How carmakers and their partner companies are advancing towards the goal of bringing electric, hybrid-electric and other alternative powertrains to market

According to Barack Obama, energy is one of three critical areas that will soon be attracting $15 billion of annual government investment. The president recently stated in a speech to the US Congress that he wished to see, “legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America”. Clearly, vast numbers of battery-electric vehicles will finally now start to move from the lab to the showroom, while R&D for fuel cell cars has been given a major boost.

The president named plug-in hybrid cars as examples of what he wanted to see more of, noting that the US had fallen behind China in terms of making its overall economy more energy efficient. Obama wants to double the country’s supply of renewable energy by 2012, greatly expanding the adoption of technologies such as wind and solar power, advanced biofuels and clean coal. He also intends to further persuade OEMs to build more fuel-efficient cars and trucks and further convince consumers to buy such vehicles. Partly inspired by the Washington-led initiatives, suppliers and OEMs in all the world’s major new vehicle markets are racing to adopt and develop next-generation alternative energy vehicles.

A term once unknown outside the world of laptop batteries, Li-Ion (Lithium Ion cells) is now the new buzzword for electric vehicle propulsion systems. But caution should be exercised in using this single term to group the latest generation of cells.

There are in fact four Li-Ion technologies attracting extensive R&D funding: Li-Ion Cobalt, Li-Ion Manganese, Li-Ion Phosphate and Li-Ion Polymer. Each of these technologies offers a low maintenance battery with no charge memory effect and a self-discharge rate lower than 10% per month. Yet there are also drawbacks, such as a relatively short service life and in some cases safety, with protection circuitry necessary within each cell to limit peak voltage during charging and low voltage during discharge. Such batteries are also vulnerable to overheating and need cooling when in use.

Global growth in automotive batteries has increased more than ten-fold over the last six years, and the global market is likely to approach $1.4bn by 2010 and $2bn by 2013. Most specialist analysts agree that the global market for solely Li-Ion battery materials will grow from its current $1.9bn to $5.3bn by 2015. It should come as no surprise that OEMs and major Tier One companies are in the process of forming joint ventures and supply deals with the goal of being ready for when electric cars go mainstream.

Recharging Michigan’s battered economy

Amongst the provisions for a raft of incentives announced earlier in 2009 by Michigan’s Governor Jennifer Granholm is a maximum $2,000 credit for every battery pack manufactured in the state, to a maximum of $15m per annum. This is provided that 1,000 full-hybrid and electric vehicles are built locally. A further $10m is available for the annual costs of battery engineering, plus a further $25m annually (to a maximum of $100m) for battery cell production.

General Motors was one of the first OEMs to draw on the new funding. It has been granted $43m from the programme to develop and manufacture batteries for the Chevrolet Volt electric-gasoline small car. GM’s partner McLaren Performance Technologies has received its own grant of $100,000 every year for the next decade. FEV, a leading developer of advanced powertrain and vehicle technologies, is another supplier that has been investing in Michigan with a view to getting the latest electric vehicle technology up and running. The firm already has what is claimed to be the region's first full Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Development Center (HEVDC) at its Auburn Hills campus, having developed the complex over a period of two years. The final phase, the installation of a dedicated chassis dynamometer for hybrid and electric vehicle testing, was completed in March.

"The launch of the HEVDC comes at a critical time for our customers," says Gary Rogers, FEV President and CEO.

"The market, whether by congressional or state mandate, or by consumer choice, is headed in a greener direction, and it's headed there quickly. If the infrastructure to develop and thoroughly test hybrid and electric technology is not in place soon, even immediately, then we risk losing precious time and dollars in getting it on the street, or worse, putting technology out there that will not live up to its promise."

FEV’s facility includes hybrid powertrain test cells, hybrid/ EV transmission test rigs, electric motor test rigs, hybrid and electric vehicle chassis dynos and an electric charging station for PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) and EVs. The electric charging station is said to be the first in Michigan, and is now in use for the development and validation of PHEV charging systems.

All of the testing facilities are connected to multiple battery emulation systems to facilitate hybrid and electric vehicle development without the need to use individual batteries, thus avoiding downtime while batteries are recharged, or not available. Further, FEV claims it is the first company to employ a battery emulation system in conjunction with a chassis dyno in order to test full vehicle functionality of hybrid and electric systems. The battery emulation system can provide up to 900 volts (existing production hybrids use approximately 300 volts).

It isn’t just US-based companies that are beginning to revitalise parts of Michigan with new investments in greener technology. Ricardo has just opened a new Battery Systems Development Center at its Technology Campus in Detroit. The facility provides systems integration for hybrid and electric vehicle battery pack systems.

"Electrification of the vehicle is a critical element of automakers' strategies for achieving the 35mpg CAFE regulations," confirms Karina Morley, Ricardo's Global Vice- President of Controls and Electronics. "The Battery Systems Development Center is a state-of-the-art, benchmark facility that enables Ricardo to evaluate and optimise batteries throughout the development cycle, from the early stages through battery pack production and integration into the vehicle."

Ricardo believes that its new battery development facility is the only supplier operation to contain what it terms a Virtual Vehicle Development Environment. This allows engineers to conduct fully-simulated vehicle integration via specially-built chambers, equipped with high-capacity battery cyclers, high-voltage instrumentation and hardwarein- the-loop systems, to develop prototype battery pack systems.

Ford is also taking advantage of the Michigan incentives programme. The Dearborn-based group’s new electric vehicle plan announced in January will be a battery electric powered version of the Transit Connect delivery van. Ford is collaborating with Smith Electric Vehicles to bring the vehicle to market in North America in 2010. In the UK, Ford of Europe has an existing collaboration programme with Smith’s parent Tanfield. This sees battery-electric versions of the larger Ford Transit and Transit Connect commercial vehicles offered to fleet customers in selected European markets.

Ford also has a partnership with Magna International, the two companies announcing in January that they intend to apply for grants to continue development of next-generation hybrids, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles. Ford has plans for four new electric vehicles for release in North America by 2012. These include a fullyelectric Transit Connect delivery van and up to three plug-in hybrid models.

Other Canadian suppliers are increasingly becoming involved in electric vehicle drive systems. One such company is TM4, a subsidiary of Hydro-Quebec, selected by Miljo Innovasjon, a Norwegian EV technology subsidiary of Tata Motors, to provide the electric motors, power electronics and vehicle controllers for Tata's new electric Indica Vista hatchback.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance’s electric car infrastructure project

Nissan Motor is taking a different approach to that of North America-based OEMs and their partner suppliers by leveraging its alliance with Renault and its electric vehicle infrastructure partner, Project Better Place. The three firms are not only establishing battery-manufacturing projects in various global locations, but are also getting into the business of building thousands of charging stations. In Portugal, Israel and other markets where governments are keen to work with the Alliance, Nissan and its partners hope to have the infrastructure and the cars ready to go by as soon as 2011.

"The plant will probably produce around 50,000 batteries per year and may create around 300 jobs," said Carlos Tavares, Nissan's Executive Vice-President, commenting on the Portuguese battery plant initiative.

Portuguese Economy Minister Manuel Pinho says the business model for the charging network is still being studied, but added that the Lisbon government will participate in the project through its stakes in energy companies such as EDP, Galp and REN.LS.

Nissan plans to eventually have battery production factories in the US, Europe and China, adding to the one it is building in Japan.

Powering the Chevrolet Volt

Compact Power Inc (CPI), a wholly-owned subsidiary of South Korea’s LG Chem says it is investing US$60 million annually on Li-Ion battery research and development. The parent company is also the provider of the battery cells for Hyundai’s new Blue Gen System.

Based in Troy, Michigan, CPI says its goal is to become a full-service Tier One supplier of vehicle battery systems, capable of designing and delivering Li-Ion cells, modules and packs, along with the supporting battery monitoring, wire harnesses and thermal management components. The facility acts not only as a technical and commercial centre but also as a pilot manufacturing facility. The cells are currently produced in either Korea or China but CPI has the longer-term goal of cell production in the US.

What GM calls an Extended Range Electric Vehicle (E-REV) is due to start production at its Detroit- Hamtramck plant in October 2010. The five-door hatchback Chevrolet Volt has been designed to run on electric power, but will have a range-extending 1.4-litre I4 gasoline engine that will recharge the batteries in lieu of a recharging point.

GM plans to handle module and pack assembly internally, so CPI is initially focusing on battery systems. The OEM is now in the process of establishing what it claims is the first lithium-ion battery pack manufacturing plant operated by a vehicle manufacturer in the US. The pack consists of lithium-ion cells that are grouped into modules, along with other key battery components.

By 2011, General Motors looks set to be the US leader in electric vehicle tech. Some major programme components are as follows:

  • Opening the largest automotive battery lab in the United States (31,000sq ft) that will be capable of testing new energy storage system technologies, as well as lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries;
  • Continuing to ramp up in-house battery-development capability by increasing staff at its global hybrid, electric vehicle and advanced battery organisation to several hundred engineers this year, currently dedicated to advancing more than 200 battery technologies;
  • Joining with the University of Michigan to create a new automotive advanced battery lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan, together with a specialised curriculum within the university's College of Engineering to develop automotive battery engineers;
  • Continuing to partner with several battery suppliers for cell development and manufacturing and battery integration expertise - companies such as LG Chem, A123Systems, Hitachi, Compact Power and Cobasys;
  • Collaborating with government organisations and industry consortia to advance the development of hybrids, plug-ins and electric vehicles, and related electric infrastructure to support those vehicles.

Li-Ion fires, short battery life and other challenges

While all Li-Ion cells are built with a cathode, anode, separator and electrolyte contained in a package, GM’s partner CPI states that its separator, cathode chemistry and packaging give it an advantage over rival products. The firm is also tackling the issue of battery fires head-on, by talking openly about how these are prevented in the design stage.

In various older-generation Li-Ion batteries, such as those in some laptops, microscopic amounts of manufacturing debris, undetectable in end-of-line testing, might have penetrated the separator. As a result, the chemistries of the materials used in the battery could lead to a fire. CPI has developed what it calls a Safety Reinforcing Separator (SRS), said to be not only five times stronger than the industry standard but also more resistant to debris migration and overcharging.

As for cathode chemistry, there are now eight rival sub chemistries under development. For the Volt, CPI is using manganese-spinel (LiMnO2) technology. This features high stability and resistance to thermal runaway. The firm notes that cell safety issues can, of course, be handled with exterior circuitry, but these cannot really help if something happens inside the cell. As for battery life, the other looming question from a consumer standpoint, CPI believes that with the use of proprietary additives for the manganese, a calendar life of more than 15 years is achievable within a vehicle with proper design and operation.

Toshiba – electric vehicle power on four or two wheels

Volkswagen AG, traditionally an engineering-led company, surprised many when it recently announced its intention to outsource much of the development of its electric drive units. These and the accompanying power electronics for its planned New Small Family cars have been assigned to Toshiba. The Japanese electronics giant has also been commissioned to develop battery systems for the OEM with a high specific energy density for the next generation of electric vehicles.

One of Volkswagen’s objectives, states Prof. Dr Martin Winterkorn, Chairman of the Board of Management, is to be the first manufacturer to provide an emissions-free, affordable and safe large-scale production electric vehicle.

“Volkswagen is forging ahead with the development of future drive technologies in many different areas. In order to further strengthen our position, Volkswagen is investing in the long term and is offering cooperation projects to other companies. One of the important components in this context is the cooperation with Toshiba,” Winterkorn notes.

