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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