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.


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.

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