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Lithium-Ion Batteries? Not So Fast

Expectations for the lithium-ion battery run high, but so far, that dreaded “p” word – potential – best describes where the technology is today.

Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – Many automotive experts predict lithium-ion will be the battery of choice for most hybrid vehicles in the next few years.

Much of the industry has bought into the idea that within a few years, millions of vehicles with high-powered, yet low-cost, lithium-ion battery packs will be a reality.

The experts may be right, but there is a lot of hard work to be done, plus a lot of crossed fingers and late nights for automotive executives who are counting on the technology to help them meet the U.S. government-mandated 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) by 2020.

“This whole area has me up late at night,” Robert Lee, vice president-powertrain product engineering for Chrysler LLC, admits when answering a question from the audience during a panel discussion at the SAE International World Congress here.

Li-ion batteries work great in laptop computers and power tools but, so far, no one has been able to develop such a battery that can be mass-produced for automobiles.

Most experts agree the challenges for Li-ion batteries are in three areas: the actual chemistry of the battery cell; the industry’s inability to mass produce the battery for vehicle applications; and the integration of the battery into the vehicle’s overall systems.

The challenge is to create a Li-ion battery that is stable, and therefore, safe; and one that lasts the life of the vehicle and can be produced at a reasonable cost. None of these objectives have been met with real success.

Lee says there are about a dozen firms working to make the technology viable. Some OEMs have bought stakes in these companies.

But Chrysler is hedging its bets and not rolling the dice on any one solution – yet. “At least, with my company, we’re playing the field,” he says.

Andreas Schamel, chief engineer-engine engineering R&A for Ford Motor Co., says an “evolutionary technology breakthrough” is needed, especially in the area of space efficiency to store electrical energy in the vehicle. The industry still “is not anywhere close,” he says.

R. Scott Bailey, general manager-gasoline engine management systems and vice president, Delphi Powertrain Systems, agrees there is a lot of work to be done.

“Clearly, the lithium-ion battery is perceived as today’s battery of the future,” he says. However, the perception that “40% of the nation’s hybrid fleet will be powered by Li-ion batteries by 2015 is “on the optimistic side.”

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