Electric Vehicle Battery Brouhaha

Whoever thinks electric car lithium-ion batteries aren’t sexy probably hasn’t seen recent headlines popping up from Paris to Singapore to Sydney to Washington.

Sounding more like a Hollywood big-screen spy thriller than real-life drama, French automaker Renault SA last week suspended three managers suspected to be involved in industrial espionage and leaking electric vehicle secrets.

In a widely published statement picked up by global press outlets, Renault senior vice president, legal department, public affairs, said an ongoing investigation revealed that the managers “knowingly and deliberately placed at risk the company's assets.” As of Jan. 6, details about the exact nature of what may have been leaked were scarce, but the suspensions were reportedly aimed at protecting the strategic and technological assets of the company.

The threat of much-desired technology development falling into the wrong hands even drew the attention of France's industry minister, Eric Besson, who warned the country was facing an “economic war.” According to the BBC, Besson said: “The expression 'economic war', while sometimes outrageous, for once is appropriate.”

With the fledging electric car market positioned to speed ahead these next few years, the high-stakes race to develop better-performing batteries could prove to be a lucrative segment for whichever company innovates the best product.

Pike Research, a Boulder, Colo., research and consulting firm that tracks global clean technology markets, predicts revenue for the nascent worldwide electric vehicle lithium-ion battery market will grow to nearly $8 billion by 2015 from $3 billion in 2011.

Many companies have already elbowed their way onto the stage, which could prime the industry for a wave of mergers or acquisitions this year. “The universe for battery companies has become saturated, and the market is not likely to sustain the current number of independently operating companies,” according to Pike’s report, released in December. The analysts added further:

    Automotive and grid energy storage customers are looking for solutions providers that can serve all their needs. However, to provide such a one-stop shop often requires access to multiple technologies, and this creates a major incentive for companies to join forces.

Or, as I would add in light of the Renault case, the situation creates a major incentive for more shady alliances.

One of the key issues facing carmakers and the buying public is how long a battery can hold its charge before it needs to be charged up again and how much charging time will be required. Auto and battery manufacturers aren’t the only ones worried about that. It’s been forefront for the US government for a couple of years and has won funding: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 provided more than $1.5 billion for energy storage research. And some of these technologies will soon be ready to move from the lab to the plant, according to Pike Research.

We’ll see how this all shakes out, but what a way to start the year, huh?

12 comments on “Electric Vehicle Battery Brouhaha

  1. prabhakar_deosthali
    January 11, 2011

    It seems that the EVs are getting that extra push needed to roll them on their own. If the key isues of battery charging time and range per charge can be tackled  there will not be any hurdle for EVs to ride the highways. One of the alternatives to avoid long recharge time of batteries and range limitation could be, to have battery banks at every , say 50kms , on the highways , and like filling your gas in a normal vehicle, it should be possible to swap a discharged battery with a fully charged battery in a matter of minutes. If such strategies are worked out ,EVs can become viable even now.

  2. Ariella
    January 11, 2011

    What prabhakar_deosthali describes would have to be realized in order for EVs to become viable for drivers who don't want to worry about running out of energy with no means of replenishing the battery on the road.  Consequently, companies will have to commit setting up such charging stations, and that will require quite a large investment.  

  3. prabhakar_deosthali
    January 11, 2011

    Yes! that is true Ariella. No doubt initial investments will be huge. But that will give confidence in the minds of the drivers that they can be carefree about he charge remaining in their vehicle's batteries. Moreover such charging stations could use solar power for charging the battery banks either directly by PV panels or indirectly by running generator sets on the steam gnerated by solar concentrators. Such totally innovative solutions could revolutionize the whole game of eco-friendly vehicles where the conventional IC engine driven vehicles have a tough time keeping the emissions under control.

  4. itguyphil
    January 11, 2011

    In addition to investment, there is real estate concerns as will as government regualtions that will need to be in place. This alone could take years. Although this is something that people have talked about for some time, you can see that there are a myriad of barriers to bypassing gasoline/oil as our primary fuel source.

