Batteries Can Be Beautiful


In the past two years we’ve written a lot about the Tesla Roadster: its performance, a full review, and some of the competition. Other tantalizing stories have been written about Tesla’s founder Elon Musk, his competitor Henrik Fisker, and the car’s capabilities in numerous road tests.

Now the company is working on a 5-passenger sedan (the Model S at $57K), an all-electric subcompact (the Bluestar, $30K), and is trying to get in line for some of the $25 billion advanced technology loans set aside by Congress. Yup, the same money Pelosi & Co. agreed to tap for the bailout bill that went down. Says Tesla, they are not about to use it to prop up their business, which is doing fine. Founder Musk tesla-battery-recycled-002recently gave them another $40 million.

The big story in all this is the car’s Energy Storage System (ESS), its lithium-ion battery pack. Tesla’s white paper on the ESS emphasizes, naturally, the innovations and safety qualities. The company has also been developing green safe-disposal procedures so as to recycle most all the components at the end of their life cycle.

The Roadster will get you to 60 mph in about 4 seconds with 100% torque instantly. Its range is 220 miles on a full charge (which takes only 3.5 hours on the dedicated charger). And the battery is said to last 5 years or 100,000 miles. That is great performance by any measure.

There is tremendous effort going into research to improve the lithium-ion battery and develop new, more efficient lightweight ESSs, both for all-electric and hybrid vehicles. My Google search for “battery technology” turned up some 4,540,000 citations, reflecting the activity in this $56 billion market.

Hybrids now use nickel-hydride batteries, relatively long-lived but expensive to replace, though costs are coming down and, as Tesla has shown, lithium-ion is a better technology.

And lithium-ion is not going to be with us forever either. Its biggest weakness may be a tendency to overheat and become unstable (remember the recall of all those laptop batteries that caught fire?), and Tesla has packed its cells (some 6800 of them in the Roadster) in steel cases.

So now some, like John Petersen, are looking down the road to the prospect of rebuilding U.S. capabilities in engineering to produce breakthrough batteries and make them here. Most all production of high-tech (non-lead-acid) auto batteries now comes from Asia. I read today that China just launched a new, cheap plug-in hybrid car.

If the U.S. finally gets smart it could develop a real industry for the future, providing energy storage solutions for everything from zippy sports cars to the power grid.

Can we do it —make a new battery industry here? Should it be tied in to the restructuring of the Big Three?


1 Comment

  1. President-elect Obama would certainly like to see the U.S. develop a new & better battery industry here in the U.S., and I think doing so would be a big step in the right direction in a few ways. But given that U.S. companies have been offshoring engineering and assembly-line jobs for years now, building a successful battery industry here would be a challenge. The Big Three face similar challenges and would likely benefit quickly from progress in that area, so yes, they should all participate in building a better battery industry.

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