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764GM Moves Ahead on Batteries for Volt; What To Call PHEVs

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  • Felix Kramer
    Jun 10 10:54 PM
      In a most welcome step, GM has moved several
      steps closer on selecting lithium-ion batteries
      for its Volt series plug-in hybrid. Below we
      include our overall comments, the news, an
      analysis by Technology Review, and links to other
      places where you can learn more and post
      comments. We conclude with a related light but
      significant story from the Detroit Free Press: as
      Detroit's media realize that PHEVs are coming,
      they raise a new issues: the urgent need for a
      consumer-friendly name for plug-in hybrids!

      The reports below project that full battery packs
      from two suppliers will be tested in labs and
      vehicles between now and June 2008. One year from
      now, GM will choose a vendor. GM continues to
      maintain artificially high requirements, as it
      has since announcing the Volt, despite pointed
      questions from many directions. GM's management
      remains convinced that a car with less than a
      40-mile range will be attractive to only a small
      niche of consumers. (Even though the round-trip
      commuting "sweet spot" is around 25 miles.) And
      the need to confirm in advance a 100,000-mile
      battery lifetime prolongs the development timetable.

      In public and private forums, GM has implied that
      those who suggest starting with long-proven (but
      heavier) nickel-metal hydride batteries don't
      understand the complexity of the design process.
      NiMH proponents understand that GM will design
      the car's physical space around the lithium-ion
      battery's requirements. They do suggest GM use
      that space for a similarly-sized NiMH battery
      with less range (and of course, design the
      appropriate charger and other software.) Yes,
      this is more work, but it could get a
      demonstration fleet on the road much faster, and,
      we think, improve the chances that this vehicle
      will succeed. For a graphic depiction of our view
      of Prius and GM versions, see a new slide taken
      from our presentation, <http://www.calcars.org/calcars-versions.pdf>.

      The first five paragraphs of the company press
      release give the basic

      General Motors has awarded two contracts for
      advanced development of lithium-ion batteries for
      its electric drive "E-Flex System," it was
      announced today at GM's annual shareholder meeting.

      GM selected two companies out of the 13 technical
      proposals it considered to provide advanced
      lithium batteries for both range-extender
      electric and fuel cell variants of the E-Flex
      architecture. The E-Flex electric vehicle
      architecture underpins the Chevy Volt concept car
      shown earlier this year and is being developed as
      part of GM's strategy to diversify transportation away from petroleum.

      One contract will go to lithium-ion battery
      supplier Compact Power, Inc., based in Troy,
      Mich. CPI is a subsidiary of Korean battery
      manufacturer LG Chem. A second contract has been
      awarded to Frankfurt, Germany-based Continental
      Automotive Systems, a division of Continental
      A.G., a tier one automotive supplier that will
      develop lithium-ion battery packs. GM continues
      to assess other solutions to quickly bring lithium-ion batteries to production.

      "The signing of these battery development
      contracts is an important next step on the path
      to bring the Volt closer to reality," said GM
      Chairman and CEO, Rick Wagoner. "Given the huge
      potential that the Volt and its E-Flex system
      offers to lower oil consumption, lower oil
      imports, and reduce carbon emissions, this is a top priority program for GM."

      For those who have been following all the
      candidates for batteries for PHEVs, for the Volt,
      Contintental Automotive will be working with
      batteries from A123Systems. (A123, in a
      partnership with Cobasys, is also contracted to
      develop batteries for the Saturn VUE PHEV.) For
      the Volt, CPI/LG-Chem is a new entry. (Not being
      considered for the Volt is Johnson-Controls-SAFT,
      still in contention for batteries for the VUE.)
      Note that the announcement says the company
      hasn't foreclosed other options as well.

      To follow this issue further, you can read
      postings by Denise Gray, Director, Hybrid Energy
      Storage Systems, and comments at the GM Fastlane
      Blog <http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/archives/2007/06/charging_ahead_1.html> .

      At Green Car Congress
      you can read technical details on both battery
      vendors' products, and read viewers' comments.

      Below we've reprinted a longer report from
      Technology Review. Among the viewer comments
      you'll see some responses that will interest
      those who write us asking about AltairNano's
      long-cycle batteries and EEStor's
      ultracapacitors. (Quick answer: Altair's products
      are only beginning to be evaluated by third
      parties and EEStor has not released anything.)

      Technology Review, Thursday, June 07, 2007 By Kevin Bullis
      New Batteries Readied for GM's Electric Vehicle
      The technologies behind the battery packs for the
      GM Volt are being tested and could be ready within a year.

