NISKAYUNA, N.Y. — Rising oil and gasoline prices have put spring into the steps of the engineers at General Electric's global research headquarters, who're developing new battery technologies to power everything from hybrid cars to tugboats, city buses and diesel locomotives.
"The price of gasoline is going up dramatically, so we're looking more seriously at this," said Robert King, a senior hybrid engineer who's researched hybrid technologies for more than three decades. "The cost is still one challenge, but I think as we see the price of gasoline going up, more effort is going into the development of technology."
The silver lining in high oil prices is that they may hasten the arrival of energy alternatives that should bring a number of benefits.
Oil historian Daniel Yergin calls today's high prices a "tipping point" that will lead to alternatives to oil. New battery technologies could leave the United States less reliant on foreign oil while reducing harmful carbon dioxide emissions.
Sound like a pipe dream? General Motors' chairman and chief executive officer, Rick Wagoner, announced Tuesday that his board has given the green light to begin manufacturing the Chevy Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle.
The Chevy Volt is a go. We believe this is the biggest step yet in our industrys move away from our historic, virtually complete reliance on petroleum to power vehicles, Wagoner said in a statement, pledging to get the Volt into dealerships by late 2010.
That would be earlier than the timetable announced by Nissan Motor Co.s CEO, Carlos Ghosn, who in mid-May said that Nissan would sell large numbers of electric vehicles to U.S. consumers by 2012 and would offer electric cars for corporate fleets in 2010.
"We're going to bring a vehicle that we think will be ready for prime time and a mass market," Mark Perry, the director of product planning for Nissan North America, said in an interview. "It is new. It is something that people will have to get their mindset shifted on a little bit, but not a lot. A little bit."
Whether it's Nissan, GE, U.S. carmakers or Toyota — the maker of the popular hybrid Prius — a race is under way across industries and borders to wean motorists from gasoline. With roughly 70 million cars produced globally every year, the stakes are high.
For GE, the race to build an electric car is deja vu. During the nation's last energy crisis — in the late 1970s and early 1980s — General Electric developed a hybrid automobile that worked very much like today's popular Toyota Prius. It contained an internal combustion engine and an electric drive system.
"We proved the concept, but it wasn't quite ready for commercialization. Lead-acid batteries were quite heavy," King said. "In comparison, today's batteries are a factor of three to four (better) in energy density," making them more powerful and capable of holding their charges longer.
The problem for electric and hybrid vehicles has always been a chicken and egg thing. Because these cars have been limited in production, they're expensive and buyers have been few. If there were more buyers, prices could come down.
With oil hovering around $130 a barrel and few analysts expecting it go back under $100 in coming years, the time for a serious change in powering automobiles seems to have arrived.
"It's a paradigm shift, and you are seeing that the technology is coming to bear," said King, who expected this shift in the 1980s only to see oil prices collapse to record lows, leaving innovation to wilt on the vine. "I'm optimistic that we're moving ahead."
Across GE's production line, work is under way to use new battery technologies to help propel tugboats, power delivery trucks and heavy machinery and even support diesel locomotives.
Next year, GE will begin field-testing hybrid locomotives, which get their electric power from batteries, not from overhead electrical wires. They use large sodium batteries that allow energy to drain slowly, reducing fuel consumption and allowing locomotives to operate on quieter battery power when they're crossing through towns.
"A lot of nonbelievers will tell you, 'You've been working on these batteries for 100 years and we still don't have a solution,' " said Vlatko Vlatkovic, a team leader on GE's hybrid research efforts. "Steadily the performance is improving, the cost is coming down. When you look . . . you can clearly have line of sight to where this is going to make sense economically very shortly. With us, we are practically there with locomotives."
Manufacturing breakthroughs that are improving the storage of energy in batteries and the quantity of power stored are bringing success within reach.
Lithium ion batteries, which revolutionized consumer electronics, are being developed to power cars. Not only do they store more energy in smaller spaces, but they also lose their charges slowly. Several carmakers and GE are racing to develop new kinds of lithium ion batteries for autos.
