that number seems, many auto industry analysts see hybrids as only the first step in the mass transformation of our gas-powered cars into a worldwide fleet of electric-powered vehicles. Ulrik Grape, chief executive of Indianapolis-based EnerDel—one of a handful of battery companies helping to bring about this change—sees the lithium ion battery as the key to this change. Grape spoke with Bradley Berman, editor of HybridCars.com, about advanced auto batteries, Japanese competition, and the future of cars:

What are we going to be driving in 2013 that's different from today's cars?

The hybrid market is going to be taking off in significant volumes at that time. It's difficult to predict market share, but it's increasing every year. I think we'll see plug-in hybrids, especially here in the U.S. And I think we'll see electric vehicles coming back strongly as well. We're going to see a multitude of these applications.

And what about 25 years from now?

I don't know if we'll see 100%, but I'm sure we're going to see that a very strong percentage of cars are going to be electrified. There are so many advantages to an electric drive. Obviously we are dealing with fuel economy, CO2 emissions, and global warming—but it's also performance that makes electrifying the vehicle very attractive. It offers very smooth acceleration and braking. A lot of these changes are going to be based on performance for the customer.

So in 25 years, nearly every vehicle will run at least partly on electricity?

That's my vision. That's where we have every opportunity to go. Of course, it's up to automotive companies, battery companies, and government to push things in that direction.

What about customers? Won't they need to change their expectations or their driving activity?

Of course, with electric vehicles, you have to plug in the vehicle. Maybe I'm an optimist, but we plug in our cell phones and our laptops every day. I don't see any reason why we wouldn't get used to plugging in our vehicles at home. Where I grew up in Norway, in the winter when it was 20 degrees below zero Celsius, people had engine warmers. There was a socket in the wall, and a little electric motor in the car that would warm up the engine so the car would start in the mornings.

Toyota just announced their plans to offer a plug-in hybrid to commercial customers by 2010, and their plans to add assembly line to build lithium batteries for cars. They already own almost the entire market for nickel metal hydride batteries used in today's hybrids. Isn't the Toyota (TM) announcement a threat to the fledgling lithium battery industry in the U.S.?

I think it's positive. Certainly Toyota is the big bear out there. But there are so many programs with other car companies. It shows that the big player in the market is serious about lithium ion, and further validates the advent of lithium into this industry. I think it's a great opportunity for us as a U.S.-based company, with significant potential customers here in the U.S., and not only with U.S. companies but foreign companies making and assembling cars here in the U.S. Going forward, you will see battery manufacturing of lithium ion batteries in the U.S., and also in Europe, because it's important to have a local supply.

There's every indication that the U.S. is going to be the world's biggest market for hybrids.

Does an electric- and hybrid-car future pivot on the commercialization of automotive lithium ion batteries?

Lithium ion is the Holy Grail of batteries. It's the lightest metal and offers many attractive properties. Lithium ion holds a lot of promise because there are so many chemistries in the lithium ion family. You can develop very high-power chemistries needed for hybrid electric vehicles, the pure hybrids. Then there are modifications of those chemistries that provide advantages for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, where you're clearly going to need more energy density.

So there's not one kind of lithium battery?

Exactly. That's what it offers in terms of opportunities. And that's why I think it's the attractive chemistry for the electrification of automobiles.

What will happen to the current hybrid battery technology, nickel metal hydride?

Nickel metal hydride is the staple of the hybrid industry today. It has 100% market share today. It will stay a part of the industry for a number of years. But lithium ion offers too many advantages. In time it's going to completely dominate this application much like it did in the electronics sector. In the early 1990s, everything was nickel metal hydride, whether it was your cell phone or your portable computer. Today it's virtually a 100% market penetration for lithium ion in all these applications, because of the advantages it offers in being lighter weight and taking up less space. It's going to take over the automotive world as well. We can drive down the cost of lithium ion batteries, and it's going to be a longer, more durable technology.

If an electric car future depends on lithium ion batteries, what about the issues of battery safety and longevity? Remember those Dell laptop batteries that caught fire?

Safety, longevity, and cost are the three most important aspects for batteries for electrification of the vehicle. It's our duty as battery manufacturers to make sure we develop chemistries that have a long life and good safety characteristics. A lot of it is testing and nitty-gritty, hard work.

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