The Washington Times - September 29, 2008, 10:08AM


Batteries not included. Or are they?



It’s looking like the way to go with automotive batteries - for hybrids and pure electric cars, that is - will be Lithium-Ion devices. There are a lot of reasons for this choice but before any are mentioned, allow me to dispel one lithium-ion concern that has managed to get far more press than it deserves.

Cell phones, laptops, and the other stuff we carry around, are powered by lithium-ion batteries. That’s because these types of batteries have the best overall properties. About a year ago there were some lithium-ion (let’s call them LI from now on) batteries that exploded or caught on fire, thus starting a worldwide fear of them. It turned out that a batch of them had bad internal films that, when damaged or abused, allowed the chemicals to mix and a runaway reaction occurred. It’s been fixed, of course, and the battery manufacturers know how to build them safely. The bottom line, therefore, is don’t worry about the issue.

Back to the basics. The automakers agree that the best available solution for long-term goals of freedom from hydrocarbon fuels is electric or hybrid-electric power. There are lots of hybrid vehicles on the road and most everyone understands that they use a small battery pack to powers an electric motor that, in turn, is used for low speed movement and performance boost when needed. A small internal combustion engine works together with the electric system to help propel the car at higher speeds, accelerate or pull heavy loads.

The next hybrid we’ll see is the plug-in, or extended range electric. In these vehicles a large battery pack allows for driving about 40 miles (at speeds up to 40 mph) on the electric motor alone. A small engine is onboard, in some cases to drive the vehicle as a typical hybrid, or in others (Chevy Volt) to act as a generator, sized to recharge the battery during long trips. This is very cool.

Obviously, batteries themselves are the key ingredient and LI appears to be the way to go for a long time into the future. It outshines all the other types (lead-acid, nickel-based, aluminum-air, zinc-based and sodium-based) in costs, efficiency and longevity. LI technology has seen the greatest improvements in design and output in the past 20 years and prices have fallen exponentially. Vehicles equipped with LI battery packs will experience at least 10 years of operation before replacement is needed and you can be sure there will be maintenance programs offered that will absorb the costs when the time comes.

And speaking of those costs, the way the prices are dropping for LI batteries, don’t be surprised if that battery pack in your Prius costs only a couple thousand dollars 10 years from now. Those replacement costs of $4-5000 you’ve read about reflect today’s prices. Things change…