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The car battery: From the shadows to stardom


DETROIT. – For decades, the automobile battery was an essentially static technology, but it’s no longer being taken for granted. Battery technology is now in a starring role in the development of a new generation of electrified vehicles.

But today’s batteries are a far cry from the humble lead-acid battery used for a century in the automobile. The 12-volt lead-acid battery used in traditional automotive applications is rapidly giving way to sophisticated, higher energy and power batteries as the automobile industry shifts further toward electrification.

The advent of hybrid electric vehicles spawned a new generation of batteries, making nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) batteries the energy storage technology of choice. The nickel used in these batteries is lighter than lead, helping the battery deliver twice the power output for the weight as lead-acid batteries, but the cost of Ni-MH batteries is high – four times that of lead acid. Automakers already believe they have tapped most of the potential of Ni-MH technology and are moving rapidly toward Lithium-ion technology.

Lithium-ion batteries are commonplace in the world of consumer electronics. They’re lighter and more energy dense than other types of batteries, making them ideal for laptop computers, mobile phones and other portable devices.

That makes lithium-ion technology even better for use in cars of the future, right?

“At Ford, we believe lithium-ion batteries have incredible potential for the next-generation of electrified vehicle, and we’re already using lithium-ion technology in test units for the battery electric vehicles (BEVs) that are part of our new electrification strategy,” said Ted Miller, senior manager, energy storage strategy and research, Ford Motor Company. “But there are technical challenges we are still addressing to make lithium-ion technology work in high-volume automotive applications.”

According to Miller, intensive technical development work is underway in the industry to adapt lithium-ion technology from that used in cell phones today to the far more robust requirements of automobile batteries of the future. The work is promising, Miller says.

“There isn’t just one type of lithium-ion battery and several hold promise for automotive use,” Miller explains. “That’s good because we know that the variant of lithium-ion battery used in laptops and other mobile devices is completely unacceptable for use in cars.”

That’s because automobile batteries have a much harder job than a laptop or phone battery. Cars have to work in huge temperature extremes, stand up to more shocks and vibrations and a much higher energy throughput than consumer electronics goods. And an automobile is expected to have a 10-year lifespan, something most laptop or cell phone owners don’t expect of those devices.

Intensive development work is underway to prove out lithium-ion technology for the auto industry, and Ford is using its extensive experience in BEV and hybrids to test the technology rigorously for its starring role in high-volume electrified vehicles of the future. Ford can already point to the robustness of its hybrid technology with the Ford Escape Hybrid. In New York, some Escape Hybrid taxis have clocked more than 300,000 miles of reliable service.

Ford and other manufacturers are focused on conquering the challenges of lithium-ion for a long, reliable life.

“There is a tremendous amount of effort happening in lithium-ion technology for cars,” Miller said. “The battery industry is really focused now on creating lithium-ion batteries specifically for cars and this is going to result in a great new generation of automotive batteries.”


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