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That Electric Car Dream: Good News and Bad

Electric vehicles are not just for warehouse aisles -- maybe you have heard that before? Well, now you can count on it. Gasoline prices and other pressures on the North American automobile industry make the debut of a mass-produced electric car virtually a sure thing within the next two years.  

GM's Chevy Volt has been leading the charge in a very high profile advance marketing campaign. Promised in 2010, the Volt has already demonstrated, in test vehicle form, that it can provide an all-electric fully battery powered range of 40 miles -- with a fail-safe option: its built-in engine/generator can take you hundreds of miles further before you return to a wall plug or a gas station. Ford and Chrysler are playing catch-up with similar plug-in hybrid electric car programs that they are now accelerating.

Foreign competitors, some of them, may already be caught up. China is expected to be represented on American highways at some point in the near future -- with plug-in hybrids or a pure electric car. BYD Auto Company of China exhibited its hybrids, the F6DM and the F3DM, earlier this year at auto shows. They use BYD's proprietary iron-based lithium-ion rechargeable battery (19.8 kWh) for a claimed all-electric range of 60 miles. Like the Volt, the cars can be plugged in at night to recharge -- avoiding the use of gasoline entirely. More range yet is promised in a future BYD electric car, the E6, which is expected to cruise more than 180 miles between charges.

BYD has an advantage when it tackles the central challenge to electric car development: Its parent company is China's largest battery manufacturer. They claim to be at the cutting edge; publishing specs that do raise an eyebrow: Their lithium-ion iron phosphate electric car battery is supposed to last 2,000 cycles, equivalent to 300,000 miles. In fast-recharge mode, BYD's battery is said to reach 80% of full charge in about 15 minutes. Looks good -- on paper.

The Nissan Motor Company of Japan plans to introduce an all-electric lithium-ion powered car in the United States near the same time GM begins selling the Chevy Volt. This represents a dramatic change for the company -- as recently as a few years ago Nissan's chief executive Carlos Ghosn was publicly skeptical about a near-term role for electric transportation. Nissan's industrial electric vehicles will get a technology boost out of this new focus as well -- the company's first batches of advanced lithium-ion batteries (made with assistance from NEC) will be used in Nissan electric forklifts.

Lithium battery capacity needs to grow -- in more ways than one

Japan is the center for global lithium-ion battery production at present -- but there is only enough large-format lithium ion battery manufacturing capacity to support production of barely a few tens of thousands of electric cars annually. That will be ramped up, and dramatically, but the wait may slow new vehicle introductions.

Four years from now, mass production is expected to bring a typical lithium-ion electric car battery down to a tad below $15,000 each (yes, that's just the battery). But that figure does not take into account the looming specter of lithium shortage. (What, a lithium shortage?)

More worrisome than manufacturing capacity is the flat global mining output of lithium. Never has been a surplus of lithium on the market, and future electric car battery demands will ask to multiply supply significantly. Analysts are warning that world transportation dependence on lithium is inviting a situation potentially tighter than the current restraints we face with oil. For example: South America contains this hemisphere's richest lithium resource, much of it undeveloped -- and that supply may be at the mercy of socialist leaders who, tellingly, have often mismanaged (or capriciously withheld) their other mineral and oil reserves.

Dimming the Lights
One major government study of the impact of widespread electric car use indicated that our current electric utility infrastructure could handle it with grace. But Oak Ridge National Laboratory warns that it "depends." Mostly on the time of day people choose to recharge their vehicles.

Large electric power facilities don't typically ramp down their turbines and generators at night, so there exists plenty of excess capacity after dark. Most think that consumers will be charging car batteries late in the day, which could actually cause electricity costs overall to drop by allowing utilities to sell their surplus. But … any other charging timeframe demands a degree of capacity expansion to meet high demand period loads -- and costs would rise. In some scenarios, more than double.

Electric costs are also expected to rise dramatically if congress goes through with threatened global warming taxes and power plant restrictions. There's also that gasoline tax burden your legislators will be hot to transfer over to your electric bill. Ah, those hidden fuel taxes -- they make up a big chunk of the price we pay for liquid fuels right now. (Your government is determined to maintain that income stream, don't you forget it.)

It's a shift in energy focus, this electric car revolution, so there is bound to be an adjustment period. And like many new energy and transportation ideas, this new ride may not turn out to            

Somebody said we need to get away from gasoline, right?
-- William C. Shumay Jr. is a science journalist and author of numerous articles on new ideas, alternative fuels, and advanced vehicles. His work is cited in a dozen U.S. patents. He can be reached at wcs@wordverse.com .
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