400-mile Electric Car Batteries Are Around the Corner, Or Not

By · August 21, 2012

Sim-Drive Lei

The wild-looking and lightweight SIM-DRIVE Lei car: 218 miles on a charge. (Sim-Drive photo)

People tell me things, big things, about electric car batteries. The hard part is knowing whether to believe the claims, which suggest that low-cost, high-density lithium-ion batteries are just around the bend. Anybody for 400 miles on a charge? They’re certainly talking about that.

Coming Soon

No less a prognosticator than Energy Secretary Steven Chu http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/greenspace/2011/05/la-ev-charging-statio...
">said in Los Angeles last year that his department is funding research (including at Envia) that should drop battery costs 50 percent in the next three or four years, with double or triple the energy density. He envisioned going “from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on a single charge. These are magical distances. To buy a car that will cost $20,000 to $25,000 without a subsidy where you can go 350 miles [on a charge] is our goal.”

I think we will make battery breakthroughs, but it’s impossible to say if Dr. Chu is on target and exactly where the next steps will come from. Some of the companies least likely to be boastful are probably the most likely to quietly deliver. Rather than something dramatic, we may see a steady five to eight percent cost reduction and energy density improvement per year. But it’s the big boasts that make news, and some of the claims are just plainly ridiculous.

Here’s some of what we’re hearing, from the intriguing to the not very likely.

Tesla's Proof is on the Road

Tesla is the battery range leader, and it’s already broken the 300-mile-per-charge barrier with the 85-kilowatt-hour pack available in the Model S. But CEO Elon Musk thinks it can deliver more. He wrote in a blog post, “It could even be possible to exceed 400 miles in a Model S under the conditions above. We haven’t internally demonstrated that yet and we are planning a prize for the first customer that actually drives over 400 miles on a single charge.”

Tesla didn’t perform black magic. The range of the Model S is a factor of the large battery and a car platform optimized for both aerodynamics and electric drive. But Tesla has consistently backed up its battery claims with actual test results. Musk said earlier this year, “I do think that cost per kilowatt-hour at the cell level will decline…below $200, in the not-too-distant future.” That’s a 3X to 4X drop from current tech. He may be right, but much of what other people are saying now is hard to verify.

The Next Big Thing

The company that bears the closest watching is Envia Systems, which claims to have achieved an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram (compared to something like 150 watt hours in many of today’s EVs, and 240 Wh/kg in the Model S). Envia’s website claims a 2X or 3X increase in range, which the company translates to 300 miles on a charge.

Envia’s CEO, Atul Kapadia, told me that every major automaker is testing his cells, and both the Department of Energy and GM CEO Dan Akerson have recently praised the company’s technology (without necessarily endorsing its specific numbers). Akerson referred to Envia offering 200-mile range, which in any case is double today’s standard.

Kapadia told me we won’t have long to wait before his batteries are actually publicly demonstrated in a car, and there isn’t much to do but wait and see. The company’s tech combines a High-Capacity Manganese-Rich (HCMR) cathode with a nano-engineered silicon-carbon composite anode. It made its claimed energy-density numbers in testing at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

The beleaguered A123 Systems has also made breakthroughs lately, though its biggest claims are about batteries that can work in a wide range of temperature situations, without external cooling/heating.

Big Claims, No Proof

There are plenty of other claims out there. German technology company DBM Energy developed a lightweight Kolibri alpha-polymer battery that is supposed to cost only $1,100 to make, deliver 400-miles per charge, and last a decade or more. An Audi A2 supposedly went 375 miles on a set of these batteries on a 2010 trip from Munich to Berlin. But proof has been lacking.

I wrote last year, “The company has been a slippery eel on validation. DBM Energy’s battery work is supported by the German economics ministry (with $370,000 in funding, but before any official testing on the miracle pack could be done…disaster struck. In December 2010, the car that had reportedly made that history-making run burned up mysteriously in a warehouse fire. A dog ate the homework, in other words.”

A Japanese company, SIM-Drive, makes more modest but still eye-opening claims: 218 miles on a charge. The latest SIM-WIL, with wheel motors, is a very lightweight but fast car—supposedly with zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds on tap.

In the Lab

Some of the most intriguing technology is still being developed. I recently stood in a Colorado State University lab with professor Amy Prieto, who told me the tech she has in test tubes promises to deliver 400-mile range, with quick 10- to 20-minute charge times…at 240 volts. Like A123 and Envia, her battery ju-ju involves nanotechnology, in this case tiny copper nanowires a thousandth the thickness of a human hair. The batteries are also solid state (no liquid catalyst) and non-toxic.

Prieto Batteries is doing something right, because the Colorado State spinoff company has raised $5.5 million (of a planned $6.8 million round). Another solid-state battery chemistry developed from university research is Sakti3 at the University of Michigan. Ann-Marie Sastry’s company received $4.2 million from GM Ventures (also an Envia investor). Sastry is quiet about what her batteries can do, and she’s the first to caution they’re still in the development stage.

