The Road to Lithium Car Batteries

Oct. 3, 2007: Source – IEEE Spectrum

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Are lithium ion batteries the next big technology breakthrough in hybrid and electric cars? Or is lithium the new hydrogen, promising big but never delivering?

According to John Voelcker, writing in IEEE’s Spectrum, lithium battery technology is winding a clear path toward widespread use in cars: from large power tools to niche autos (like the Tesla Roadster)—and then on to plug-in hybrids with a parallel design and finally to “the more radical series design, in which the motor drives the wheels, leaving the engine no other role than to recharge the batteries.”

How soon will all this happen? Nobody knows for sure, but the first steps on the path have been taken. Lithium batteries from A123 Systems, a battery maker in Watertown, Mass., hit the powertool market last year. And the company has its sights on auto applications, already having won contracts with several European and American automakers. According to Ric Fulop, vice-president of business development at A1234 Systems, “The first vehicles to use lithium ion batteries will come in 2009. In 2010, there’ll be several. By 2015, most of the world’s hybrids will use them.”

Voelcker outlines the three biggest obstacles to this scenario: cost, battery cell life, and safety. He describes the cost issue as a chicken-and-egg problem. Cars won’t have lithium ion batteries until they are affordable, and “batteries won’t be affordable until the automakers purchase a lot of them.”

Safety might be the biggest issue. The article goes into great detail about various battery chemistries. Each one is an attempt to maximize power and energy, while maintaining cell life and mitigating dangers. The margin of error regarding safety is narrow. Voelcker writes:

If a lithium-ion powered minivan carrying a family were to burst into flames, the resulting fiasco could set the industry back a decade. And it’s no use arguing that something like 250,000 gasoline-powered cars catch fire every year in the United States alone. New products are held to a higher standard.


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  • Max Reid

    I think Lithium has captured the market of Cellphones, PDA’s, Cameras and now recently the Powertools, the next is the Auto.

    But Automobiles could be tricky since they are exposed to climates ranging from 0 degree F to 115 degree F.

    Certainly it will be there.
    Lithium is a very abundant element on our planet.

  • JaxSean

    Odd the article doesn’t mention that A123 is who GM has contracted with to ‘invent’ the batteries for the upcoming Chevrolet Volt.

  • Hugh

    Very small amounts of Lithium in the World !

  • Bert

    check out

    they have converted many cars and have an aggresive marketing approach, see their featured videos on the home page (and all the others). Also, read the news:

  • Jeff

    Lithium is a chemical element with the symbol Li and atomic number 3. It is a soft alkali metal with a silver-white color. Under standard conditions, it is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Like all alkali metals, lithium is highly reactive, corroding quickly in moist air to form a black tarnish. For this reason, lithium metal is typically stored under the cover of oil.

    Lithium (mostly 7Li) was one of the few elements synthesized in the Big Bang, although its quantity has vastly decreased. The reasons for its disappearance and the processes by which new lithium is created continue to be important matters of study in astronomy. Lithium is the 33rd most abundant element on Earth,[1] but due to its high reactivity only appears there naturally in the form of compounds. Lithium occurs in a number of pegmatitic minerals, but is also commonly obtained from brines and clays; on a commercial scale, lithium metal is isolated electrolytically from a mixture of lithium chloride and potassium chloride.

    Trace amounts of lithium are present in the oceans and in some organisms, though it serves no apparent biological function in humans. Nevertheless, the neurological effect of the lithium ion Li+ makes some lithium salts useful as a class of mood stabilizing drugs. Lithium and its compounds have several other commercial applications, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics, high strength-to-weight alloys used in aircraft, and lithium batteries. Lithium also has important links to nuclear physics: the splitting of lithium atoms was the first man-made nuclear reaction, and lithium deuteride serves as the fusion fuel in staged thermonuclear weapons.

  • Jon

    Wow.. that reads just like the Wikipedia entry on Lithium… verbatim in fact.

    For verbatim coping you need to include the link back and reference the GNU License

  • Max Reid

    I think Lithium batteries can be deployed in scooters next, they they dont undergo rigorous temperatures like automobiles and also smaller batteries should be affordable.

    If a scooter is lightweight and can go 10 miles, it should help people go to nearby grocery store.

  • John Acheson

    Our oil civilization is facing its doom. Where did oil come from? The sun right… But why can’t we agree on how much oil and Lithium are left? As for oil, it doesn’t matter because the demand will exceed any amount of supply, due to overpopulation of the world’s cars and trucks. But for Lithium, it’s WAY TOO EARLY to make any estimates on global reserves. That would be like counting the world’s oil when Texas ruled the global oil supply and thought it would never run out. Very few people if any, know how much oil and Lithium are left…