For its part, Toshiba is commercialising a fast-charging SCiB (Super Charge ion Battery) lithium-Ion battery. As part of the development process, Toshiba adopted a new, non-carbon anode material offering a high level of thermal stability, a high flash point electrolyte, and a structure resistant to internal short-circuiting and thermal runaway.

Hybrid applications come first, Toshiba says, and then purely electric cars. The company launched the SCiB with a 4.2 Ah cell version and is developing a 3.0 Ah high-power version of the cell for a range of as yet unnamed hybrid electric vehicles.

Toshiba is not limiting itself to hybrid and battery-electric applications for its latest technology. In September 2008, Cannondale Sports Group, a provider of branded bicycles and a division of Dorel Industries, selected the SCiB battery module for a new electric bicycle to be sold in North America and Europe.

Connecting tyres and electric motors

If a battery maker can team up with both car and bicycle manufacturers, why not then Valeo and Michelin? The two French Tier One companies have announced the signature of a letter of intent to coordinate the development of electric and rechargeable hybrid vehicle systems. This, the companies say, means pooled R&D in the areas of drivetrain, engine and battery cooling management, climate control, lighting, energy management and tyres.

Valeo was a key supplier for the drivetrains of over 10,000 first-generation EVs developed by PSA Peugeot Citroën and Renault. And in addition to its range of tyres and wheel assemblies, Michelin is to contribute its know-how in 'Active Wheel' hub motors and associated technologies to the new programme of collaboration.

Whilst Valeo isn’t a direct rival for dedicated battery suppliers such as Toshiba, LG Chem and others, a perhaps lesser-known firm, US-based Ener1 is breaking the rules by pushing into the Japanese market. It has signed a memorandum of understanding with Itochu, a diversified company that, among other activities, distributes specialised equipment/materials needed to produce lithium-ion battery cells.

Under the agreement, Itochu will serve as Ener1's Japanese sales, marketing and development partner for automotive OEMs and Tier One suppliers in the country. The agreement also paves the way for Itochu to introduce Ener1's batteries to the solar power markets, into which Itochu is keen to expand. Ener1, like so many of its rivals, aims to become the first company to mass-produce a cost-competitive lithiumion battery for hybrid and electric vehicles, with Itochu as one of the company's major shareholders.

Returning to Europe, another name that is starting to punch beyond its weight is Valence Technology, a lithium phosphate battery supplier. In January, it shipped its 200,000th battery module or pack since commencing the supply of such components in 2005. The firm’s Northern Ireland division serves as its European headquarters, and its technology powers applications including hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, plus battery-electric vehicles including cars, buses, trucks, scooters and motorcycles.

Among over 100 companies Valence supplies is PVI, the EV partner of Volvo Group's Renault Trucks, Tanfield Group's Smith Electric Vehicles, Wrightbus (using Valence batteries in 13 London hybrid double decker buses), Oxygen (for its Cargoscooter mail delivery scooters) and Brammo Motorsports (in its Enertia electric motorcycle). Valence also notes that it recently completed an expansion of its Suzhou manufacturing facility in China, which it says will enable it to produce up to 100 tonnes of cathode material per month.

The new American Revolution

Advanced battery technology is a key enabler for plug-in EVs, but economic and technical challenges fi rst must be addressed. This, from speakers at a recent conference on emerging battery technology held in Ann Arbor, MI and sponsored by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR).

Conference topics focused on key manufacturing requirements for battery cell manufacturing and pack assembly, together with the challenges economic developers face in creating a viable and sustainable industry sector. The economic strategy includes attracting new global manufacturing facilities into key regions. According to experts, the Detroit area stands to become a world leader in producing battery-powered EVs due to the region’s automotive and engineering expertise.

Conference speaker Dr. Prabhakar Patil, CEO of Compact Power, based in Troy, Michigan, and a subsidiary of South Korea’s LG Chem, believes it is important that battery makers and resources be located locally. In January, the company was named as supplier for battery cells to power the Chevrolet Volt.

