KYOTO, Japan--Masked workers in an airtight clean room carefully weld the tops shut on lithium ion battery cells, one-by-one. Colleagues slowly fill them, by hand, with electrolyte. It's tedious, labor intensive work yielding just 90 cells a day, barely enough for one car.
But GS Yuasa Corp. promises it will all be a sight of the past in April, when the company opens what it bills as the world's first mass-production line for automotive lithium ion batteries.
In other words, GS Yuasa thinks it can join other Japanese battery makers, such as Toyota's partner Panasonic, in the quest to create a practical alternative to internal combustion.
The power packs will go into the i MiEV electric vehicle that Mitsubishi Motors will start selling in Japan next summer. GS Yuasa's new factory will have initial capacity of 200,000 cells, or enough for 2,000 i MiEVs. But that will rise quickly to 100,000, or enough for 10,000 vehicles, and the company is planning plant No. 2.
Issue is cost, not safety
There is no better sign that lithium ion technology has cleared concerns about safety and is now facing the challenge of cost, says Katsuyuki Ono, a managing director at the battery maker.
"Mass production is necessary," Ono said in an interview at headquarters Nov. 13. "If you make enough for 50,000 cars, you can start to cut the cost. But even that is only by a little."
GS Yuasa is one of several Japanese companies, including Sanyo and Panasonic, vying to pioneer lithium ion batteries in the race for environmentally friendly cars. It manufactures the batteries through a joint venture with Mitsubishi Motors called Lithium Energy Japan.
Lithium ion batteries are seen as a breakthrough technology because they are lighter and more powerful than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in today's hybrid vehicles. But they are prohibitively expensive--partly because of materials, partly because of manufacturing costs.
On the small line at GS Yuasa's main battery plant in Kyoto, manual processes still prevail. But the factory opening next April in the city of Kusatsu will be fully automated.
Meanwhile, the company is trolling for more customers in Japan, Europe, and North America to boost volume and cut costs. It also has chosen a manganese-based chemistry that is cheaper and more stable than cobalt-based varieties, though it has lower energy capacity.
Rivals Sanyo and Panasonic are moving into lithium ion after years of mass producing nickel-metal hydride batteries for such cars as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid.
GS Yuasa has yet to see its batteries in any production vehicle. But it remains undaunted. The company started manufacturing lithium ion batteries in 1993 for cell phones and now makes them for a wide variety of uses including satellites, rocket ships, submarines, and trains.
"We are the rechargeable battery department store," says Masanori Kitamura, general manager of strategic planning. "We can apply our fundamental technology to any application."
(Source: Automotive News)