Ford Focus Electric Will Get Liquid-Cooled Battery System to "Maximize Range"

· · 10 years ago

Ford's first mass-market, consumer-oriented battery electric vehicle offering, the Focus Electric, won't be reaching consumer hands until the end of 2011. Yet, although they are coming slightly late to the plug-in party (but still earlier than most manufacturers), Ford has seen a recent resurgence in sales and their hybrids have been a huge success. As such, the Focus Electric is a greatly-anticipated addition to the plug-in world.

After letting us know that the Focus Electric would use lithium-ion battery cells supplied by LG Chem subsidiary, Compact Power (and eventually manufactured in CPI's new facility in Holland, Michigan), Ford today said that the Focus' battery pack would rely on active liquid cooling to achieve greater range and long-term reliability over a wide variety of climates.

To be clear, the Focus Electric is not the absolute first market-available electric vehicle that Ford has had their hands in; that honor goes to the Ford Transit Connect Electric. But that car is being built in limited quantities and only sold to fleet customers... and it's not even fully built by Ford. In fact, the Ford Transit Connect is really a Ford in name only, considering that an empty Transit chassis (built in Turkey) is shipped to Azure Dynamics in Michigan and then upfitted with all the doodads to make it an electric vehicle by Azure. So the Focus Electric really is the first fully Ford designed and executed electric car to reach the mass market.

Ford says that they chose to go with active liquid cooling (and heating) for the Focus Electric because proper thermal management of lithium-ion batteries is critical to the success of plug-ins and "extreme temperatures can affect performance, reliability, safety and durability."

"All-electric vehicles do not have a conventional engine on board, so it is critical we maximize the performance of the battery under various operating temperatures," said Sherif Marakby, Ford director, Electrification Program and Engineering, in a statement. "Active liquid systems are more effective than air systems at regulating lithium-ion battery temperature. As a result, the active liquid system on Focus Electric will play a key role in providing our customers with the best performance possible."

The Focus Electric will be much the same size as the Nissan LEAF and, Ford claims, will have a similar 100 mile range. But it's this issue of battery thermal regulation that has taken center stage recently as one of the key market differentiators for this first crop of plug-ins. The Nissan LEAF's battery has been called out as being "primitive" by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and fears have been stoked that its battery will fail prematurely because it doesn't have active thermal management. It does have a passive thermal management system that is air cooled. However, the Volt has active liquid cooling and GM has used that pretty clearly as a way to say, and I paraphrase, "Our battery pack will last longer than the LEAF's."

Other companies besides GM and Tesla have gotten in on the act, including CODA, and pretty clearly now Ford thinks this is a big issue as well. But all along, Nissan representatives have said that they are "confident" the LEAF's battery will perform well enough and decided to go with the most simple method of thermal regulation they could think of to save on costs and reduce engineering complexity.

There are lots of published scientific papers that indicate many of the lithium-ion battery chemistries do, in fact, degrade quicker when they are not actively thermal regulated. But I have yet to find any scientist or engineer who, with confidence, can say that they know if those lab results will actually translate to the real world over the course of 5 years of driving in any meaningful way.

So to me, it feels like the issue of "my plug-in's battery is actively thermally managed and yours isn't" is more about instilling customer confidence in an untested technology and having a marketing foothold than it is about really planning for expected problems. Nobody knows what kind of capacity these batteries will retain, on average, given real world driving conditions. But everybody, even Nissan, is planning for the worst case scenario, with Nissan saying they expect the LEAF's battery to lose about 20% of its capacity in 5 years.

But then again, Mark Perry, Nissan's director of product planning and marketing, has told me that eventually the LEAF's battery will get some kind of active thermal management, and that it is kind of a necessity for long term planning. It seems that the writing's on the wall and that active thermal management, especially of the liquid kind, is where all of this is headed.

Source: Ford

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