Ford, GM Offer a Peek at the Latest in EV Battery Research

Ford, GM Offer a Peek at the Latest in EV Battery Research

Transit Connect Electric - Photo by Jonathan Bardelline

The trend toward electric vehicles has been heating up in recent weeks, punctuated by Walgreen's announcement Thursday that it would install charging stations at 800 stores -- the most offered by any retailer.

General Motors also revealed it would begin testing EV re-charging wireless through the OnStar service -- the first pilot of its kind. Meanwhile, General Electric will begin selling wall-mounted home charging devices at Lowe's next month.

Adding to the growing chorus surrounding EVs are a pair of status updates from two of the biggest players in the automotive industry on one of the most expensive components you'll find in an electric or hybrid vehicle: the battery. Ford has revealed how the batteries of its hybrid taxi fleet are holding up, while General Motors announced progress on its work finding a second life for its Chevy Volt batteries once they have fulfilled their first use.

Ford has found just five issues from the nearly 43 million battery cells that have been put to use or tested. Over the last 10 years, its hybrid taxi fleet has driven more than 80 million miles in California.

"There were five cells but two separate issues for those total five cells," Bob Taenaka, Ford's Battery Technical Lead, said during a live web chat last week. "Both of them were manufacturing process rather than design issues as determined through root-cause analysis. Our supplier quickly resolved them as evidence by 0 failures or recurrence since 2007."

The company currently sells the Transit Connect Electric, with plans for Focus Electric production to begin later this year and the C-MAX hybrid and C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid both coming out next year. There are also plans for a next-generation hybrid in the works.

The company is also looking at a second life for the lithium-ion batteries, Taenaka said.

"Second life use is currently being evaluated but the economic viability of secondary usage verses direct recycling still needs to be assessed," Taenaka said.

GM's work finding a second life for the Chevy Volt battery is beginning to bear fruit. 

"One of the most asked questions from people interested in the Volt is what will happen to the battery once it has completed its useful life," Pam Fletcher, GM's global chief engineer fo the Volt and plug-in hybrid electric powertrains, said last during a teleconference last week. "That has been a priority for us and on our radar screen throughout the development of the Chevy Volt."

Back in September, the automaker announced that it had partnered with power-grid company ABB Group to explore new opportunities to reuse the Chavy Volt batteries, which retain about 70 percent of their battery capacity after 10 years of vehicle life, which is too low to satisfy the vehicle's needs.

GM-ABB second life research"Thirty-three batteries would be able to give you uninterruptible power supply for approximately 50 houses," said Pablo Valencia (pictured right), GM's newly appointed senior manager for battery life cycle management.

The companies successfully combined a used Chevy Volt with an ABB electric power inverter -- all modified -- in order to test the battery's storage capacity and ability to funnel energy back to the grid during outages or peak demand.

"The battery could be an asset owned by the utility and used to manage the amount of energy the utility has to deliver from its own generation," said Sandeep Bala, ABB's power electronics and R&D engineer. "If a consumer wants to consume a lot of power, and the power is very high, the utility can choose to deliver power from the battery, not necessarily from its own generator, which may be expensive at that time."

Next on the agenda, according to Valencia: "Testing a larger prototype on an actual electric distribution system."