Navigant Research Blog

Automakers Straddle the EV Charging Chasm

— February 10, 2013

Source: Gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.comThe emerging competition between the fast EV charging standard CHAdeMO and the Society of Automotive Engineers’ new “combo charger” technology took another twist last month when Tesla Motors said that the version of its new Model S released in Japan will include an adapter that makes it compatible with the CHAdeMO charging system.  Tesla, which uses its own proprietary “Supercharger” technology for fast direct-current (DC) charging, has also produced an adapter to go with the SAE’s enhanced J1772 specification.  Tesla thus becomes the latest automaker to attempt to straddle the divide between charging protocols in this fast-evolving sector.

The SAE’s new system, officially called the “J1772 SAE Electric Vehicle and Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Conductive Charge Coupler,” augments the original J1772 technology to enable charging with AC Level 1 and 2 charging infrastructure, or with fast DC systems.  Finalized last October, it is expected to become the de facto worldwide standard – except in Japan, where the major Japanese automakers including Nissan, Toyota, and Mitsubishi have all already adopted CHAdeMO, which first became available in 2010.

Tesla’s decision to produce a CHAdeMO-compatible sedan when it already has an in-house fast charging system highlights the period of market confusion and standards competition the plug-in EV industry finds itself in.  “This is exactly not what plug-in vehicles need,” commented Danny King, on Autobloggreen.  The name-calling has already begun: Japanese officials scoff at the SAE spec as “the plug without the cars,” while GM executive Shad Balch effectively called for an embargo of CHAdeMO chargers during a public hearing in California last May.

The major U.S. and German automakers have all lined up behind the combo charger, and new models compatible with the technology are expected later this year.  Given the hype over slower-than-expected sales of EVs, both in the United States and abroad, it’s unfortunate that the industry would allow itself to be sidetracked over what is, at bottom, an argument over the plug.  It will likely take 3 to 5 years for this standards confusion to work itself out.  The only bright side is that motorists, unlike smartphone users, rarely transport their vehicles to other continents.


Korean-German Battery Venture: Haven’t We Seen This Before?

— February 7, 2013

Source: RootFunLast month the joint venture company formed between South Korean energy firm SK Innovation and German Tier One supplier Continental officially began operating.  Under the agreement, originally signed in July 2012, the JV will conduct business under the name SK Continental E-motion.  The new company has the potential to benefit from the expertise of SK Innovation in lithium ion battery cell manufacture, combined with the experience of Continental as a supplier to the world’s leading automotive OEMs.

But haven’t we seen this combination before?  In June 2008, a JV called SB LiMotive was created with much fanfare.  Jointly owned by Korean battery manufacturer Samsung SDI and German supplier Robert Bosch, the company was set to become a major player supplying battery packs for the emerging market in hybrid and electric vehicles.  Acquiring the assets of U.S. battery manufacturer Cobasys in July 2009 along with development agreements with BMW and Fiat appeared to cement the relationship and give the company a solid foundation.

In December 2012, though, Bosch announced that the JV, which was not generating profits after 4 years in operation, had been formally dissolved and that it was setting up Robert Bosch Battery Systems as a subsidiary to focus on building battery packs for electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

Battery cell manufacture capability joined with Tier One expertise would seem like a powerful combination to capitalize on the growing market for onboard electrical energy storage, but as we’ve seen, it’s not without risk.  For SB LiMotive, perhaps the market simply didn’t grow quickly enough, and the different philosophical approaches of the two owners were so far apart that a split was the only option.  SK Continental E-motion will likely face the same situation in a few years if it does not begin showing a profit.

Still, there’s potential for success despite the experience of its similar predecessor.  The market for EVs has matured in the last 4 years, and expectations are now much more realistic.  The stated focus on 48V stop-start systems could lead to rapid growth ‑ provided that at least some of the major OEMs adopt the technology.


Feeling Blue Is Sometimes a Good Thing for Batteries

— January 31, 2013

Source: Wikimedia CommonsThis is the first in a series of three blog posts about promising laboratory experiments that might show up as products in the battery industry in the coming years.

There are plenty of spectacular experimental battery cathode materials that have excellent voltage, cycling, or cost specifications.  There are none (yet) that boast all three.  That is what is so promising about a new technology out of Stanford.  If the battery can successfully be made into a mass manufactured product, it holds the promise to be high-powered, durable, and cheap.

This paper is out of the Stanford laboratories of Robert Huggins and Yi Cui; Cui is famous for being one of the most prolific battery scientists alive.  His lab has been described to me by a battery scientist as “a factory of useful patents.”  Huggins is also well respected in the materials science community as an innovative and rigorous researcher.

The problem that Huggins was trying to solve when he began his research was how to make an aqueous electrolyte that worked without any of the expensive and toxic solvents that are required to make traditional battery electrolytes work.  He stumbled upon an odd candidate for a cathode that would work with a water-based electrolyte: Prussian Blue.  The compound’s true name is hexacyanoferrate, but it’s better known to lab technicians as the dye you use to turn an iron-rich culture into a deep blue that’s easier to view under a microscope.  The compound works so well as a dye because it has such a rigid crystalline structure that consistently bends light in the proper direction to make the color blue.  For a battery cathode the color doesn’t matter, but a rigid porous structure does.

It’s the cost requirement that sets the Prussian Blue battery apart: most exotic cathodes cost a fortune to make.  Battery scientists often wave away the business strategists who question the economic viability of a technology by saying, “Someone will come up with a way to make this material cheaper.”  Huggins and Cui don’t have to make that argument.  I can buy a metric ton of Prussian Blue on the Internet for the equivalent of $2.60 per kilogram (kg).  That results in about $5 in cathode costs per kilowatt (kW) of power capacity, assuming that the end product can match the hypothetical specific power of 100 W/kg of the battery (the initial paper showed a maximum of 45 W/kg).  Compare that to the cathode cost of a Nissan LEAF  lithium manganese spinel battery, the cheapest large format battery in production today, which Pike Research estimates to be at least $58 per kilogram. Likewise, the material inputs for a lithium titanate battery, which better compares to the high power capabilities of the Prussian Blue battery, are probably upwards of $500 per kilogram.

The initial results of the Prussian Blue battery aren’t all so rosy.  The data for the initial experiments shows that the battery has a specific energy rating of only 5 watt-hours (Wh) per kilogram (versus more than 100 Wh/kg for most currently mass produced lithium ion batteries).  This is not a great long-term energy storage vessel. However, the authors expect to improve on that number as the ingredients are fine-tuned. Even incremental gains in that area will allow the chemistry to compete with ultracapacitors, which are extremely expensive.

The scientists behind the Prussian Blue battery have already formed a company to develop it commercially called Alveo Energy.  That company has already scored a major grant: a $4 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) project to develop the Prussian Blue battery.  While it’s still the early days for the technology, this is certainly one to keep an eye on.


Dreamliner Fires Scorch the Advanced Battery Industry

— January 30, 2013

Source: BoeingThe investigation surrounding the Boeing Dreamliner battery fires indicates that Boeing, and its ballyhooed but beleaguered new jet, will recover from this incident.  The causes of the fires appear to be isolated to the battery system and not endemic to the overall design of the plane.  But the fires could have very different consequences for the advanced battery industry.  At the core of the Dreamliner fires is a debate that engulfs all technological change – How to balance risk and innovation?

So far in 2013 it seems as though high-profile battery accidents are appearing nearly as frequently as new battery shipments are being made. From Hawaii to Japan, batteries on the grid or in vehicles continue to highlight the technical challenges associated with battery storage. This is bad news for an industry that is already struggling to garner demand for its expensive products.  Lithium ion batteries, which have taken something of a competitive lead in consumer products and electric transportation, are pushing into new applications every day as multiple industries move toward cleaner operations based on electricity rather than liquid fuels.  Early adopters, such as Boeing (the Dreamliner is the first passenger aircraft to have Li-ion batteries approved for on-board operation), always bear more significant risk than those that follow.

While Boeing’s reputation and that of the Dreamliner may emerge intact, the battery industry is left with fundamental issues to address.  For years the great debate in the industry has been about cost, but safety issues could prove a greater drag on the industry’s growth in the near term.  Each incident casts a longer shadow over the future of advanced battery technologies.

Advanced battery makers must publicly address these issues and forthrightly move safety to the center of the discussion.  The Dreamliner fires place the burden of proof squarely on battery makers.  Early adopters must be reassured that safety issues are resolved if they’re going to be persuaded to pursue these innovative technologies.


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