  5. Ariella
    January 11, 2011

    Solar power to charge the car batteries is an excellent idea, prabhakr_desothali.  That would be a truly clean source of energy, unlike conventional electricity.  As I am, at best, cautiously optimistic though, I do have to concede the point made by pocharles, that such innovations will likely take quite a while to come to fruition in the US.  

  6. Clairvoyant
    January 11, 2011

    I think EV's right now are the best option for within towns/cities. I don't think customers would want to continuously being charging the batteries if they took a long trip on the highway. I also don't see customers wanting to 'swap out' drained batteries for charged ones, and also these batteries are usually quite large in EV's and too heavy and difficult to change out. 

  7. saranyatil
    January 12, 2011

    its not only issues related to charging, real estates there will be many more constraints on the power and speed. it also requires huge investments for solar panels and also depends on the climatic conditions of the place. since they are driven batteries always there will be doubts on the charging feasability, for the time beeing it can be used for short distances.

  8. Jennifer Baljko
    January 12, 2011

    Good points, everyone. Like most of you, I like the idea of using solar panels to power recharging stations. Obviously, alternatives or workarounds would have to be available for places like San Francisco and northern Europe (London and Germany, particularly) where they are actively engaged in setting up recharging stations but have many days under considerable cloud cover or short periods of sunlight in the winter.

    As for the investment and real estate issues: I think those concerns will sort themselves out pretty quickly once we move beyond speculative theories and glimmers of tangible market traction become real. The famous chicken and egg scenario comes to mind. Eventually, initial demand from EV loyalists will spark the need for new services and solutions, and new opportunities and services will spark greater demand among the mass consumer population. So on and so forth. Perhaps, naively, I’m thinking of recent trends in digital cameras, MP3 players, e-readers, and touch-pad phones: Gadgets geeks excitedly buy the first version as soon as devices come off the shop floor and, within a handful of years, everyone from the 9-year-old next door to great Aunt Lizzy has buds strapped to their ears or are pulling out the hardware they bought at Walmart. In the auto segment, maybe the trend will be different, or slower, because of the price tag. But, maybe not. Remember how quickly 4x4s and minivans became the popular vehicles of choice despite their low gas mileages and high dollar value?

    Also, the same report I cite in the post from Pike Research also notes that some of the range anxiety (how far can drivers go before they have to recharge) may lessen once drivers really understand their daily driving habits. The analysts add: “Traveling 30 or fewer miles per day is the established pattern for most drivers, even those in gas powered cars.”

    And, we certainly can't ignore the end-of-life battery recyclability issue. I'm not well versed enough on how battery and auto makers plan to address this. Anyone have info on this issue?

  9. prabhakar_deosthali
    January 12, 2011

    As I understand , there are established processes by which every part of a dead battery can be recycled.  The Automobile Associations all over the world encourage the car owners to return their dead batteries for recycling . These organizations arrange special drives periodically to collect old batteries from the end customers so that these batteries are recylced properly.

  10. Jennifer Baljko
    January 12, 2011

    @prabhakar_deosthali – Thanks. Makes sense that there would be a program like this.

  11. Jennifer Baljko
    January 12, 2011

    For what it's worth, here's an update to last week's EV battery scandal at Renault:

  12. prabhakar_deosthali
    January 18, 2011

    The key problem of the long charging time of the conventional batteries is the main concern for Electric vehicles. A lot of research is happening in Ultracapacitors which are the future alternatives to the conventional batteries. The only problem is,  todays ultracapacitors cannot store as much energy as the batteries of the same size would store.  The advantage of the supercapacitors is that they can be recharged withing minutes, have much longer life-span in terms of charge-discharge cycles, can release energy instantly( such as while accelerating the vehicle). With the discovery of Graphene, the ultracapacitors will ride on a fast lane now and soon will replace the batteries. The dream of running EVs on highways for long distance wiil soon become the reality.

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