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April 20th, 2011

Some U.S. battery companies responding to microhybrid demand

Published on April 20th, 2011 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Peugeot 308 e-HDi microhybrid, just put on the European market. Credit: Peugeot.

Continuing on the theme of PHEVs versus microhybrid vehicles, it’s interesting to look at what two companies based in the United States are doing right now in regard to getting into the market for microhybrid vehicles.

The first example is Axion Power International. I don’t have much first-hand knowledge about Axion, and was not really aware of them until I saw that the company was mentioned in a booklet ACerS, TMS and several other societies put together with the DOE called, “Advanced Materials and Devices for Stationary Electrical Energy Storage Applications” (pdf).

But, coincidentally, Reuters ran a recent story about how Axion intends to double its New Castle, Pa., plant to make a special lead-based battery for the microhybrid market. Microhybrid vehicles are designed around relatively simple electric generation and storage technology focused on brake–acceleration, start–stop cycles.

Axion, of course, is no Exide Technologies, but according to this news account, the small company will be able to produce one million batteries per year using what it calls “multicelled asymmetrically supercapacitive lead-acid-carbon hybrid battery.” Axion says this battery uses a proprietary five-layer (a carbon electrode, a corrosion barrier, a current collector, a second corrosion barrier and a second carbon electrode) cathode assembly.

The company, in business since 2003, is targeting car makers who cater to the European auto market. According to the Reuters story, interest in Axion batteries didn’t take off until the European Union passed regulations requiring that, beginning next year, 65 percent of new cars must achieve an average fuel economy of 42 miles per gallon, and that percentage and MPG climbs sharply each subsequent year.

Axion says it has been in talks with BMW and other car makers, and nearly every Eurocar manufacturer has a microhybrid model (versus none, that I know of in the U.S.). CEO Thomas Granville told Reuters that the company has added chemists, engineers and others, plus has been installing a robotic assembly line. (It should also be noted that it sounds like Axion is interested in working with some of the big lead-acid battery makers, saying on its website that its electrode system could easily be adapted to traditional battery assembly lines.)

The other example is A123 Systems. Although the lithium-ion battery maker is mainly associated with the U.S. domestic car market and utility-level storage solutions, A123 is also eyeing the microhybrid market, according to Reuters and more-detailed story on the Green Car Congress website.

The GCC story reports that A123 Systems is going after the microhybrid market with a battery, its 12-volt AMP20 Prismatic Pouch Cell, originally designed for PHEV and EV applications. GCC says that A123 Systems company officials say this Li-ion battery will outperform absorbed glass mat lead batteries (in use by some microhybrid makers) in the areas of charge acceptance, lower alternator loads, better fuel economy, weight and lifetime.

The GCC story goes on to report that the company originally got pulled into offering a 12V product for a somewhat esoteric space in the battery market called “Starting, Lighting and Ignition” storage, however the company says it is working with at least one major-but-unnamed OEM on a microhybrid system. The Reuters story quotes Jeff Kessen, vice president of automotive marketing and communications, as saying, “In the microhybrid space in particular, we have five customers that we’re currently working with, and one of those has already awarded us a production contract. … Most auto manufacturers are looking at start-stop technology because it is arguably the most evolutionary in change from today’s technology and is the easiest to integrate. It doesn’t take long to engineer the vehicles, and they can take another step toward their fuel economy targets with comparatively modest investments.”

Microhybrids reportedly boost fuel economy by 15-25%. The compelling argument for microhybrids versus PHEVs seems to be the lower initial investment for car buyers compared to a PHEV and that, apparently, the systems can even be retrofitted to regular and even existing hybrids to provide significant fuel savings. Plus, conceptually it might make more sense as a transitional technology until there is enough demand and incentives to flesh out the infrastructure for PHEVs.

The attitude toward microhybrids among U.S. car makers may be changing. For example, it appears that manufacturers, such as Ford, believe it isn’t very difficult to integrate this “milder” version of hybrid technology into their entire product and marketing strategy.


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