Another shoe dropped today, revealing one more little piece of General Motors' electric-car strategy.

GM said this morning it had awarded a production contract for nanophosphate lithium-ion cells to A123 Systems, to be used in "future GM electric vehicles" that will be "announced at a later date" and "sold in select global markets."

That, frankly, is about as generic and unspecific as you can get. So what does this mean?

First, A123 was an early pioneer in large-scale lithium-ion cells, using an iron-phosphate chemistry that holds somewhat less energy than other types of lithium-ion cell but is widely considered to be safer.

Second, A123 was one of two finalists in the 2009 contest to provide cells for the battery pack in the 2011 Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car that went on sale last December. It was passed over in favor of LG Chem, whose cells power all Volts today.

But GM has continued to work with A123 at its battery lab in Warren, Michigan, and is clearly very familiar with the performance and lifespan characteristics of A123's cells.

Third, GM has several electric-car projects in the works that it hasn't revealed or acknowledged.

Chevrolet Beat EV electric vehicle with GM executives, India, June 2011

Chevrolet Beat EV electric vehicle with GM executives, India, June 2011

We recently speculated that one of those projects is a production version of an all-electric Chevrolet Spark, but there are likely to be others.

There will be, for example, a new generation of the Two-Mode Hybrid system now offered in small volumes by Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC in full-size sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

A plug-in hybrid version of that powertrain, which has had a long and tortuous history, is on hold for the moment. Contrary to some reports, it will not appear in the 2013 Cadillac XTS full-size luxury sedan that goes into production next spring.

There will also be additional models that use the Voltec extended-range electric powertrain beyond the Volt itself and the Opel/Vauxhall Ampera, especially when the second generation of that car is ready in 2015.

The missing piece is full battery electric vehicles. GM has four trials underway in four different countries, but no announced production plans for pure electrics as yet.

“GM is committed to offering a full line of electrified vehicles," said Micky Bly, the company's executive director of global electrical systems, infotainment, and electrification. He added that each vehicle "calls for different battery specifications."

So today's announcement means that not only will GM source lithium-ion cells from suppliers other than LG Chem, but it will choose cells based on their specific performance characteristics and how well they match the demands of the vehicle they'll power.

The stress on the "global" aspect, however, may mean that A123's cells--built at their new plant in Livonia, Michigan--could power vehicles sold outside the U.S.

Clearly there's more to come on this one. Stay tuned.



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