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Business Week: Lithium batteries next for hybrids
Jan 27, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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JANUARY 24, 2006
Business Week

By Ian Rowley

Hybrids with Li-Ion in Their Tank Subaru, Toyota, and other carmakers are looking to lithium-ion battery technology to power the next stage of hybrid evolution

Among the slew of new hybrids at the North American International Auto Show last week in Detroit, Subaru's B5-TPH concept car stood out. One reason is that the sporty, 256-horsepower two-seater is pretty stylish by Subaru standards. Just as important, though, is a feature that was all but invisible to the casual observer: The car stores its power in lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries instead of the usual nickel metal hydride, or NiMH, cells found in today's hybrids.

That might not sound like a big deal. But battery experts reckon that lithium-ion cells are the shape of things to come for hybrids. While Subaru's parent, Fuji Heavy Industries, says it has no plans to market the B5-TPH anytime soon, the company will hit the market with a Li-ion hybrid next year.

Subaru is far from alone. Several other Japanese auto makers are close to using Li-ion batteries to power hybrids, while non-Japanese manufacturers have also expressed interest, say execs at Sanyo Electric (SANYY ), a key supplier of batteries. Market-leader Toyota (TM ) has indicated it will step up development of Li-ion-powered hybrids. And Nissan (NSANY ), which produced a limited run of 100 hybrids using Li-ion cells back in 2000, now hopes to ramp up the technology (see BW Online, 1/5/06, "Pursuing New Power for Hybrids").

SERIOUS CONSIDERATION. "Lithium ion has been marching along, finding new applications and becoming more and more the dominant technology," says Brian Barnett, managing director of Tiax, a technology research firm based in Cambridge, Mass. "The next target is hybrids."

It's easy to see the attraction of lithium-ion for auto makers. Li-ion cells are smaller, lighter, and more powerful than NiMH batteries. If manufacturers can bring prices down -- a vital consideration since batteries account for over a third of the cost of hybrid systems -- there's every reason to believe that Li-ion will supplant NiMH as they have in laptops and other electronic gadgets.

"Auto manufacturers are looking very seriously at lithium-ion technology because of its light weight, high energy density, and high power," says Mitsuru Honma, president of the mobile energy division at Osaka-based Sanyo, which currently supplies NiMH hybrid systems to Ford (F ) and Honda (HMC ), and has a 35% share of the global market for lithium-ion batteries.

CUTTING COSTS IN HALF. Li-ion test results are certainly impressive. Sanyo has already produced Li-ion cells with power densities of 3,500 watts per kilogram -- more than double today's NiMH batteries. And while NiMH cells produce 1.2 volts, Sanyo's Li-ion models pump out 3.7 volts, so a car would need only one-third the number of cells. In short, a Li-ion hybrid system would would take up less space and weigh less, which should help further boost fuel efficiency.

Honma is bullish on the prospects for Li-ion cells and expects the technology to become dominant by 2010. By that time, Sanyo estimates that auto makers will sell some 3 million hybrid cars a year globally, and the hybrid premium -- the additional cost of producing a hybrid over a standard gasoline engine -- could fall to less than $2,000 from around $4,000 today. In March, Sanyo will begin a pilot production line for Li-ion cells at a plant in Tokushima in western Japan.

Toyota is also set to play a big part in the rollout of Li-ion battery technology to hybrids. A year ago, it became the first company to use lithium-ion batteries in a full production vehicle when it put a four-cell lithium pack in its Vitz compact in Japan. But the vehicle was only a partial hybrid -- the batteries power the lights, heater, air conditioner, and radio when the car is stopped and the engine is turned off but don't help propel the vehicle.

SAFETY CONCERNS. Before long, though, that should change. In October, Toyota upped its stake to 60% in Panasonic EV Energy, a joint venture with Matsushita Electric (MC ) that makes cells for hybrids. Some analysts even reckon that Subaru's battery technology, developed with NEC (NIPNY ), was a key factor in Toyota's decision to buy an 8.8% stake in Fuji Heavy from General Motors (GM ) last September, though Toyota declines to comment.

And the next Prius, expected in 2008 or 2009, may well feature Li-ion technology. "I can't say when cars might run on lithium-ion batteries, but there's a very good chance they will be used," says Kazuo Okamoto, Toyota's executive vice-president in charge of R&D and design.

Still, auto makers face numerous hurdles before Li-ion becomes the battery of choice for hybrids. One concern is safety. "You've got lithium-ion batteries in all sorts of things -- cell phones, iPods, and other household goods. But generally none of those run into each other at 100 kilometers per hour like cars do," says Andrew Phillips, an analyst at Nikko Citigroup in Tokyo.

