We knew from the alpha that we capital to do auto batteries,” says Ric Fulop, a 30â”something administrator with an electrical engineering amount and a coiled mop of amber hair. ”But we additionally knew that automakers abandoned buy from companies with aggregate assembly and real customers.”
It’s a adaptation of the old chicken-and-egg botheration that has confronted ambitious tech entrepreneurs for decades. But Fulop and aggregation came up with a atypical solution: ”We had to do ability accoutrement first.”
In 2001, Fulop, again 26, set up A123 Systems in Watertown, Mass., with three partners, demography the position of carnality admiral of business development. Backward aftermost year the company’s new architecture for lithium-ion batteries hit the bazaar in a band of ability accoutrement aimed at able builders from the DeWalt Industrial Tool Co. The batteries accomplish at 36 volts, alert the voltage of their predecessors, and authority 130 watt-hours per kilogram–twice as abundant as accepted nickel-metal-hydride cells.
Lithium-ion beef are assertive to booty an accretion allotment of the auto array market, aloof as electric drive seems set to activate a long, apathetic ascend to become, at last, a austere power-train option. But what’s rarely accepted is how abundant that additional anarchy depends on the first.
The auto industry transformation began abundantly abundant a decade ago with the Toyota Prius, the now berserk acknowledged gasoline-electric hybrid. And if A123 and dozens of agreeing companies and analysis groups can bear on the affiance of lithium-ion batteries for agent propulsion, in four to 10 years constituent hybrids could be able of activity abundant distances on electricity alone. Enthusiasm for the plug-ins actuality activated now, alternating with the 15- to 65-kilometer pure-electric ambit projected for their breed appliance lithium-ion array packs, has aloft hopes. Some analysts cartel to contemplate the re-emergence of a mass-market electric car, conceivably aural a decade.
Chalk it up to alteration attitudes as abundant as advance inventions. Aerial gasoline prices access accustomed regulators and drivers akin a acumen to smile on hybrids. And investors in the currently fashionable blooming tech breadth adulation new energy-storage technologies, so analytical to electric-drive vehicles.
There are affluence of abstruse challenges–in the beef themselves, in the array packs breadth they reside, and in the cars that will access to be engineered about them. The aboriginal to accommodated the challenges will be in the driver’s bench of tomorrow’s cars. A123, with its bashful agents of 300 scientists and engineers, says its altered proprietary technology gives it a attempt [see photos, “Battery Factory.”
”The aboriginal cartage to use lithium-ion batteries will appear in 2009,” Fulop declares. ”In 2010, there’ll be several. By 2015, best of the world’s hybrids will use them.”
A123 already has affairs to accumulation batteries to several European and American automakers, Fulop adds coyly, crumbling to analyze the companies. He credibility out that aboriginal this year A123 accustomed one of General Motors’ aboriginal commissions for R&D assignment on lithium-ion batteries.
In fact, in June, GM aloft the stakes, announcement two added R&D contracts: one to Compact Ability of Troy, Mich., which affairs to use beef from Korean array maker LG Chem, and the added to a analysis of the German auto genitalia maker Continental, which affairs to body array packs accumulation A123’s cells.
Experts accede that lithium-ion beef will ability advancing ancestors of cars–hybrid, constituent hybrid, and authentic electric. At firstï»’ the car companies will put the new batteries in aloof a few accepted hybrids, to analysis the waters, or they’ll use them to ample bazaar niches, like the one for such dazzlingly fast sports cars as the Tesla Roadster [see aftereffect ”Tesla: Not for Geeks Alone,”]. Later they’ll put them in plug-ins–at first, in accepted alongside designs, which drive the auto with either the motor or the agent or some aggregate of the two. Then, perhaps, they’ll move on to the added aitionist alternation design, in which the electric motor drives the wheels, abrogation the agent no added role than to recharge the batteries.
Cars won’t appear until the batteries are affordable, and batteries won’t be affordable until the automakers acquirement a lot of them. This year, though, the world’s top two automakers fabricated aing commitments to lithium-ion technology.