Further Out

And after this we get into blue-sky territory. A company called Amptran Motor Corporation claims to leverage nanotech so “you can drive up to 400 miles before you need to stop to charge overnight.” The fiberglass Amptran 101 car (quite a sight) uses a lithium-ion battery pack that supposedly weighs only 216 pounds. The car is priced at $45,000. The director, Lloyd Tran, seems sincere, but I know next to nothing about the car or the batteries.

Amptran

The Amptran 101, developed by Lloyd Tran (pictured) has gullwing doors and a big mystery in the battery department. (Amptran photo)

And finally, from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s the Lion EV, an electric Hyundai Tucson with claimed regenerative “breaking,” 400 miles on a charge, and a $32,995 bottom line. An unlucky Texas customer (perhaps the only one) claims to have plunked down something like $15,000 but never saw his electric vehicle conversion. The website no longer works.

Comments

· Anonymous (not verified) · 1 year ago

Yeah you have to watch our for that regenerative "breaking." It'll get you every time.

A little on the Amptran prototype automobile. The car that is shown on the site uses lead acid batteries and probably gets 30-60 miles range. Lloyd Tran is another scientist type working on developing Lithium Air battery technology. Lithium Air batteries have comparable energy density to gasoline. But you're right that it's blue sky territory because no one has been able to get more than a hand full of charges on those batteries before they degrade completely. Many worry that they won't ever become a reality but we can definitely hope and dream.

One company you did not profile was Balqon, who has taken a more practical approach to the lithium battery industry. I recently went on a tour at their facilities and learned that they developed a unique investor relationship with an actual battery manufacturer/supplier in order to lower the overall cost of the battery supply route and can thus afford to offer practically wholesale prices on lithium technology at between $260-340 per kWh, and you can buy those batteries today. Further they have found unique market niches where government subsidies are not needed in order to provide a sound fiscal case for the green technology. Thankfully (because I live near here) the Port of Los Angeles will be more less toxic (with apparently reduced costs too) due to their electric tractor trucks they have adopted to transport shipping containers to the train cars.

· Bret (not verified) · 1 year ago

You forgot to mention the EEstore debacle, that helped put Think out of business. Any new battery technology that isn't independently tested and verified should be considered vaporware. If it worked as they claim, they would be happy to have it verified.

I am dying to get my hands on a car with the new Envia batteries. A 200 mile car that costs $20-25K is exactly what I'm looking for. I give Steven Chu a lot of credit for putting his reputation on the line and making these bold predictions. I certainly hope he is right.

· Keith Ruddell (not verified) · 1 year ago

Jim,
According to their website, the Amptran uses lithium-air, not lithium-ion batteries. The car doesn't look like it would pass any crash tests, so I doubt it will be available for sale in the near future.

Lloyd Tran is also the director for the California Institute of Nanotechnology. They will be providing the batteries. There are no pictures of the battery at either site. That makes me wonder what the current state of development is.

http://www.amptran.com
http://www.cinano.com

· · 1 year ago

They had 5x the efficiencies of these theoritical batteries with hydrogen fuelcells in the labs and in real testing on the roads and they asked goverments to begin a hydrogen infrastructure but since that time goverments mysteriously begin batteries brainwash pr campaings to protect their lucrative petrol day to day business. Maybe they feared wars or they just plain want to collect more and more money from petrol tradings.

Im still waiting for MY hydrogen car and im not interrested to buy a deficient technology where you never gonna be able to recharge fast if you do a trip on the road, also you cannot monitor precisely what is the state of charge of the battery, etc, etc.

· smithjim1961 (not verified) · 1 year ago

I'm still waiting for plugincars to do article about the Edison2 eVLC, a car that gets an honest 112 miles of EPA-certified range from 10 kW-hr of off-the-shelf lithium ion batteries.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 1 year ago

One Word Aptera! 200 miles per charge. Of course this does assume that Zhejiang Jonway delivers what they say they will, if so you can drive one next year!

· Anonymous (not verified) · 1 year ago

Dr Chu is the only politician I know that has a reputation to protect. This guy is a scientist geek first and an accidental politician. Great piece Jim, please keep us updated.
Thank you

· Paul (not verified) · 1 year ago

I was going to retweet this post, until I read some of the extremely poor research that had gone into it!

The DBM Energy Audi A2 traveled 375 miles from Munich to Berlin on a single charge back in October 2010. If you had done legitimate research you would know the vehicle had a 115 kWh battery pack. That is more than twice the capacity of the 53 kWh battery pack in a Tesla Roadster.

http://bit.ly/SlxYwA

A Tesla owner from Texas in 2011 achieved a new distance record of 347.2 miles (555.5 kms) from a bog standard Roadster on a closed course in California making 375 miles from a 115 kWh pack seam entirely reasonable!

· · 1 year ago

Right, the Illuminati 'Seven' has driven about 217 miles on a ~33kWh pack. It was tested at the Chrysler proving grounds after the X-Prize and it was rated at 207MPGe.

If the EV1 had the Nissan Leaf battery pack, it would go over 200 miles.

The car is more important than the battery -- the SIM-LEI pictured at the top of the article has a Cd of 0.19 which is a little better than the EV1. And the Edison2 eVLC has a Cd of 0.16. (These are the new SAE tests -- the VLC would have a Cd of 0.145 by the old standard.)

