Using batteries to drive car engines is a technical tour de force involving cells, electronics and sensors. The massive amount of energy produced has to be tightly controlled. And engineers have to fit the battery shape into the vehicle.
The next generation of hybrid and electric vehicles will have a lighter and more powerful kind of battery inside — lithium ion batteries, which automakers are investing billions in developing.
There are three things that stand out about electric cars. First, they're really quiet. Second, they accelerate instantly, because electricity is immediately available to the wheels. And third, they'll be expensive: Some of the billions carmakers are investing in battery technologies is going to show up in the sticker price.
Ron Jamieson is in charge of General Motors' new 30,000-square-foot battery lab. GM has invested $1 billion in its Chevy Volt program to build a car that can go 40 miles on battery power alone. The lab is filled with black or silver chambers that look like huge meat lockers.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the lithium ion batteries inside the chambers charge and discharge under different conditions of climate and load. GM also runs continuous tests on individual cells.
There are more than 200 lithium ion cells in one 400-pound battery. Each cell has to be perfect, or the battery won't work.
"This cell — I guess it's about the size of a greeting card," says Brian Corbett, spokesman for GM's hybrid programs, while showing one to a reporter.
The cell is a flat pouch that looks like a plastic 8-by-5 padded mailing envelope. A lot of energy is stored in the little package. But Jamieson says the cells won't catch fire even if the battery pack is crushed in an accident.
"You might expect, well, wow, if I stuck this in water or short it out or whatever, I would expect some very bad results," says Jamieson. "But it has been very, very benign. As I say, boring."
GM says its Chevy Volt will be available at the end of 2010. Other carmakers will launch electric and hybrid cars with lithium ion batteries in 2011 and 2012. Car companies say that over time, the cost will go down as more drivers fuel their cars at the electric outlet instead of the gas pump.