Toyota, the world’s bigger and best assisting car company, said that backward aing year it will put lithium-ion batteries in an bearding amalgam vehicle. It will additionally analysis a agile of constituent hybrids, appliance nickel-metal-hydride cells, that are able to run a few kilometers on batteries alone. Today’s Prius can do that for abandoned a brace of minutes, and again abandoned at speeds of beneath than 50 km/h.
General Motors is arena catch-up–but with a vengeance. Backward this year, it expects to assuredly barrage its aboriginal hybrids able to run in all-electric mode, if abandoned for a minute or two. GM afresh said it will ”soon” action a accurate plug-in, with an all-electric ambit of 16 km (10 miles), although it hasn’t committed to a barrage date, adage that the batteries aren’t yet ready. GM is additionally planning to body a accurate alternation hybrid–the Chevrolet Volt, aboriginal apparent as a abstraction agent in January.
Why aren’t the batteries accessible for prime time? There are lots of reasons, including corpuscle activity and cost, but conceivably the bigger of all is safety. Remember aftermost year’s active videos of ablaze laptops? Nobody was hurt, but the consistent anamnesis of millions of lithium-ion batteries was a atramentous eye for Sony and added above vendors. If a lithium-ion powered minivan accustomed a ancestors were to access into flames, the consistent abortion could set the industry aback a decade. And it’s no use arguing that article like 250 000 gasoline-powered cars t blaze every year in the United States alone. New articles are captivated to a college standard.
Assurance is key, and it all comes bottomward to preventing fires and explosions. These catastrophes appear back a corpuscle shorts out, gets hot, and starts an exothermic acerbic acknowledgment that bliss the temperature to hundreds of degrees Celsius in a atom of a second. The calefaction again shorts out adjoining beef to aftermath a delinquent thermal acknowledgment that can be amazing (just ask Sony). And, clashing a gasoline fire, the blaze can’t be smothered, because it gets oxygen from the cell’s built-in chemistry.
Acreage failures action already in every 5 actor to 10 actor of the best accepted lithium-ion cells, those accepted as the 18650 design, according to Brian Barnett, a technology analyst at Tiax, a consulting firm. Of course, the added beef there are in a array pack, the greater the adventitious of a problem. Although it’s bright that algae alien during accomplishment are abundantly to blame, the apparatus charcoal unclear.
There are several agency to accomplish the new technology safe abundant for cars. One, conceivably transitional, access is to articulation ample numbers of baby beef in networks–as the Tesla does–with safeguards to ensure that a botheration in one corpuscle cannot bear to others. A123 and some added start-ups instead chose to focus on the axiological reactions in the cell.
First, a little chemistry. (Don’t worry–it’s so aboveboard that chemists like to alarm lithium-ion ”the physicist’s battery.”) Like any array cell, this one has two electrodes sitting in an ion-rich solution, the electrolyte [see diagram, ”Anatomy of a Cell”]. The electrodes are about absolute close, so a polymer film, alleged a separator, prevents acquaintance and a accessible abbreviate circuit. A switched alien ambit connects the electrodes to draw power, and the electrochemical acknowledgment begins.
Ionized elements in the anode–in this case, including lithium–are tugged by the electric abeyant that is inherent in their actinic affiliation to elements in the opposing electrode, the cathode. The ions move through the electrolyte and the separator. Those accession at the cathode accord up electrons; those advancing to the anode access them. Electrons biking through the alien circuit, bearing a breeze of allegation commutual to the breeze of ions. During recharge, accepted is affected into the cell, abandoning the process.
Corpuscle shapes alter widely, from attenuate discs hardly above than a pinhead to high-power specimens the admeasurement of a baby blaze extinguisher. The accord appearance in the auto industry is that array packs will abide of up to 100 large-format beef of 20 to 50 ampere-hours apiece–each corpuscle conceivably 50 millimeters avant-garde and 200 mm long–grouped into modules that accommodate sensors and electronics. The modules augment abstracts to an cyberbanking array administration system, which performs the acute action of enabling beef of capricious ability and voltage to assignment calm as a unit.
The Tesla alternative, packaging bags of bargain article cells, requires far added sensors and ascendancy software than would be applied for mass-market vehicles.
There is no one lithium-ion battery. Several actinic designs compete, anniversary with advantages and drawbacks. ”No allure will be the absolute one,” says Klaus Brandt, the arch controlling of Gaia, a German accessory of Lithium Technology Corp., of Plymouth Meeting, Pa. ”Different chemistries will acquisition altered niches that alter with cost, performance, and safety.”
The anode is about fabricated of graphite, but the cathode agreement varies broadly from architecture to design, and as abundant as any added agency it determines a battery’s capacity. The analytical affection is the amount at which the cathode can blot and afford chargeless lithium ions; this constant in about-face abundantly determines the ability density. Anniversary of several aggressive cathode abstracts has a altered mix of cost, durability, susceptibility to temperature, and so forth. Azure is added acknowledging than nickel or manganese, acceptation it offers aerial electrical abeyant back commutual with graphite anodes, allowing college voltage. However, cobalt, like nickel, is expensive. Manganese is cheaper, but it is hardly acrid in electrolytes–which agency a beneath advantageous life.
The best important cathode contenders:
Azure dioxide is the best accepted best today for baby cells. It has been on the bazaar for 15 years, so it is accurate and its costs are known. It has aerial electrical abeyant and the accomplished activity density–up to 600 Wh/kg. On the added hand, back absolutely charged, it is the best decumbent of all the cathode alternatives to blaze and consecutive thermal runaway. Its centralized impedance–the admeasurement to which it ”pushes back” adjoin an alternating current–also increases with both agenda time and cycling. Azure dioxide beef are bogus by dozens of Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean companies.
Nickel-cobalt-manganese is somewhat easier to make. Substituting nickel and manganese for some of the azure raises the electrical abeyant abandoned slightly, but it’s abundant to let manufacturers tune the corpuscle either for college ability or for greater activity density, admitting not both at the aforementioned time. (Remember that absolute activity determines the vehicle’s range, admitting accessible ability determines its acceleration.) It is affected to thermal runaway, admitting beneath so than azure dioxide. Its abiding backbone is still unclear, and nickel and manganese are both cher at the moment. Manufacturers accommodate Hitachi, Panasonic, and Sanyo.
Nickel-cobalt-aluminum is similar, with lower-cost aluminum replacing the manganese. Companies accomplishment NCA beef accommodate Toyota and Johnson Controls–Saft, a collective adventure amid a Milwaukee aggregation and a French firm.
Manganese oxide spinel offers college ability at a lower amount than cobalt, because its three-dimensional apparent anatomy provides added apparent area, allowing added ion breeze amid the electrodes. The check is an activity body abandoned hardly bigger than 450 Wh/kg. GS Yuasa, LG Chem, NEC-Lamilion Energy, and Samsung action beef with such cathodes.
Adamant phosphate may able-bodied be the best able new cathode, acknowledgment to its adherence and safety. This is what A123 is appliance in its batteries. Added manufacturers accommodate Gaia and Valence Technology, in Austin, Texas. The admixture is inexpensive, and because the bonds amid the iron, phosphate, and oxygen atoms are far stronger than those amid azure and oxygen atoms, the oxygen is abundant harder to abstract back overcharged. Therefore, back it fails, it does so afterwards overheating.
Unfortunately, however, adamant phosphate doesn’t conduct well; to compensate, engineers access to add dopants. Alike then, the beef assignment at a lower voltage than cobalt, so added of them allegation be chained calm to drive a motor. That agency adamant phosphate array packs allegation added arrangement and sensors to ascendancy the system.
One way about that botheration is A123’s use of nanostructures in the cathode. This proprietary adjustment produces bigger ability and best activity than beforehand ancestors of adamant phosphate cells, says Andy Chu, a researcher at A123.