GOING THE EXTRA MILE. Even without collisions, Li-ion batteries have on rare occasions burst into flames after short-circuiting. While manufacturers seem to have a pretty good handle on these issues, even one or two high-profile incidents could have a dramatic effect on public perception. "Fail-safe technologies are a vital part of Li-ion battery development," says Shigeru Gotoh, head of marketing and planning at Panasonic EV Energy.

Durability will be just as important. "Lithium-ion's capacity to hold a charge declines over time -- they start aging the minute they're off the production line," says Kurt Sanger, an analyst at Macquarie Securities in Tokyo.

Honma, though, says Sanyo would be comfortable guaranteeing its Li-ion cells for long periods. Today, Sanyo guarantees its NiMH batteries for 8 years and 80,000 miles. He adds that if specific markets demand longer life spans rather than increased power -- American car buyers tend to hang on to vehicles longer than their Japanese counterparts -- Sanyo will be able to produce them.

Price is still the biggest hurdle. Li-ion cells remain far more expensive per watt of output than NiMH. Proponents of Li-ion technology, though, say as production volumes take off, costs will plummet -- just as they did in laptops and mobile phones -- and that it's nearly inevitable that the batteries will be hitting the streets en masse sometime soon.

READER COMMENTS -- read up from bottom (I submitted one, which is being reviewed)

Nickname: Robby Review: Li-Ion batteries are pretty easily recyclable. I don't know about all the "liberal" business, but if this technology proves economically feasible due to an economy of scale, then it will happen. I don't think this is a case of "act now, think later", but rather a naturally occuring evolution of technology. Date reviewed: Jan 26, 2006 4:59 PM

Nickname: toyolla2 Review: Someone thinks power density is replacing the term energy density. That is incorrect, you need both these parameters in order to predict vehicle performance. The reporter is exactly right the power density of li-ion is twice that of NiMH. The Panasonic batteries in GenII Prius are 1300W/kg to Li-ions 3500W/kg. Power density is the ability to provide large currents for sportscar performance. Energy density is the ability to hold energy so that for a given mass of battery you can drive more miles on battery alone, its units are Wh/kg. For NiMH currently 46Wh/kg is the norm. A hybrid car is more interested in having large amounts power available instantly for the powerful electric motors. Mileage is of secondary interest unless of course you are building an all electric car. Most lead acid batteries today are manufactured from recycled lead acid batteries. Even the plastic cases are converted to feedstock for new cases. Acid is neutralised and used for fertiliser.

Nickname: MAG Review: I agree with REX. Valence Technology already has a patent on LI bateries (Saphion Technology) which can provide safe "Large format" LI batteries for Hybrid vehicles. I believe that this stock (VLNC) has the potential for "Large" future growth.

Nickname: DT Review: The "Toshiba Li-ion nanobattery" is susposed to go into production this year. It has a very fast recharge time, it works for over 1000 cycles, and it has a wide temperature range.

Nickname: Kam Review: So what will we do with all these batteries at the end of their life cycle? Bury it and contaminate the soil and water tables? Typical liberal feel-good for the moment thinking. Never mind that diesel fuel is more fuel efficient than current hybrids, with no left over heavy metals to be buried into the earth. Oh, and please don't forget to feel good about pushing for ethanol. Where it takes 2 gallons of gas to make one gallon of ethanol. What this environment needs is a little thinking.

Nickname: Pat Review: But will these vehicles offer recharging capability from standard electricity sources? This is the key in achieving large-scale decreases in petroleum usage and the consequent security threat of being so dependent on foreign energy imports.

Nickname: lovey Review: Who makes lithium batteries???

Nickname: WC Shumay Review: Nice roundup on applications for an important battery technology. Important, though, to emphasize the fire, and explosion, hazard that is part of the very nature of lithium battery chemistry. Bomb-like events have been rare, but they have dealt serious injury to some cell phone users. In vehicle-sized batteries, this failure mode is potentially life-threatening. Much work remains to be done here -- Safety, as well as price, could be the major limitation to widespread vehicle application.

Nickname: Rex Review: Valence Tech in Texas is already in hot pursuit of LiIon Batteries. Very interesting to watch out for.

Nickname: HMoose Review: Very interesting article. An important missing piece is work being done in the USA with Lithium-ion batteries. Companies as small as Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI) all the way up to General Motors are working on Li-Ion batteries for hybrid applications. Why no information on USA efforts in this area? Date reviewed: Jan 25, 2006 4:24 PM

The views and opinions expressed in these comments do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of BusinessWeek or the McGraw-Hill Companies.

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