I think that building a car that can use just 100-150Wh/mile is entirely possible, and that car would go about 700-800 miles on the Tesla Model S or the DBM Kolibri pack. (I thought the Kolibri used in the 375 mile A2 trip was 99kWh?).

And the key to low consumption is low aerodynamic drag. At highway speeds, aero drag takes ~3/4 of the energy so it is essential to lower the Cd to under 0.20, and I think that under 0.15 is possible.

Neil

· · 1 year ago

The DBM Kolbri battery has been tested, and it is legit:

http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1058119_its-official-dbm-energys-ele...

http://green.autoblog.com/2011/04/05/dbm-energy-record-breaking-kolibri-...

It was a 115kWh pack; I stand corrected.

Neil

· Kent Taylor (not verified) · 1 year ago

EEstor put Think out of business? Kinda odd, I'm driving one. EEstor screwed some company in Canada out of 6million? But not Think. Some trippin' comments on here. Yep....all I hear in the battery world is lots of BULL. I own a EV.....I would like to see the battery packs get cheap, before I have to replace mine.

· Dan Hollands (not verified) · 1 year ago

I'm to old to wait for "pie in the Sky" so I bought a Ford Focus EV and love it. I never go more than 75 miles in day.

· Max Reid (not verified) · 1 year ago

Tesla Model S with 300 mile range moved from fiction to reality. Lets home that this SIM-WIL also becomes reality.

· Jim Stack (not verified) · 1 year ago

we don't need more range, 100 is fine for most people. Just drive like you care and don't zip all over the place like some people do.
As the batteries improve the prices will come down which is much more important.

Carbon tax and stopping OIL subsides so people pay the real price of $8-10 a gallon and we are all set. EV's have to be smart and charge Off Peak when there is excess in the GRID. It's really not all about range.

· · 1 year ago

Thanks for reminding me of the EEStor mess. That technology wasn't just untested, it was never actually shown publicly. But the company said it would build ceramic batteries "at half the price, a fraction of the weight and 10 times the energy density of lead-acid batteries." So where are they?

· · 1 year ago

Calm down, Paul. The reporting on DBM Energy is accurate, though I agree it's definitely worth adding that the mileage-champ Audi had a 115-kWh battery pack. A little hard to verify, since the car burned up, but the size is accurate. The New York Times reported at the time, "Upon arrival, its 115-kWh pack was only around 80 percent depleted, implying a total range of more than 400 miles from a pack weighing just 770 pounds."

· Bret (not verified) · 1 year ago

@Kent,

My bad. It was Zenn Motors that EEstor helped put out of business, not Think.

· · 1 year ago

One other thing about that fire, Jim. The New York Times later reported (Feb, 3, 2011) that "The A2 disintegrated in a December fire while parked in a warehouse, though DBM claims that a makeshift battery unit, and not the one used during the supposed record run, was installed at the time." . . .

http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/a-375-mile-battery-range-too-...

As for the EEstor/Zenn connection, Bret, yes . . . this is the one.
But Think is now also pretty much gone, at least in their Elkhart, Indiana,
manufacturing effort . . .

http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1078613_last-few-think-city-electric...

· · 1 year ago

Jim, I'm disappointed you didn't mention/research Wash State U's tin anode Li ion battery that is supposed to have 3x the energy, faster recharge, more recharges, and *be on the market before next summer*.

Their press release makes the tech involved seem very low tech and easily incorporated into current Li ion battery production lines.

http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Detail&PublicationID=3...

· · 1 year ago

Come to think of it, you may want to do an article like this every 12 or even 6 months to keep readers up-to-date on the progress of various automotive green tech, incl. ultracaps (Argonne Labs, Maxwell Tech, Apowercap), hydraulic hybrids (NRG Dynamix), flywheel (Flybrid Systems), AFS Trinity "Extreme Hybrid" combining ultracaps and Li ion batteries.

Also, keeping tabs on the Ovionics patents over NiMH batteries, esp for large formats, is important.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ovonics#Patent_encumbrance

Plus, there's supposed to be "next gen" NiMH batteries released in the next few years to compete w/Li ion.

· · 1 year ago

What Envia is doing and what is coming out of the WSU research, John K, might be variations on the same general theme. I could be wrong about this, but I think much of what each entity is doing revolves around utilizing different materials in the anode. Pansasonic, likewise, has promised to introduce an improved anode formula for its lithium batteries in 2013.

I'm currently rereading the book Bottled Lightning right now, an excellent history of automotive lithium batteries that came out in 2011 (I was in a bookstore yesterday and see that it's now out in paperback.) What I found most revealing in that volume was how much of everything gets tangled up in lawsuits between university research facilities and start-up companies over basically the same battery idea.

As for ultracapcitors or supercapacitors, I haven't heard much new lately. There was talk a few years ago that supercaps would be used in conjunction with an EV's charger (ie: what under the hood) to help bring electricity into the car more quickly and then help them "feed" the batteries, thus speeding up charging time. I think the Bollare Bluecar prototype featured this, but the more pedestrian production version probably doesn't.

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