By Bill Moore
I opened my spiral notebook, slide it over to Alan Gotcher and handed him my pen. I wanted the CEO and President of AltairNano to explain to me why his company's battery was different from -- and better than -- other lithium chemistry batteries.
We were siting in an Irish pub two blocks from Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. With us were three other people including Chelsea Sexton of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" fame, AeroVironment's Charlie Botsford, and AltairNano's marketing manager.
While we sipped our Irish brews and waited for dinner to arrive, Dr. Gotcher sketched into my notepad a pair of diagrams: one a conventional lithium ion cell and the other an AltairNano cell. To the layman, they looked nearly identical. The most obvious difference was the absence of a layer called SEI (separator electrode interface) in the Altairnano cell.
The conventional lithium ion battery consists of the following layers: an aluminum electrode current collector, a graphite anode, the SEI layer, the separator layer that is soaked in lithium salts and acts as the electrolyte to facilitate ion exchange, the cathode and a copper cathode collector. Gotcher explained to me that the SEI layer is used to keep the lithium from reacting with the graphite anode, but it also adds a resistive layer in the cell. His company's nano-titanite-based anode doesn't need the SEI layer because it doesn't react with the lithium. Instead, its extreme porosity allows the absorption of many more lithium ions, dramatically improving the storage capability of the battery.
The company is claiming that their battery is showing a cycle life in excess of 20,000 charges and discharges while still retaining 85% of its capacity to store energy. That is virtually unheard of and if proven is a revolutionary breakthrough, especially since Altairnano also claims their battery can be recharged not in hours, but in minutes; less than ten minutes to be exact.
By way of comparison, the typical lithium battery takes two to six hours to recharge. Its power density is less than 1000 watts per kilogram (w/kg). It operates over a temperature range of -0 C to 40 C. In contrast, Altairnano's data shows a power density of 4,000 w/kg and the ability to safely operate from -50 C to +75 C.
And just how safe is "safe"?
As the conference closed Gotcher gave me a copy of his PowerPoint presentation, which includes a slide that described the various tests to which the company subjected the battery: short circuit, forced discharge, over charge, over discharge, nail puncture, crush, over temperature, and drop test. In none of these cases was there smoke or fire. So, an electric car equipped with Altairnano batteries is likely to have the kind of performance that the industry has been begging for for decades.
As I was beginning to grasp the exciting potential of Altairnano's technology, our dinner's arrived. While I stabbed at a salad plate topped with strips of chicken breast and Gotcher dove into his fish and chips, he explained that his company is providing the batteries for Phoenix Motorcars sport utility truck, pictured above. Equipped with a 35kWh, 386 volt battery pack, the converted, Korean-built four-door pickup will have a range of 136 miles, a top speed of 95 mph and a 0-60 acceleration rate of under 10 seconds. Just as exciting, it will be fully highway capability and as such qualifies as a Zero Emission, Type 3 vehicle by California EPA definition.
Gotcher glanced at me to see if I understood the significance of that fact. I didn't, so he patiently elaborated.
Under the terms of the still existing California Zero Emission Vehicle or ZEV mandate, each Type 3, All-Electric, Zero Emission Vehicle qualifies for 40 ZEV credits. Each credit is worth $5000, so a Type 3 vehicle is worth on paper $200,000 in California. As Gotcher explained it to me, the six big carmakers are still under obligation to sell so many ZEVs in California by a certain date. If they don't, they are penalized at a rate of $5000 per missing ZEV credit. They either have to build their own Type 3 vehicles or buy them from another manufacturer -- in this case Phoenix Motorcars, which plans to sell the SUT initially to fleets for around $45,000.
But aren't the big OEM's meeting their ZEV obligations with their fuel cell vehicle programs in California? According to a Toyota executive I spoke with, they are for now, but in the not too distant future, the number of fuel cell vehicles they will have to build is daunting. Toyota has some nine fuel cell cars in California at the moment, each costing about $1 million. In the near future, it will have to field 150 of them to meet its ZEV obligations, an expense it simply doesn't want to make because it now realizes that the technology is at least 10-15 years away from commercialization. "We can learn all we need to know from nine vehicles," he told our small dinner party, which included James Woolsey and Chelsea Sexton (this girl gets around!).
Toyota is in a better position in California than other carmakers because of its RAV4 EV fleet, which is in both commercial and private hands and can be considered Type 3 vehicles. This may account, in part, for why the company continues to keep as much of the fleet operational for as long as possible. According to this executive, GM is going to have to build 1,500 fuel cell vehicles if the terms of the mandate remain unchanged. You can do the math on that one.
So, even at $200,000 a vehicle, Phoenix's battery-powered sport utility truck would be a bargain for carmakers who decided to bet on hydrogen fuel-cell technology instead of batteries starting back in 1998.
Now I understand the twinkle in Gotcher's eye. With his battery in an attractive, capable pick-up truck that will start deliveries in 2007, he must feel he's got the world by the tail, but he's not the only one. In fact, 2007 is likely to go down in history as the year the electric car battery finally becomes a reality.
Secretive EEStor is expected to unveil their battery in early 2007, a battery that is speculated to offer a cycle life that looks more like a capacitor than a conventional battery. It too is likely to have a high power to weight ratio and rapid recharge time, but since the Austin, Texas-based company has been playing its cards very close to the breast, we'll have to wait and see what actually materializes.
Computer and lithium ion battery maker Electrovaya continues to pursue various electric vehicle projects, the most recent being an all-electric delivery van. Also, a small company in Norway is using its battery in a smart car conversion, though shifting policy decisions at DaimlerChrysler are casting threatening shadows over the project.
Also in Norway, Th!nk is planning for a comeback in 2007 with a ZEBRA battery.
On the U.S. West Coast, Tesla has booked its 250th pre-order for its all-electric, lithium-ion powered Roadster, and now its talking about selling its Thailand-assembled packs to other car makers.
While A123 isn't talking about electric vehicles -- they're too busy making real profits from selling batteries for DeWalt powertools -- you can bet that someone is going to come calling at some point, especially when they figure out the ZEV credits angle Phoenix and Altairnano are pursuing.
And, of course there is Valence, Cobasys, Electro Energy, Firefly, the Johnson Controls-SAFT alliance, and a bevy of Asian manufacturers from Hong Kong to Tokyo to Seoul, any of which could also play a significant role in the emerging hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric car market.
Yes, 2007 is looking very promising, indeed.
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