LBL to develop batteries for electric vehicles

July 19, 1992

By Jeffery Kahn,

LBL, with 40 years of experience in electrochemical research, has signed on with the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium in a venture to develop advanced batteries for electric vehicles.

Under the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the USABC, LBL will develop lithium/polymer cells, an electrochemical power source with the potential to make electric vehicles competitive and commonplace by the year 2000.

The battery consortium teams General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler Corporation with the Energy Department and the Electric Power Research Institute (the utility industry's research arm). This is the first time the three major domestic automakers have worked jointly with the federal government on a research and development project. The government is paying half the cost for the four-year, $260 million research project.

Said LBL Director Charles Shank, "The competitiveness of the American automobile industry is critical to U.S. economic health. This research and development agreement is one example of how Department of Energy laboratories such as LBL can contribute to the pressing needs of our nation."

The effort to accelerate development of electric vehicles with significantly better range and performance than present models was catalyzed by air pollution in the Los Angeles basin. In 1990, the California Air Resources Board adopted regulations that, by 1998, mandate that 2 percent of the vehicles sold in California must be emissionless vehicles. The regulations further require that these "zero-emission" vehicles make up 5 percent of sales by 2001 and 10 percent by 2003. Following the lead of California, nine eastern states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar mandates. LBL to develop batteries for electric vehicles Acting to develop electric vehicles for this emerging market, the USABC examined scores of developing electrochemical technologies before selecting several candidates it considers to be the most promising.

The USABC believes lithium/polymer cells potentially can be developed to be competitive with conventional internal combustion vehicles, possibly within a decade. The consortium plans to create full-scale experimental batteries to demonstrate the design feasibility and performance benefits of the batteries.

LBL brought lithium/polymer batteries into prominence and will continue to develop lithium electrode/polymer-electrolyte cells for the consortium.

The Laboratory has signed a $1.1 million contract for the first year of what is expected to be a research program that extends through 1994. Researchers will examine how to improve the lifetime, ruggedness, and performance of the cell as well as explore and attempt to overcome any impediments to the future manufacture of full-size batteries for electric vehicles.

Until now, the lithium/polymer experimental cells produced at LBL have been small in size, suitable, for example, to power a watch. The performance characteristics of these cells has made them candidates for use in an electric vehicle battery.

Currently, the few electric vehicles on the road use lead-acid batteries, an electrochemical technology that is a century old. These cells must be recharged after the vehicle has traveled less than 100 miles, a range that is considered inadequate. To improve this range, advanced batteries are required that provide more energy both per unit of battery volume and per unit of weight. The targets set by USABC -- criteria that would make an electric vehicle competitive with conventional vehicles -- are 300 watt- hours per liter and 200 watt-hours per kilogram. Small versions of lithium/polymer batteries perform to these standards.

Lithium, a silvery-white metal, is the lightest metallic element. Highly reactive, it is currently used as an electrode material in non-rechargeable commercial coin-sized cells.

According to Elton Cairns, the director of the Energy and Environment Division, LBL researchers will experiment not only with polymer electrolytes, but with other promising compounds for use as positive electrodes.

Said Cairns, "An energy-efficient electric vehicle that would reduce the fossil fuel emissions fouling our air is needed right now. Electric vehicles will not be competitive with gasoline- powered vehicles until we develop a lightweight, high-energy rechargeable battery. We believe it is possible to develop batteries that can do the job."

In addition to the agreement with LBL, USABC is concluding other contracts with Argonne National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and Idaho National Engineering Laboratory for research, development and the testing of battery technologies.