Allentown, Pennsylvania: In a gleaming white factory here, Bob Peters was gently feeding sheets of chemical-coated foil one afternoon recently into a whirring machine that cut them into precise rectangles. It was an early step in building a new kind of battery, one smaller than a cereal box but with almost as much energy as the kind in a conventional automobile.
The goal of Peters, 51, and his co-workers at International Battery, a high-tech start-up, is industrial revolution. Racing against other firms around the globe, they are on the front lines of an effort to build smaller, lighter, more powerful batteries that could help transform the American energy economy by replacing petrol in cars and making windmills and solar cells easier to integrate into the power grid.
Industrial revolution: A coater operator at International Battery in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The firm is in a global competition to develop small, cost-effective batteries for electric cars, windmills and solar cells. Justin Maxon / NYT
This summer the Obama administration plans to announce how it will distribute some $2 billion (around Rs9,640 crore) in stimulus grants to companies that make such advanced batteries for hybrid or all-electric vehicles and related components. International Battery is vying for a modest chunk of it.
The hope is that the grants will spur far higher levels of experimentation and production, pushing down costs that have prevented these batteries from entering the mass market.
The batteries would not only replace the fuel tanks in millions of cars and trucks, but would also make windmills and solar cells more practical, by absorbing excess energy when their production jumps and giving it back when the wind suddenly dies or the sun goes behind a cloud.
But first, companies such as International Battery will have to tweak the chemistry of their devices and improve the manufacturing process, bolstering the batteries’ capabilities. And prices will have to come down—a problem that is far more daunting when it comes to batteries for vehicles and the grid, because the packs are hundreds or thousands of times the size of those for handheld electronics.
Nearly all battery research now focuses on lithium ion batteries, which made their consumer debut in 1991 and have since replaced nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal-hydride technologies in many portable electronics.
Lithium is the third lightest element on the periodic table, which allows for far greater energy density.
A lithium ion battery that will move a car a mile weighs less than half as much as a nickel metal hydride and one-sixth as much as lead acid.
Advanced battery makers are mostly based in Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea, where laptop computers and similar devices are built.
“The battery is an enabler” of electric vehicles and other technologies, said Ted J. Miller, a technical specialist at the Ford Motor Co., referring to the models beinlg produced in Allentown and others relying on different chemistry.
Miller represents Ford at the Advanced Battery Consortium, an organization formed with federal encouragement in 1991 to coordinate research on technology. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors have contributed, often with research scientists and facilities, and the energy department has written cheques.
Auto makers need improvements in batteries “everywhere we can get it”, Miller said.
When the Advanced Battery Consortium was founded, it set a near-term target for developing a battery that would cost $150 per kWh of storage. (A kWh sells for about a dime and will move a car three or four miles.)
Eighteen years later, prices are in the range of $750 to $1,000. By comparison, a lead-acid battery in a conventional car costs less than $100 for that much capacity, although it is much too heavy to build an electric car around and not durable enough.
Now the energy department has a new goal: $500 by 2012.
“We think we can make that,” said Patrick Davis, the programme manager at the energy department’s vehicle technologies programme.
One reason for the optimism is the infusion of money that Washington is preparing to get the job done. The $2 billion in new grants planned this summer includes $1.2 billion for companies making battery cells and packs, $350 million for electric drive component manufacturing and $25 million for battery recycling.
Some industry experts say that simply getting electric cars to market will touch off a cycle of new research, investment and product improvement.
But when it comes to a genuine mass market for an affordable plug-in hybrid or all-battery car, “we don’t quite know how to get there,” said Miller, of Ford.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES