Biggest electric questions focus on batteries

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A variety of electric vehicles will hit the market this year, raising questions about the most critical element of any electric car: the battery.

How often do you have to replace the battery? Will it be recycled? Can you charge a battery even if it is not empty? How many charging cycles can the battery handle? Is it true there's a worldwide shortage of lithium?

Lithium-ion batteries can be found in all kinds of consumer products, from laptops to cell phones, and they also will be the power source in at least the first generation of electric cars. An electric-vehicle battery is basically just a cluster of thousands of cell phone batteries.

"If I want to buy an electric vehicle, I would want to know how many miles can I drive under real driving conditions, how long will my battery last and how long will the battery take to charge," said Venkat Srinivasan, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, the first mainstream plug-ins to reach the market, offer battery warranties good for 100,000 miles or eight years. That will reassure many consumers, but there still are things they can do to maximize battery life and performance.

"Don't keep continuously fully charging and discharging them," Srinivasan said.

Sunil M. Chhaya, an electric drive expert at the Electric Power Research Institute, notes that batteries age faster if the temperature of the battery is frequently elevated.

"Batteries are like people and perform nicely when their operating temperature is in a 20 to 45 degrees Celsius (or 68 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit) window," Chhaya said. "Outside of it, they need to be 'thermally managed.' "

Even weather is a factor. In general, a cold battery exhibits higher resistance to current flow, meaning that the same amount of power at the wheels will produce much larger amounts of heat inside the battery due to internal power dissipation. This generates localized heat and, while it warms up the batteries, it also accelerates their aging.

Myths and facts about electric car batteries:

• "The high cost of lithium-ion batteries will prevent the price of electric vehicles from decreasing."

Investments in battery manufacturing, funded by the federal stimulus plan, already are driving down costs, and a December report by the auto team at Deutsche Bank noted a steep decline in battery prices.

• "Lithium mined for electric vehicle batteries is a limited resource and will not be able to meet high consumer demand for electric vehicles."

Companies like FMC Lithium, Western Lithium and Orocobre estimate there are 14 million to 30 million tons of lithium reserves on the planet, in the form of brine, ore and clay. That's estimated to be enough to power billions of hybrid and electric vehicles.

• "Electric vehicle batteries are unsafe."

Automakers and battery manufacturers are taking numerous measures to ensure vehicle safety and prevent short-circuiting and overheating.

• "Lithium-ion batteries cannot be reused after they have outlived their usefulness in electric vehicles."

Some utility companies are looking for ways to use lithium-ion batteries as storage devices for the electric grid after their use in vehicles.

Biggest electric questions focus on batteries 01/30/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 30, 2011 6:45pm]

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