Revving up for the all-electric SUV

Can the electric car evolve from the golf cart stage? Yes, thanks to battery technology, say electric sport-utility truck makers.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
With a few changes inside the battery, Altair Nanotechnologies and Phoenix Motorcars say electric cars can move from being a nice, but impractical concept to a way to get around town.

Phoenix this spring will come out with an all-electric sport-utility truck that eliminates many of the irritations associated with electric cars. At around $45,000 it's arguably affordable. The car--introduced just as major manufacturers are showing increasing interest in electric technology--can go 110 miles per hour (or faster) and accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under 10 seconds, so it can drive on the highway.

Just as important, it can be completely recharged out of a wall socket and a 220-watt adapter in about 6 to 7 hours, or through a special charger in about 10 to 15 minutes.

Phoenix will then follow the truck up with a sport-utility vehicle (SUV) that can go 250 miles on a single charge. Pricing should be about the same.

At the heart of these cars is a lithium-ion battery from Altair. Until recently, lithium batteries have been considered too unstable and volatile for use in cars. Put simply, lithium batteries can blow up and the bigger the battery, the larger the potential explosion.

Altair says its NanoSafe battery throttles that problem because the anode--the component inside batteries that discharges electrons--is made from lithium titanate spinels, a particle made from two lithium atoms, three oxygens and a titanium atom. Conventional anodes are made from graphite. Graphite flakes can come loose and can react with the electrolyte, the liquid carrying the lithium particles, and start a thermal runaway reaction. By contrast, Altair's anode is inert.

Click for gallery

"It won't interact with the electrolyte," said Altair CEO Alan Gotcher. "We haven't had a single failure of a cell in any safety tests and that includes putting a nail through the cell and overcharging it."

Besides Phoenix, the U.S. Navy is experimenting with Altair's battery in an effort to make a mobile 1-megawatt power station that can be mounted on a ship.

Lithium-ion technology appears to be entering a radically new phase. Stung by a string of recalls, notebook makers are beginning to look more closely at alternatives, such as zinc-based batteries.

But electric car proponents say that the performance advantages, when combined with improved safety techniques, make the technology ideal for their markets. Tesla Motors has made a sports car that can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4 seconds on a 6,800-cell lithium battery. To tame the potential explosive problems, Tesla isolates each lithium battery cell from one other to prevent chain reactions. While the sports car will sell for around $90,000 when it comes out next year, a mid-size sedan in the $50,000 range will come out in three or so years.

Valence Technologies, meanwhile, has experimented with changing the cathode. The electrons from the anode get attracted to the cathode and, during the journey, power devices such as lightbulbs.

Scientists in the past have tried to develop titanate spinel anode batteries. Unfortunately, the active particles on those early batteries were too large. By decreasing the size of the particles to a few nanometers, Altair can increase the size of the chemically active surface area on the anode. That leads to more simultaneous chemical reactions and more energy delivery. Gotcher likens the structure of Altair's anode to a cluster of grapes, or sugar crystals on the surface of a cookie.

"Others looked at this with 5- to 10-micron (diameter) particles and it was a dog," he said. As a result, electric cars like the Zap car mostly have used standard lead acid batteries. Zap cars top out at 35 miles per hour.

Altair makes the nanoparticles in Reno, Nev., and then ships them to Asia for packaging into battery cells. The cells then return to the U.S. and get assembled into batteries in a facility in Anderson, Ind.

Changing the anode material does reduce the ultimate performance of the batteries. In a notebook, an Altair-like battery might only give a user a four-hour charge, versus a six-hour charge with a high performance lithium battery, said Gotcher.

But the Altair-style battery will store more energy than a conventional car battery, which explains why the car manufacturers are intrigued and the notebook manufacturers are less so. Plug-ins going mainstream

Major manufacturers are also now key players in the electric car market. General Motors Chief Executive Rick Wagoner, speaking at the opening of the Los Angeles Auto Show, said plug-in hybrid technology is a "top priority" for his company. The company is working on a plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn Vue sport-utility vehicle, although he didn't say when such a vehicle would be available commercially. It's not quite the same as an all-out electric: a plug-in has a gas and electric motor, but the electric motor can be charged from a wall plug.

Also at the auto show, GM will show off a pair of current-generation hybrids: the Saturn Aura and the Yukon sport-utility vehicle. And a host of manufacturers, including GM, BMW AG, Honda and Nissan, will demonstrate hydrogen-powered vehicles.

That still leaves the problem of charging the cars. So where does the quick charger come from? Neither Phoenix nor Altair will say. A company called GreenIt says it will build rapid-charging stations for electric cars.

Phoenix will only produce around 500 cars in 2007, but hopes to expand production to more than 6,000 in 2008. It will primarily sell cars to fleet purchasers, i.e. government agencies and companies with large groups of outside representatives. Some government agencies are already buying up plug-in hybrids, which are close to electric cars.

The two companies demonstrated Phoenix prototypes at trade shows this year. In April, it will show off a model at a taxi trade show in New York; the taxi commission there has set out goals to reduce fuel consumption.

"Their battery removes a lot of problems with lithium-ion batteries," said Bryon Bliss, vice president of sales at Phoenix.

Additionally, the company is getting a lot of interest from consumers, and it may start selling to them in two years or so. At $45,000, the truck will cost significantly more than your average $20,000 pickup. Nonetheless, a full charge that will carry a driver 100 miles or so only costs about $3.

Trucks and SUVs get typically 12 to 24 miles per gallon and few expect gas prices to plummet anytime soon.

Electric cars have another advantage, Bliss said. The parts don't burn out as fast. The Altair battery has a lifetime expectancy of about 12 years, longer than the 4- to 5-year life of conventional car batteries. Electric motors also eliminate a lot of moving and breaking parts.

"With our vehicles, there is no maintenance," said Bliss.