Electric Vehicles graphic

(Image designed by Nina Lincoff/Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON — Overcoming the United States’ next Sputnik moment—the first came when the Soviets shocked 1950’s America by rocketing a tiny satellite into space—may depend on a brand new idea. The shiny new goal at the end of the current global technology race won’t fire off laser beams, revamp the DeLorean, or even improve nationwide cable service. But what it will do, what President Barack Obama called for in his State of the Union address last month, is lessen U.S. dependency on petroleum. But to do that, the American public just needs to adopt a new favorite vehicle.

It just so happens that the American car of the future—or the one Obama and his Nobel laureate Secretary of Energy Steven Chu imagine—runs on batteries. Obama’s goal is that by 2015, one million electric drive vehicles (EVs) will be on U.S. motorways.

However, there are a couple bumps marring those highways and none of them is small. There’s the matter of converting decades worth of American dependence on traditional internal combustion engines to battery operated motors, in addition to putting in place the infrastructure so that consumers can not only drive cars to work, but charge them and return home. In order for automobile manufacturers to produce enough EVs in five years, the market needs to be sustainable—something that is still a problem.

The primary obstacle in the way of EVs is the very technology that the United States and a host of other countries are racing for, the battery in the motor. That battery of the very near future is the fundamental difference between an EV motor and a traditional car engine.

Electric Plate

Tag on the Tesla Electric. (Photo by Nina Lincoff/Medill News Service)

“We’re competing with a very robust technology,” said Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an advocacy group for EVs. “The combustion engine keeps getting better. We’re competing with a very entrenched fuel system, it just happens to be a fuel system that makes us reliant upon a very costly and increasingly more costly fuel.” Ironically, it’s the rising inherent costs and shrinking petroleum resources that may push consumers to give up their gasoline fueled cars and convert to EVs .

Obama’s already on board; his stimulus program included $2.4 billion to spur creation of the EV battery and component manufacturing plants a program of which Argonne National Laboratories was the biggest recipient.

Currently, there are more than half a dozen advanced battery manufacturing plants up and running or near completion. Federal investment in battery technology is not just going toward generating profits, “it’s about creating jobs,” Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne said.

Forget the next great innovative race; the sprint is going on right now and for the competitors like China, Japan and South Korea, the starting gun went off decades ago. But it’s the batteries, a technology that’s been around since the 19th century, which will literally be driving this century’s technological battle.

It’s a particular kind of battery, an exciting sort of chemical and physical wonder, the lithium-ion battery, which will determine the road for electric drive vehicles.

“We’re well down the road. We are heavily, heavily invested in this. All the automobile manufacturers are in; they’re all pushing their chips into this pot. Understand that plug- in vehicles are standing on the shoulders of hybrid vehicles. Nobody ever killed the electric car,” Wynne said.

“The development of practical, reliable electric cars has extraordinary implications for our global environment and for our nation’s energy security. A fully electrified U.S. transportation system—cars and light trucks—would cut American oil consumption by a third, roughly 7.2 million barrels of oil a day, it’s tremendous it’s a third of our oil consumption [and it] would reduce our well-to-wheels carbon footprint by 25 percent,” Isaacs said.

It’s in the battery. (In the chemicals, the coils…)

The ancestor of today’s common battery was first built from two sheets of metal, a piece of linen, a glass jar and a sulfuric acid solution by French physicist Gaston Planté. That same lead-acid battery is still replicated today in variations of car batteries.

The lithium-ion battery that is shaping the EV landscape was dreamed up and commercialized by petroleum giant Exxon, which found that lithium-ion batteries stored much more energy than their lead-acid predecessors.

At a battery technology panel in Washington hosted by the Brookings Institution, Isaacs described the lithium-ion technology that is being developed today. Lithium-ion batteries generate power by discharging ions from one side of the battery and absorbing them on the other; the movement of ions across area release energy, he said.

Washington Auto Show

2011 Washington Auto Show (Photo by Nina Lincoff/Medill News Service)

Argonne recently licensed their battery technology to the California clean technology company Envia Systems. General Motors announced in late January that it would invest $7 million in Envia to provide its “battery engineering team with access to advanced lithium-ion cathode technology that delivers higher cell energy density and lower cost.”

“There are three principle components [in a lithium-ion battery,]” Isaacs said, “the cathode, anode and the electrolyte.” Argonne’s recent licensing deal focuses on their cathode technology, the component of the battery which proves to be the most complex. At Argonne, the basic research is focused on looking at the atomic structure of materials used in the cathode.

“The cathode [is] usually a complex material that can ideally host large amounts of lithium and remains stable both in the lithium-rich—discharged—state, and the lithium-poor—charged—state,” Isaacs said. Then comes the anode, that takes up a large amount of lithium from the cathode upon charging and recycles the lithium back to the cathode as the battery discharges, and finally the electrolyte, which must allow lithium ions to diffuse rapidly between the electrodes during charge and discharge.”

Lithium-ion batteries have twice the storage capacity of other batteries, and are more commonly found today in laptops and cell phones. Isaacs emphasized however, that until battery technology progresses, EVs are at a standstill.

“What I really want to do is take the weight of a tank of gas and replace it with a battery and have the battery do what that tank could do…this comes back to needing a lot of radical scientific development,” Isaacs said. But until a battery motor can match or perform an internal combustion engine, they will always be the less popular choice for consumers

Without batteries that last longer and are less expensive, there is no way that the consumers will adopt EVs in the way the Obama administration and advocacy groups like the Electric Drive Transport Association, a consortium of car manufacturers, energy companies and suppliers which champions electric drive technologies, can hope. So the race becomes who can improve the EV battery.
Isaacs alluded to using a new approach, different materials. But that technology is five, ten years down the line, Isaacs said.