      This week, General Motors (GM) announced its
      selection of battery makers to develop and test
      battery packs for use in its proposed electric
      vehicles. The selected battery makers, Compact
      Power, based in Troy, MI, and Continental
      Automotive Systems, based in Germany, say that
      they've overcome the performance and cost
      limitations that have been an obstacle to electric vehicles in the past.

      Over the next 12 months, researchers from,
      Compact Power, Continental Automotive Systems and
      GM will be testing the battery-pack designs in
      the lab and in vehicles to confirm that the packs
      can work for the life of the car--at least 10
      years, says Denise Gray, director of hybrid
      energy storage devices at GM. Initial tests of
      individual battery cells, along with projections
      about the performance of battery packs that can
      contain hundreds of these cells, have Gray
      optimistic that her company will have proven packs by June 2008.

      If the packs perform well, they are slated for
      use in the proposed Chevrolet Volt, an electric
      concept car announced by GM in January. The Volt
      marks a change in emphasis for GM, which
      previously focused on more distant plans to bring
      hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered cars to market. The
      Volt could be ready within a few years. Until
      now, however, it has been unclear who would develop its advanced batteries.

      There are a number of design variations for the
      Volt, but they will all be propelled by electric
      motors. In one version, the battery pack, which
      can be recharged by plugging it in, will provide
      40 miles of range. Then an onboard gasoline- or
      ethanol-powered generator will kick in to
      recharge the battery, providing an additional 600
      miles of range. A proposed hydrogen-fuel-cell
      version would have a smaller battery pack and no onboard generator.

      To make batteries that are up to GM's
      specifications, battery makers have had to
      redesign the chemistry of lithium-ion batteries,
      a type of battery widely used in mobile phones
      and laptops. While lithium-ion batteries are
      light and compact, the type of lithium-ion
      battery typically used in electronic devices
      relies heavily on cobalt, an expensive metal. The
      cobalt oxide used in one of the battery's
      electrodes isn't thermally stable, making the
      batteries prone to bursting into flame if damaged
      or poorly manufactured--a shortcoming that led to
      the massive recall of millions of laptop computer
      batteries last year. (See "Safer Lithium-Ion
      Batteries.") This could be a problem in vehicle
      battery packs, which would be much larger than
      those in portable electronics, so an accident could be more dangerous.

      One alternative is to replace cobalt with
      manganese. Mohamed Alamgir, director of research
      at Compact Power, says that manganese-oxide
      electrodes are significantly more thermally
      stable than cobalt oxide, and less expensive. The
      battery maker has also developed a new material
      for keeping the electrodes separate: the material
      remains stable at higher temperatures than
      conventional materials, further guarding against
      the runaway heating that causes batteries to
      catch fire. What's more, the company makes the
      batteries in a flat shape rather than in the
      typical cylindrical design. Alamgir says this
      flat shape prevents heat from building up at the
      center of the cell, making it easier to keep the
      battery at an even, cool temperature.

      A123 Systems, a company based in Watertown, MA,
      that will supply battery cells to Continental,
      has taken a different tack, turning to an
      iron-based cathode that is even more thermally
      stable than manganese oxide. Better still, iron
      is cheap and abundant. (See "More Powerful Hybrid
      Batteries.") The electrodes are not oxide
      materials but phosphates, a chemistry that more
      closely binds oxygen, preventing it from being
      freed from the material, which would allow the
      battery's flammable electrolyte to catch fire.
      Such materials do not allow for fast charging or
      delivery of big bursts of power, so researchers
      modified them, in part by doping the material and
      by forming the material as nanoparticles. The
      A123 batteries were developed for use in power
      tools but have since been modified to store more
      energy, making them better suited for use in
      electric vehicles such as the Volt.

      The battery packs for the Volt must include
      complex electronics for ensuring that each cell
      is charged and discharged properly. If individual
      cells are overcharged, for example, the pack can
      fail. Unlike measuring the gas in a tank, it can
      be tricky to monitor the exact amount of charge
      in a cell. So battery makers often include more
      cells to provide a margin of safety, as a hedge
      against both running out of power and
      overcharging the batteries. The pack makers are
      developing better electronic equipment and
      algorithms for measuring charge, which could
      allow them to use closer to the bare-minimum number of cells.

      Even as the new battery packs are being tested,
      GM is developing the rest of the vehicle,
      especially making sure that it meets targets for
      weight. Ultimately, Gray says, there could be
      tradeoffs between vehicle weight and battery
      size, depending on how the tests go. There's even
      a chance that expectations for the battery pack's
      lifetime could be lowered if necessary, although
      she emphasizes that the goal now is to have
      battery packs with 10-year lifetimes.

      In June 2008, after analyzing the data from a
      year of testing, GM will evaluate if the
      technology is where it needs to be and pick a production supplier, Gray says.

