A quest for batteries to alter the energy equation

ALLENTOWN, Pennsylvania — In a gleaming white factory here, Bob Peters was gently feeding sheets of chemical-coated foil one afternoon recently into a whirring machine that cut them into precise rectangles. It was an early step in building a new kind of battery, one smaller than a cereal box but with almost as much energy as the kind in a conventional automobile.

The goal of Peters, 51, and his co-workers at International Battery, a high-tech startup, is industrial revolution. Racing against other companies around the globe, they are on the front lines of an effort to build smaller, lighter, more powerful batteries that could help transform the energy economy by replacing gasoline in cars and making windmills and solar cells easier to integrate into the power grid.

This summer the Obama administration plans to announce how it will distribute some $2 billion in stimulus grants to companies that make such advanced batteries for hybrid or all-electric vehicles and related components. International Battery is vying for a modest chunk of it.

The hope is that the grants will spur far higher levels of experimentation and production, pushing down the costs that have prevented these batteries from entering the mass market.

The batteries would not only replace the fuel tanks in millions of cars and trucks, but would also make windmills and solar cells more practical, by absorbing excess energy when their production jumps and giving it back when the wind suddenly dies or the sun goes behind a cloud.

But first, companies like International Battery will have to adjust the chemistry of their devices and improve the manufacturing process, bolstering the batteries’ capabilities. And prices will have to come down — a problem that is far more daunting when it comes to batteries for vehicles and the grid, because the packs are hundreds or thousands of times the size of those for handheld electronics.

Nearly all battery research now focuses on lithium ion batteries, which made their consumer debut in 1991 and have since replaced nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal-hydride technologies in many portable electronics.

Lithium is the third-lightest element on the periodic table, which allows for far greater energy density. A lithium ion battery that will move a car a mile weighs less than half as much as a nickel metal hydride and one-sixth as much as lead acid.

Advanced battery manufacturing is mostly based in Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea, where laptop computers and similar devices are built.

International Battery bought machines from China that manufacture the components and has been adjusting them to make them run faster, use fewer materials and produce a better product. Each button on the control panels is labeled in Chinese characters, with English penciled in by hand underneath. Near Peters’ machine, a cardboard box awaiting unpacking bears hand-lettering that says, “Glass Please Carefully.”

“The battery is an enabler” of electric vehicles and other technologies, said Ted J. Miller, a technical specialist at the Ford Motor Company, referring to the models being produced in Allentown and others relying on different chemistry.

Miller represents Ford at the Advanced Battery Consortium, an organization formed with federal encouragement in 1991 to coordinate research on technology. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors have contributed, often with research scientists and facilities, and the Energy Department has written checks.

When the Advanced Battery Consortium was founded its set a near-term target for developing a battery that would cost $150 per kilowatt-hour of storage. (A kilowatt-hour sells for about a dime and will move a car 3 or 4 miles.)

Eighteen years later, prices are in the range of $750 to $1,000. By comparison, a lead-acid battery in a conventional car costs less than $100 for that much capacity, although it is much too heavy to build an electric car around and not durable enough.

Now the Energy Department has a new goal: $500 by 2012.

“We think we can make that,” said Patrick Davis, the program manager at the Energy Department’s vehicle technologies program.

One reason for the optimism is the infusion of money that Washington is preparing to get the job done. The $2 billion in new grants planned this summer includes $1.2 billion for companies manufacturing battery cells and complete battery packs, $350 million for electric drive component manufacturing and $25 million for battery recycling. The cell and battery-pack companies could get up to $150 million each. Companies have already applied for more than $6 billion in grants.

Some industry experts say that simply getting electric cars to market will touch off a cycle of new research, investment and product improvement.

But when it comes to a genuine mass market for an affordable plug-in hybrid or all-battery car, “we don’t quite know how to get there,” said Miller, of Ford.

Consumer Reports magazine detailed the price problem in its February issue, reviewing an after-market conversion of a Prius to a plug-in. For $10,875 the magazine had a five-kilowatt-hour battery installed by a Toyota dealership in Massachusetts. It got 67 miles a gallon, a 35 percent improvement over the stock version.

“Our Prius’ conversion to plug-in power cost more than you could ever expect to recoup in gas savings,” the magazine said. Still, “as a sign of things to come, we found it encouraging.”