Think of lithium ion batteries as a bottle with a wide lip that allows energy in or out rapidly, allowing for quick dispersion of energy to accelerate and quick recharging. That's the opposite of what's needed to power a locomotive, which gathers speed over long distance because of the heavy load it's hauling.
The sodium batteries being perfected for locomotives are like a taller bottle with a narrow lip, allowing energy to drain out more slowly in order to maintain steady performance. Hybrid locomotives convert energy from the working diesel engines into electricity, which is then converted back into engine power and energy storage. This allows for 10 to 15 percent fuel savings, which add up to a lot of money given the kinds of miles locomotives log on an annual basis.
"In principal, our locomotive is just a 6,000-horsepower Prius on rails," Vlatkovic joked during a tour of battery research operations.
Although breakthroughs are common now, challenges remain.
"There's a ways to go yet. Most of the guys who are talking about launching products are starting in 2010, so we've still got a couple of years to go to really get the technology ready," said Ed Kjaer, the director of electric transportation for Southern California Edison, a utility that provides electricity for 11 California counties and counts more than 300 electric cars in its fleet.
To date, there's no national manufacturing and supplier base in the United States for advanced batteries to run automotive applications, he said, and the technology hasn't yet jumped from the lab to the manufacturing chain.
"We're talking not about a guy in a lab coat with a wrench ... but production processes where every single cell in every single battery is at the same quality level," Kjaer said.
Kjaer has driven an electric car 120 miles a day for 12 years, and believes in their potential. For widespread use, he said, a greater government-led effort is needed.
"When I portray a cautious note, it's to say let's not make the same mistake we made with hydrogen and fuel cells. The impression was they were just around the corner, and the realities are they are still 20 years away," he said. "I don't think we're (like) that with electric (cars). I do think you are not going to go from zero products to hundreds of thousands of products overnight. This is not like a light switch where it's just on or off."
Still, new prototypes suggest promise. The vehicles that GE successfully tested in the 1980s were plug-in hybrids whose batteries were charged by electricity. These cars were about twice as heavy as today's Toyota Prius, weighing 4,600 to 5,000 pounds. Yet they still got the equivalent of 101 miles per gallon.
Today's prototypes are lighter, go even farther and hold their charges longer.
High oil prices are driving change beyond just autos.
Mary Andriga, the CEO of Vermeer Manufacturing Corp., which makes farm and construction equipment in Pella, Iowa, said her customers were asking for new models that could be recharged electrically to reduce their diesel fuel costs.
"It's important for us to be looking at all these things," she said, noting that a new five-year plan envisions incorporating new battery technologies.
HOW CARS THAT RUN ON ALTERNATIVE ENERGY DIFFER
HYBRIDS: These cars, such as Toyota's Prius, combine small internal-combustion engines with electric motors. Electric motors kick in to help in accelerating and during low-speed situations in which gasoline engines are less efficient. These vehicles are designed to recharge nickel-metal hydride batteries internally while in use. They can get almost 50 mpg.
PLUG-IN HYBRIDS: They work like hybrids but their batteries can be charged externally with an extension cord and a 120-volt outlet. For urban motorists, with more stopping and starting, these can virtually eliminate the need to use the gasoline motor, which is still there in case battery power is depleted.
ELECTRIC CARS: The internal combustion engine is replaced with an electric motor that's fed by a controller, which gets its power from rechargeable lithium ion batteries. Nissan promises to sell these to consumers by 2012. For widespread use, these will require 220-volt outlets in homes and workplaces for long charges and commercial quick-charge stations.
ELECTRIC CARS WITH RANGE EXTENDERS: They work like electric cars but with shorter range. They operate on full battery power for 40 miles, within the range of most commuters, then a small gasoline engine kicks in to power a generator that recharges the lithium ion batteries and extends the range to 640 miles. General Motors plans to sell these cars to consumers by late 2010.
FLEX FUEL VEHICLES: They have internal combustion engines that can run on either gasoline or E85. That's a blend of 85 percent bio-fuel, generally ethanol, and 15 percent gasoline. Many new cars and trucks have this capability but few filling stations offer E85.
ON THE WEB
The Energy Department's evaluation of different hybrids
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McClatchy Newspapers 2008