      Last week, GM's Vice Chairman Bob Lutz was on "On
      Point," a radio show by Boston's WBUR
      You can listen to it online or download the
      podcast. Interestingly, as have other GM
      representatives, Lutz goes out of his way to say
      ""We don't know how big this can be yet but it is
      a breakthrough car [The Chevy Volt] because it's
      not a plug-in hybrid. This vehicle is an electric
      vehicle. It's driven electrically; it has a small
      gasoline engine that can be used like an
      emergency generator set if you run your batteries
      down to generate more electricity. We're shooting
      for an all electric range of 40 miles including
      freeway driving at 70 miles an hour. This thing
      will have a top speed of 100 miles an hour so it
      will be a fully functional automobile."

      Clearly, someone at GM has decided that "EV"
      sounds better than "PHEV." In the wake of this
      show comes one of the stories we find both
      amusing and very encouraging. "PHEV" has always
      been awkward -- it describes the feature rather
      than the benefit. (Like a "9-inkjet printer"
      instead of a "photo-quality printer.") Many
      people have tried other names but none have
      stuck. We believe that when the marketing people
      starting paying attention, PHEVs will make even
      faster progress in gaining consumer interest. In
      that light, we're delighted the Detroit Free
      Press's columnist raises the issue.

      The car above is: A: A hybrid B: An electric C: You tell me
      MARK PHELAN | BEHIND THE WHEEL June 10, 2007

      What's in a name?

      Plenty if you're talking about the Chevrolet
      Volt, which General Motors would like to put on
      the road in a few years. It's been called
      everything from the environmental breakthrough
      that could redefine GM to a transparent marketing ploy.

      The Volt is such a different kettle of fish that
      around the newsroom, we can't even agree on how
      to describe its propulsion system, which combines
      big batteries with a small gasoline engine. The
      gas engine charges the batteries, but you can
      also charge them by plugging the Volt into a wall outlet.

      Depending on how far you drive, gasoline
      consumption ranges from zero -- pure electric
      power up to 40 miles -- to 50 m.p.g. -- what
      you'd get from a single tank of gas on a long
      continuous drive with no stops to charge the batteries from an outlet.

      GM appears to be serious about building the Volt,
      although the die-hard skeptics dismiss it as a
      marketing gimmick. They think GM cooked up the
      idea to look environmentally aware while it pumps
      out a few hundred thousand Hummer H2s.

      Whether the idea works or not -- the technical
      hang-up is developing a powerful and
      sophisticated new kind of battery -- we're going
      to be talking and writing a lot about the Volt over the next few years.

      That's why we have to figure out what to call it.
      Existing terms don't fit, and I'm looking for suggestions.

      Here are the names we're stuck with today, and my handicap on them:

      • Hybrid. Won't do. Technically, only electricity
      powers the car when you put your foot on the
      pedal. The Volt's system would be far more
      elegant and efficient than current hybrids, which
      essentially carry around two drivetrains, one
      electric and one internal combustion.

      • Plug-in hybrid. Accurate, but a loser. The name
      combines the worst attribute of electric cars --
      "You mean I have to plug it in?" -- with a
      ho-hum, nothing-to-see-here sense that it's just another hybrid.

      • Series hybrid. The engineer's choice, which is
      all you have to know about what's wrong with it.
      It has the virtue of accuracy -- the electric and
      gasoline systems work together, rather than as
      separate-but-equal systems in current parallel
      hybrids. That's swell, but I write about this
      stuff all the time, and even I can't keep the
      difference between series and parallel hybrids straight.

      • Electric car. Call out the truth squad. The
      gasoline generator may be small and
      extraordinarily efficient, but it's there, and it
      allows the Volt the long cruising range no pure electric car could offer.

      • Extended-range electric vehicle. GM's term of
      choice has all the zing of calling a wedge of
      6-year-old Gouda cheese "stale milk by-products."
      Too long and boring for the vehicle that might be
      the next big thing. It's got some chops as an
      acronym, though. "E-rev" sounds fast and slick
      and modern. The downside is continually explaining what it means.

      For the moment, at least, the Free Press has
      decided to call the Volt electric-powered or
      electric-drive. Neither of those exactly sings
      the body electric, though, so come up with
      something that crackles like a Tesla coil and drop me a note.

      Contact MARK PHELAN at 313-222-6731 or phelan@....

      Your thoughts?

      How do you think the Volt should be described?
      Leave a message in the forum by clicking below or
      e-mail me a note at phelan@... with
      your suggested name and a brief description of
      why you think it captures the essence of what makes the Volt go.

      I can't promise to use any of them, but we'll
      print the most entertaining and interesting in this space next week.

      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
      Felix Kramer fkramer@...
      Founder California Cars Initiative
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