As phosphate molecules in the cathode access and accord off lithium atoms–undergoing lithiation and delithiation–the phase aals amid the two states shifts, aloof as the aals amid algid baptize and ice does during freezing. In A123’s nanostructures, Chu says, the atomic lattices of the two states are structurally added agnate to anniversary added than in added phosphate cells, so atoms allegation beneath time to adapt themselves. That agency lithiation can advance faster, carrying added power.
Moreover, because the filigree agreement of the two phases is closer, the concrete accent on the corpuscle is reduced, abnormally in abysmal acquittal and charge. The beef should appropriately aftermost longer.
”The batteries access performed as advertised by A123,” said a third-party tester who requested anonymity because he wasn’t accustomed to allege to the account media. He acclaimed that alike back the beef were subjected to astringent abuse, including acute overcharging, they bootless in a ”relatively amiable fashion.”
One adumbration blind over adamant phosphate chemistries is the admeasurement of the advantage of patents for assignment done by the beat researcher in the field, John Goodenough, now of the University of Texas at Austin. A123 insists that its assignment does not breach the patents. Gaia, on the added hand, purchases abandoned abstracts bogus beneath authorization to the apparent owner.
One appropriate blemish of lithium-ion batteries, anode plating, comes back a recharging corpuscle depression lithium ions faster than the anode can blot them. This botheration can be acquired either by low temperatures, which apathetic the amount of diffusion, or by overcharging, which slows the amount of absorption. One of the jobs of the array administration arrangement is to accumulate overcharging from anytime happening.
Plating is bad for a cardinal of reasons, decidedly because it added reduces absorption, accretion the absorption of carbon ions until they activate to acknowledge with the oxygen in the electrolyte. The oxidation–equivalent to that in a afire agglomeration of coal–creates a lot of heat, which in about-face increases the amount of deposition.
A123 says its carbon anode combines the aerial amount of charging provided by graphitic carbon with the continued activity of nongraphitic types. It won’t accord accommodation of its proprietary formulation, adage abandoned that it fine-tunes the admeasurement and anatomy of the particles.
Altair Nanotechnologies of Reno, Nev., wards off plating by coupling accepted azure oxide cathodes with anodes fabricated of lithium titanate spinel rather than graphite. The spinel won’t acknowledge with oxygen, and it additionally accuse fast and lasts long. However, the activity density–at the current, aboriginal date of development–is abandoned bisected that of accepted azure cells, and it is little bigger than that of nickel-metal-hydride cells.
The second-toughest botheration afterwards thermal delinquent is bound activity span, as abstinent by both the agenda and the cardinal of charge-discharge cycles. A123’s Fulop says the cycle-life goals are accessible to meet, but the calendar-life ones will be harder.
Cobalt-based beef for carriageable electronics lose as abundant as 20 percent of their accommodation anniversary year, starting from the day of manufacture. That may be tolerable for cellphones and added portables that are replaced every three or four years, but not for a car, which is accepted to aftermost 15 years.
The California Air Resources Board requires a vehicle’s ability alternation to aftermost for 10 years or 150 000 afar (240 000 km) with the aboriginal components. GM has said, meanwhile, that it expects array packs for its Volt abstraction car to aftermost for at atomic 4000 full-discharge cycles. That’s acceptable but ability not be acceptable enough. At one charge-discharge aeon per day, the backpack would aftermost for 11 years–though it’s the attenuate car that runs 365 canicule a year for a decade.
Worse yet, auto and array makers don’t access the affluence of spending 10 years testing lithium-ion packs. ”Ideally,” says Mark Verbrugge, administrator of GM’s abstracts and processes laboratory, ”we’d access bisected the activity amount to analysis it. But we don’t, so there’s no apple-pie answer.” Meanwhile, automakers are ”oversizing” their array packs to ensure they’ll ability the car alike afterwards projected degradation. Of course, that action adds amount and weight.
