Electric cars: the battery issue

Electric vehicles are a major focus of current technology: the challenge is to come up with answers to the triple requirement of access to mass motorization, in particular, in emerging countries like China, the rising cost of fuels and the need to reduce carbon emissions in the context of global warming. But although hybrid models are starting to become well established, the all-electric car still suffers from doubts surrounding the battery issue (battery range, recharging network etc.)

Electric cars are soon expected to be released for sale: quiet and clean, they represent the future of cars on the road, adapted to the demands of the users’ quality of life (air quality, noise pollution), the upcoming shortage of resources and the requirements of sustainable development. An attractive promise but one that still faces limits.

Issue No. 1, battery range

Electric vehicles today are limited by their range of around 150 km, depending on engine performance and vehicle weight. Access to charging stations and the time required for a full charge are still insurmountable obstacles for drivers needing to use their cars for longer journeys. This is a problem that could be remedied by improving the quality of batteries and especially their range.

Batteries, the keys to EVs

For the moment, all the major makers have opted for Lithium-Ion batteries to power their “Electric Vehicles”. Already used in most laptop and cellphone batteries, Lithium-Ion is rather a rare and expensive compound with the most promising deposits having been located in Bolivia and Afghanistan, factors that are not mere details in terms of the security of supply of a now strategic resource. Especially since, as increasing numbers of electric cars are released, manufacturers will want to ensure that these batteries of a completely new kind are available on a large scale.

Moreover, the number of production sites of EV and batteries is rising. The Renault-Nissan Alliance is for example building three factories, one in Sunderland in the UK coming onstream in early 2012 (with annual capacity of 60 000 units), the second at  Flins in France (100,000 units per year) and the third at Cacia in Portugal planned to open in December 2012 (50,000 units per year). The batteries for the Chevrolet Volt are manufactured at Holland, Michigan in the USA. Many projects are under development in 2011, such as the creation of a plant in Novosibirsk in Russia by RUSNANO (Russia) and Sky Thunder Group Limited (China), two companies specialized in high-tech batteries.

Still uncertain technology

Despite this strong involvement, some questions remain about the Lithium-Ion battery. The technology is still imperfect. The weight and the reduced range of these batteries are an obstacle to the large-scale success of EVs. The French industrialist Vincent Bollore has preferred to bank on Lithium Metal Polymer (LMP) technology that his company, Batscap, has controlled for a long time. The Group was awarded the contract to equip the City of Paris’s Autolib’, self-service car project. In the immediate future, manufacturers have opted to rely on an improvement in Lithium-Ion battery technology, particularly in its design and recharging techniques.

The potential of electric cars in the future is extraordinary but to fully exploit this, some outstanding issues will have to be resolved. Foremost among them are the price, battery technologies and charging stations.

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