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WisBusiness: State Engineer Confident Lithium-Ion Batteries Will Dominate Hybrid Vehicle Market

By Brian E. Clark

GLENDALE – Mike Andrew doesn’t drive a hybrid car. But the chances are good that his next vehicle will be one.

“I’ve driven nearly all the hybrids out there as part of my work,” said Andrew, a manager at Johnson Controls’ new $4 million advanced lithium-ion battery laboratory.

“They are well-designed,” said Andrew of today’s hybrids. Nearly all of them use nickel-metal-hydride batteries – which are significantly heavier than the lithium-ion prototypes he helping to develop.

“You don’t have to sacrifice anything now and I’m convinced that hybrids are only going to get better,” he added.

Like most motorists, Andrew groans every time he has to fill up his tank on $3-a-gallon gas to support a 35-mile daily round-trip commute.

But unlike most drivers, Andrew is doing something to reduce the millions of gallons vehicles consume each day and the tons of emissions those same cars and trucks spew into the air.

If the work of Andrew and his colleagues is successful in producing smaller, lighter, tougher and more powerful lithium-ion batteries to run hybrids, the United States should be able to cut its use of oil, he says.

Ironically, it’s that $3-a-gallon gas that is making hybrids more and more attractive.

“In the past, there just wasn’t the market,” he said. “That’s changed. And I’ve got a feeling the price we are now paying for gas will look inexpensive down the road.”

He predicts vehicles using lithium-ion batteries will be on the market in the next few years because they offer significant improvements over the hefty nickel-metal-hydride batteries currently used in most hybrids and all-electric vehicles.

Then there is the security issue.

“It’s more than a little unsettling to think about how much we rely on oil that comes from a not terribly stable part of the world,” said Andrew, who has worked on alternative propulsion battery projects for almost all of his 27-year career with Johnson Controls.

“I like what I do,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to drive battery technology and propel forward a home-grown technology and get a significant return on our company’s investment.”

But Johnson Controls isn’t operating in a vacuum. NEC, Hitachi, Panasonic, Samsung and others are also working on lithium-ion technology.

“Our competitors are absolutely doing this,” he said. “There is a race on. But one of the major advantages that Johnson Controls has is that in addition to understanding the chemistry, we have a long history as a tier-one automotive supplier.

“We understand the implications of the packaging and how you integrate that battery with the interior of a vehicle. We have an electronics division, so we understand the power interfaces, the voltage monitoring and the battery controller.

“In other words, a company that makes lithium-ion batteries for calculators can’t just say, 'Now we’ll adapt this for a car,'” he said. “It’s a lot more challenging than that.”

Andrew said he estimates that if 25 percent of the passenger cars on American roads were converted to hybrids, it would save 600,000 barrels of oil a day, for annual savings of more than $15 billion and an annual reduction of 56 million tons of carbon dioxide.

According to industry statistics, U.S. hybrid vehicle sales more than doubled in 2005, though they only about 1.2 percent of the country's total vehicle sales. Registrations for new hybrids rose to 199,148 in 2005, a 139 percent increase from the year before, according to R.L. Pol & Co., a Michigan firm that collects automotive data.

In 2004, the 83,153 hybrids sold were 0.5 percent of the 16.91 million vehicles sold. The U.S. hybrid market has grown nearly 30-fold since 2000, when 7,781 were sold. Some experts believe hybrid sales in the U.S. and European markets could reach 6 million units in a decade. Annual total vehicle sales for the United States alone is now about 16.4 million a year.

Andrew is even more optimistic.

“Nobody’s crystal ball is perfect,” he said. “But I think in 10 years, the majority of the market could be hybrid. It will happen in phases, but it will happen.”

Johnson Controls' new lab opened last September and features a 2,000-square-foot “dry room” and an array of highly specialized tools and equipment for designing, developing and testing power storage and power management concepts based on lithium-ion technology. It is located in the company’s Battery Technology Center at its Glendale headquarters.

In 2004, the company was given a contract for lithium-ion battery development by the United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC).

The consortium includes the U.S. Department of Energy, DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors, supports research and development for advanced energy systems to power future hybrids.

The company, which is already the globe’s largest manufacturer of vehicle original equipment and aftermarket batteries, has been a leader in R&D activities to create enhanced batteries for future generations of hybrid vehicles. Officials have said they expect to spend more than $55 million during the next three years on hybrid battery research.

Johnson Controls' work has not gone unnoticed.

In February, President George W. Bush toured the lithium-ion lab and spoke with Andrew and other Johnson Controls officials.

Bush, who said the United States is “addicted to oil” in his most recent State of the Union speech, seemed to be impressed by the work going on at the lithium-ion lab, Andrew recalled. Bush also said his proposed budget for the next fiscal year would increase funding for longer-lasting hybrid batteries by more than 25 percent, to $31 million.

“I could tell by the questions the president asked about the battery packs that he was quite serious about the technology and its potential advantages,” Andrew said.

Bush, who is noted for passing out nicknames, did not give one to Andrew, but he did have this question for the engineer: “Mike, when do you think lithium-ion batteries will be ready to hit the road?”

“And I responded, ‘two years, Mr. President,” Andrew said.

“Then he said, ‘Why so long?’ because there is a sense of urgency that he shares with us and the rest of the industry about reducing our need for oil,” Andrew said.

And the reason for the two-year lag?

“I told him that in addition to the engineering of the (battery) cells, we need to do system engineering and validation work,” Andrew said.

“That’s a big part of it,” he added. “The chemistry is critical, but there are packaging considerations, thermal management, monitoring and controls that have to all be integrated for reliability.

“That said, we have a lot of confidence that this technology has a lot to offer. We’ll just have to see.”

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