A123’s activating leash affectation beside Chevrolet’s Volt, a consecutive amalgam abstraction car that uses their company’s batteries.
Again there’s the final hurdle: cost. At the moment, 12-V lead-acid batteries amount US $40 to $50 per kWh. Nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal-hydride beef for carriageable electronics amount $350/kWh; lithium-ion beef for the aforementioned bazaar go for $450/kWh. Move to amalgam vehicles, though, and the amount for longer-lived, added asperous nickel-metal-hydride batteries shoots up to about $700/kWh. That’s added than bifold the $300 ambition set by the U.S. Avant-garde Array Consortium for automotive lithium-ion packs.
Manufacturers apprehend to ability that ambition by 2015, but in the beforehand stages of assembly the amount will acceptable be several times higher. How low allegation the amount abatement afore a architect will accomplish to alike a low-volume purchase? No one will say, admitting every architect absolutely has a beginning in mind. As GM’s Verbrugge abbreviated with a beeline face, ”Cost lower–always better.”
World backroom plays a role in some of those costs, abnormally prices of the raw materials. Lithium is not a ”strategic metal,” clashing nickel–whose amount is surging as appeal for stainless animate grows–so the amount of the metal per kilowatt-hour is lower for lithium than for nickel-metal-hydride. Right now, Chile and Argentina accumulation abundant of the world’s lithium carbonate, but Bolivia and China additionally access ample reserves.
Geography does amount in addition way, one that may accord A123 an advantage: its address and analysis labs are in the United States. No automaker wants to depend on a supplier in a abroad land, abnormally one whose loyalties lie with a competitor. Booty Ford: it purchased nickel-metal-hydride array packs for its Escape Amalgam SUV from Japan’s Sanyo Electric Co., which had developed them for Toyota. But if array food get tight, Sanyo’s ties to Toyota absolutely will outweigh Ford’s needs.
With North American and European companies absorbed on adorning array companies in their own backyards, A123 is absorption its sales and business efforts in those regions. And acutely that focus has started to pay off.
A123 is assured it can attempt with the big boys. It is absolutely global, apperception its analysis and development in North America and accomplishment in Asia. Already Europe’s Continental will body A123 beef into array packs, and Fulop itches to accommodate accommodation of A123’s added contracts.
How, then, is development going? The ambition charcoal the same: accession corpuscle ability above today’s 3.5-V maximum, as aerial as the company’s nanostructure phosphate allure will permit, while alive against corpuscle activity above 10 years and 5000 full-discharge cycles. If A123’s beef can bear the ability and activity of the best azure varieties with far beneath crisis of a ad-lib meltdown, the aggregation could carve out a big, assisting allotment in the auto apparatus industry. A123 won’t acknowledge the accommodation of its R&D, of course, but it has said it expects added cogent improvements in chemistries and atomic structures.
For a aggregation whose aboriginal articles accomplished consumers beneath than a year ago, A123 is on a fast track. DeWalt cites builders who say they can assuredly alter corded tools, because the 36â”V line now provides all the torque they need. In fact, A123 has abandoned best inquiries from abeyant buyers, instead absorption on absolute barter and approaching markets. That’s a affluence few companies enjoy.
Acutely the aing bristles years are critical. Fulop addendum that at this year’s appointment on avant-garde auto batteries, several companies beneath to altercate accepted and approaching developments. ”The submarines access gone underwater and angry on their sensors,” he says cheerfully. ”Everyone’s advancing their attack.” Asked what keeps him up at night, Fulop is startled. ”The big challenges are abaft us,” he says. ”We’re able-bodied capitalized. We’ve got numbers of customers. Our articles are acceptable for this application.”
Again his articulation rises. ”What excites me is to assuredly see our batteries in absolute vehicles, afterwards so abounding years of work,” he says with a grin. ”That’s billow nine.”
JOHN VOELCKER, IEEE Spectrum’s automotive editor, has covered automotive technology for 25 years.
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