“The evolving nature of battery technology development means you can’t do this easily by remote control. We hope to expand and become the centre for battery technology in the US, but for near future the cells will come from Korea,” explained Patil. The Volt is likely to take the title of the world’s fi =rst mass-produced plug-in EV. It uses lithium ion cell battery packs that will initially be made by CPI in Troy, MI. Patil continued to say that cell assembly process lead time can be up to 12 months and requires conveyors, robots and welders, Patil said.

Yet producing the battery packs is only half the battle. The ‘true enablers’ in accelerating electric vehicle production are sustainable volumes of hybrids and sustainable consumer demand, said Patil. “We need to make sure it’s a long-term viable set up – and not just representing initial plant investments.”

He went on to say that a major challenge is building both infrastructure and sustainable volumes for 15-20 years, meaning a viable hybrid market also must exist. “We have to be careful not to set up excess capacity prematurely and produce technology that is not suitable for vehicles in the future.”

GM engineering chief Bob Kruse, speaking about the Volt, added: “First-generation technology is expensive in any new system produced. We are convinced about the viability of this technology. Electric propulsion is a very compelling proposition. But consumers are tired of waiting for electric vehicles.”

Case in point, Kruse pointed out that the Volt would only be available in limited numbers until a critical mass could be achieved, yet this is balanced by ‘economies of scale that will bring prices down in the long term’.

Fuel Cells – advances continue but mass production challenges remain

Easily the best-known hydrogen fuel cell vehicle manufacturer is Honda, having now built and leased out two generations of its FCX models to customers in Japan and selected US cities. Since 2008, the second-generation model, the FCX Clarity, has been rolling off the production line at the New Model Centre in Tochigi Prefecture, a dedicated manufacturing facility in Japan. The line includes processes unique to a fuel cell vehicle such as the installation of the stack and hydrogen tank. The fuel cell stacks are produced by Honda Engineering, also in Tochigi. To manufacture fuel cells, Honda introduced specially-designed automated equipment. The company expects to be building about 200 units of the Clarity, a large four-door sedan, annually by 2012.

Rival Nissan continues to test its own fuel cell technology. Its latest unit is 25% smaller than the previous model and provides 130kW against 90kW before. With half the amount of platinum in its electrodes and a more durable catalyser, it will also last longer and be less expensive to build, the company claims.

One firm that believes it can go even further than Nissan is Japanese textile specialist Nisshinbo Industries. Together with the Tokyo Institute of Technology, it has developed a platinum-free catalyst for fuel cells. The new technology uses carbon instead of the precious metal as the electrode, considerably reducing costs. Although it requires ten times more carbon than platinum, the cost is said to be one-tenth that of using platinum. Nisshinbo aims to have a practical version ready by the end of current Japanese fiscal year in March 2010.

Johnson Matthey, a major auto catalyst supplier, says it sees platinum prices remaining volatile. This may continue to hold back mass production of conventional fuel cells.

Hydrogen fuel cells versus batteries

Perhaps fittingly, it should fall to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to have the last word on future alternative energy vehicle and powertrain development. The Board has arguably been the leading global player in calling for new ways of lowering or even eliminating automotive-related pollution. CARB’s chairman Mary Nichols believes some of her opponents who continue to loudly voice concerns over forthcoming emissions standards are concentrating on the wrong issues.

"There is one thing that has really frustrated me in the last couple of has been the ideological, I would almost say theological, debate between the people who think that hydrogen fuel cells are the answer and the people who think that only battery electric vehicles are the answer. Each of them do their best to trash the credibility, viability and good faith of the other side. From the point of view of a regulator, this is madness," said the chairman during a UC Berkeley Energy Symposium.

“I would argue that at the end of the day, in this country, we are going to need a mix of types of vehicles, that we will have battery electric, we will have advanced hybrids and we will have fuel cell vehicles all operating successfully in different places within the next 20 years or so, and that that’s a good thing.”