Choice Of Electric-Car Battery Size? GM Investment May Make It Real


Lithium-ion battery pack for 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Lithium-ion battery pack for 2011 Chevrolet Volt

A recent investment by General Motors in a new lithium-ion battery cathode technology will give the automaker more pricing options for future generation electric vehicles. It could give consumers more choices, as well.

On January 26, GM announced it had invested $7 million in energy storage systems provider Envia Systems of Newark, California.

Envia's high-capacity, manganese-rich cathode technology provides twice the capacity of the best cathode available today, the company's chairman and CEO, Atul Kapadia, told High Gear Media, and 33 percent more energy density. That can cut the battery cost by up to 35 percent, he said.

"Just the fact that our battery is a lot more dense means automakers can make batteries that are smaller.," Kapadia said. "Automakers can go down on weight on the car or use the same weight and offer more features."

2011 Chevrolet Volt outside Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant

2011 Chevrolet Volt outside Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant

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HCMR cathode material was developed at the Argonne National Laboratories in Argonne, Illinois. Cathodes made using HCMR use cheaper manganese to replace cobalt and nickel, which are very expensive.

Batteries made with HCMR are also much safer than those that use cobalt, said Kapadia. There is not yet a national standard for measuring battery safety, but when there is, "we will be by far the safest battery," said Kapadia.

"You get twice as much battery for the same cost," Don Hillebrand, director of Argonne's Center for Transportation Research told High Gear Media. "That allows you either to shrink the battery in half or to get a whole lot more mileage out of it."

Vehicles running on batteries using HCMR won't be available for at least a few years, Jon Lauckner, president GM Ventures told reporters at GM's January 26 press conference. But, Lauckner said, "It is an important development, because it shows there are significant improvements in batteries on the horizon."

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt built on production tooling at Detroit Hamtramck plant, March 31, 2010

First 2011 Chevrolet Volt built on production tooling at Detroit Hamtramck plant, March 31, 2010

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The technology will likely be used in the next generation Chevrolet Volt electric car, said Argonne's Hillebrand. With HCMR, GM will have more options on sizing the battery, and so will consumers, he said.

Current battery technology requires automakers to use a battery twice as large as needed to ensure that the battery still has the advertised range after 10 years, said Hillebrand. In the future, the battery could be much smaller, or its range could be much higher.

Much as consumers now select engine sizes, they could be given a choice of battery sizes depending on what range was needed, or what they could afford, Hillebrand suggested.

Will consumers want to be able to choose the size of an electric-vehicle battery the way they now chose other options when they buy a car?

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