Switching from lithium-ion to a lithium and manganese-rich cathode material would stabilize the previous batteries based on cobalt and nickel-rich systems. Lithium-manganese batteries also are less expensive to manufacture, which in turn reduces battery cost. These technologies are nowhere near ready for the market though, said Isaacs who advocates small, more incremental steps to improve battery life, cost and efficiency.

“It’s extremely rare for a breakthrough in energy storage to provide all these benefits at once,” Isaacs said. But it’s just a matter of time.

“We’re working on a problem that’s bigger than ourselves…it’s something as engineers that we wanted as children, to work on a problem that can have an impact on humanity and that is bigger than ourselves as individuals,” Jeffrey Chamberlain, leader of Energy Storage Initiative at the Argonne National Laboratory, said.

So the batteries are on their way…are our streets and driveways ready?

The Department of Energy’s electrification program directs $16.8 billion toward new energy technologies and infrastructure in 2009. The National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC) in West Virginia was the largest recipient of federal underwriting for the education and training of motorway electrification. NAFTC trains technicians, first responders and instructors across the country in all applications and functions of alternative fuels.

Most recently, the focus has been on EV training said executive director Al Ebron.

For Ebron, it’s clear that EVs and a variety of alternative fuel vehicles are the future for the United States. He believes it’s just a matter of time before the marketplace catches up with the technologies.
“As these vehicles become more mainstream, this will become an everyday business. They’re becoming mainstream and there [will be] millions of these vehicles on the road. Folks are going to have to be trained for that,” Ebron said.

At the NAFTC center in W. Va., auto industry workers and instructors can attend the Advanced Electric Drive Vehicle Program.

First responder training includes instruction on the actual electric technology itself so that emergency personal can approach a car wreck safely and understand the technology in a way that allows them to effectively remedy the situation.

Technician training develops training for in-service and pre-service vehicles starting at the community college level. But for the batteries of the future, Ebron says that centers like NAFTC need to look toward younger generations.

NAFTC is currently working with education departments in W. Va. and South Carolina to develop EV training that will be incorporated into the high school curriculum with the hopes that success in those states will spur the nationwide spread of such programs.

Chevy Volt at Auto Show

Chevrolet Volt (Photo by Nina Lincoff/Medill News Service)

With infrastructure and education being implemented, one obstacle towards the mass adoption of EVs is being addressed. One common criticism of 2011’s EV fleet is that they’re very expensive for cars that compete with mid-size sedans. Without federal or state subsidies and tax cuts, the Chevy Volt costs $41,000, a lot for a mid-sized Chevy. The Nissan Leaf, Japan’s pure plug-in, will sell for $32,780.

“Everybody is green, who’s not green? However, people become way less green when they have to pay a premium price for the technology,” said John O’Donnell, executive vice president of the Washington Area New Auto Dealers Association.

Expense is relative however, said Ebron. If a car perfectly fits the consumers’ needs, he said, then they’ll buy it.

“[My employees] go and buy a vehicle that they like, one that’s in their price range, one that has amenities that they need. For example, a family with kids—a soccer mom—might want a minivan or an SUV that they can put a lot of kids in. There are others that just drive back and forth from work and that might be where a pure EV would be a very advantageous thing. You’ve also got to look at the cost savings in energy and gasoline that these vehicles are going to save you on as we approach three dollar a gallon [gas prices,]” Ebron said.

Overall, attendees at NAFTC’s training centers quickly become converts for the adoption of alternative fuel technology and information.

“I think most people see it as an exciting, new technology. There are some that come for in training and are skeptical, but at the end of the class they say ‘Why didn’t we do this years ago?’ I can’t tell you how many people have come into our classes…and they say ‘You know, there are a lot of advantages to this. It’s not as different as we thought,” Ebron said.

If anything, says Ebron, the openness to EVs by long-term fans and technicians of the internal combustion engine is the starting point for a sustainable market for pure plug-ins, hybrids and other alternative fuels.

“Some of the folks are scared of this technology because they don’t understand it. Once you get them to understand the technologies and see the benefit of the EV and a lot of them get excited. These are hard core automotive technicians that have been around a long time and they don’t like any kind of change,” Ebron said.

So we’re on the EV motorway…

At the 2011 Washington Auto Show, the biggest draw was a little patch of showroom floor with a big name—the Advanced Technology Superhighway. Parked on the exhibit’s superhighway, detailed and gleaming, were this year’s EV and alternative fuel offerings. Stars included the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and an EV sports car from California manufacturer Tesla Motors.

The Tesla Roadster, while shiny and yes, very fast, features a more expensive battery than either the Leaf or Volt. So while the Roadster appeared to dominate the much more modest Volt visually, marketplace sustainability, the EV end state that battery manufacturers, the DOE and the Obama administration hope for comes down to which one has the more consumable battery.
It’s no longer about the engine. It’s about the battery-operated motor.

2011 will see a number of pure plug-ins, hybrids and a variety of alternative-fueled vehicles in the United States, but the race isn’t over.

Chinese auto company Building Your Dreams Auto (BYD) debuted test vehicles earlier this month in the United States of the F3DM, their equivalent to the Volt.
Some U.S. critics have complaints about the F3DM quality, like poor floor mats or loud engine noise. But the F3DM is expected to sell for $29,000. Before federal or state incentives, that’s already $12,000 less than a Volt.

As unprecedented as the race for this new technology may be, it still kind of comes down to a car. A car, and a battery.

Whoever achieves the fastest, the best quality, the most reliable and cheapest battery to power the motor of tomorrow will win.