Analysis: Rethinking the lithium-ion battery revolution over cost, safety

Wed Apr 10, 2013 1:59am EDT
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By Deepa Seetharaman

TROY, Michigan (Reuters) - For nearly two years, a team of former Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius engineers has been working on the next big thing in electric cars: the latest version of the 154-year-old lead-acid battery.

Their aim is to build a battery strong enough to power a wider range of vehicles, something they think the current cutting-edge technology - lithium ion - can't do cheaply, particularly given recent safety scares.

The focus of Energy Power Systems on a technology older than the automobile itself illustrates the difficulty with lithium-ion batteries. While widely used in everything from laptops to electric cars and satellites, a number of high-profile incidents involving smoke and fire have been a reminder of the risks and given them an image problem.

The overheating of the batteries on two of Boeing Co's (BA.N: Quote) high-tech 787 Dreamliners, which prompted regulators to ground the aircraft, served to underline the concerns and forced the plane maker to redesign the battery system.

On Thursday, battery experts will gather in Washington, D.C., to discuss the technology in a forum organized by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation of one of the 787 incidents.

Experts are certain to point out red flags. Indeed, a growing number of engineers now say the lithium-ion battery revolution has stalled, undercut by high costs, technical complexity and safety concerns.

"Smart people have been working on this for 10 years already and no one is close to a new kind of battery," said Fred Schlachter, a lithium-ion battery expert and retired physicist from the U.S.-funded Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Many experts now believe it will take at least another decade for lithium-ion technology to be ready for widespread adoption in transportation. Others, including Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T: Quote), believe the solution lies beyond lithium-ion.   Continued...

Sony's lithium-ion battery for its Vaio laptops is seen during a photo opportunity at its showroom in Tokyo November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon