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Charging on car batteries

Gargi Chakrabarty
Rocky Mountain News
Vail, CO Colorado
Tim Hussin/Rocky Mountain NewsKurt Jensen, principal scientist at Nilar Inc., unhooks a nickel-metal hydride battery from a Toyota Prius outside the company's battery-manufacturing plant in Centennial on June 25. The company is working to improve car batteries to take part in a projected $10 billion market over the next five years.
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A host of Front Range companies that have been working for years to improve car batteries are intrigued with presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s $300 million offer last month to any developer whose battery leapfrogs the abilities of hybrid and electric cars.

Having cars run on powerful batteries instead of relying on engines would cut down gasoline consumption and reduce the nation’s dependence on oil often imported from unfriendly and unstable countries, experts say.

But the batteries are not cheap. For example, a lithium-ion battery ” the latest technology to grab the attention of automakers ” costs tens of thousands of dollars, and the technology has yet to make its commercial debut in a vehicle.



Although McCain’s offer is enticing, local companies say the race was on even before his announcement.

“Whether or not there’s a prize, there is enough incentive already to work in this field,” said Phil Lyman, CEO of Boundless Corp. “A lot of money already is being put into battery research and development because of the demand for the technology.”

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The Boulder company, founded in 1995, integrates battery cells with other components such as cooling fans and physical packaging before selling the product to customers such as the U.S. military.

Lyman said he has been deluged with e-mails following McCain’s offer and would consider teaming up with another company, possibly one specializing in battery chemicals, to compete for the prize.

The U.S., however, must push for more battery research, said Michael Brylawski, vice president at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass. He emphasized that Korea, China and Japan have sprinted ahead, with the bulk of supply chains based in the Asian nations.



“It doesn’t make sense to replace foreign oil with foreign batteries,” Brylawski said. “We ought to make (batteries) a strategic national priority … China, Japan and Korea have made it a strategic national priority to have the government invest in the sector.”

“I’d like to see a $3 billion prize,” Brylawski added. “The market itself is projected to be $10 billion in the next five years for automotive batteries.”

Colorado has a long history in battery development.

Engineers at Denver’s Gates Rubber Co. developed Optima, an advanced battery, in the early 1970s. The battery operation changed hands a couple of times and is now owned by Johnson Controls Inc.

Today, Optima batteries are distributed from Denver to dealers and distributors across the world.

Cars typically use lead acid batteries that provide a temporary surge of current to start an engine. Depending on maintenance and use, a lead acid battery can last the lifetime of the car.

In recent years, automakers such as Toyota have begun using a different battery chemistry called “nickel-metal hydride” in hybrids such as the Prius because it delivers better fuel mileage by switching back and forth between a gas engine and an electric motor.

Nilar Inc. has a factory in Centennial that makes nickel-metal hydride batteries in small quantities. Although it is not an official vendor of Toyota, Nilar’s batteries have been used in experimental plug-in Prius cars.

Kurt Jensen, Nilar’s principal scientist, said the company won’t comment on McCain’s offer.

Researchers now are focusing on lithium-ion batteries. The chemistry is not new. Cell phones, BlackBerrys, laptops and cordless power tools already use lithium-ion batteries.

The challenge is to scale that up to be able to run cars.

“Going from a very small scale to large scale, the big issue for manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries is to make them cost-effective,” said Ahmad Pesaran, chief of the battery analysis group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

Currently, the cost of storing power in a lithium-ion battery is, on average, about $1 per watt/hour. That compares with a lead acid battery’s 20 cents per watt/hour, Pesaran said.

Researchers are working to cut down the energy storage cost of lithium-ion batteries. Lyman said they could be competitive with gasoline at 75 cents a watt/hour at current prices.

Carmakers already are eyeing lithium-ion batteries for advanced hybrids and plug-in hybrids. General Motors is planning to launch the Chevy Volt, whose prototype has run on a lithium-ion battery. And Toyota has confirmed its next-generation Prius will have a lithium-ion battery.

“When you buy a lithium-ion battery, it’s a bit like paying for all the gasoline you’d use the day you buy a car,” Lyman said. “The batteries are expensive, but the electricity to recharge it is very inexpensive.”

Colorado’s battery presence:

1. National Renewable Energy laboratory

Location: Golden

Employees: About 1,000

Work: Researches, develops and tests batteries

2. Rocky Mountain Institute

Location: Snowmass

Employees: About 100

Work: Researches and consults on batteries

3. Nilar Inc.

Location: Centennial

Employees: About 25

Work: Develops nickel-metal hydride batteries

4. Boundless Corp.

Location: Boulder

Employees: 20

Work: Integrates battery systems

5. Hybrids Plus Inc.

Location: Boulder

Employees: 12

Work: Convert hybrid cars into plug-in electric hybrid cars using lithium-ion battery packs


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