Hybrid cars have become almost a symbol of environmentalism on the road. Powered by a gas-electric hybrid motor, these cars get up to 60 miles per gallon or better. Those gas savings come largely thanks to a battery. Now, people in the auto industry are looking at the next generation of battery that could push the gas savings even higher. Dustin Dwyer has this look at how batteries are cutting down on the need for oil:
Hybrid cars have become almost a symbol of environmentalism on the road. Powered by a gas-electric hybrid motor, these cars get up to 60 miles per gallon of gas or better. Those gas savings come largely thanks to a battery. Now, people in the auto industry are looking at the next generation of battery that could push the gas savings even higher. Dustin Dwyer has this look at how batteries are cutting down the need for oil:
For about a hundred years now, the auto industry in the United States has been associated with a certain kind of vehicle – a vehicle that’s big, powerful and chugs a lot of gas. It’s all been based on the internal combustion engine.
Now, that model is being challenged. It involves a number of technologies, but the first to really break through has been the hybrid. Hybrid cars and trucks still have an internal combustion engine under the hood, but the engine is paired with a battery. Of course, it’s not just a battery like the batteries that have always been in cars. The batteries in hybrids are called nickel metal hydride batteries (NiMH).
One company that makes them is Cobasys. On a factory floor a little less than an hour north of Detroit, Cobasys engineer Scott Lindholm explains what makes these batteries different.
“Basically the big advantage of nickel metal hydride in a hybrid vehicle environment is it can do millions of charge and discharge cycles. Where, if you buy a battery for your flashlight or your radio, you really just charge it once as your primary battery. This will accept charge and give you power multiple times.”
That ability to be recharged, and emit energy from a battery that weighs less than in previous generations has made all current hybrid vehicles possible. For hybrid owners, that’s meant better gas mileage, and lower emissions.
The battery itself isn’t exactly new; the technology was first introduced in the early 1980s. It’s taken almost until now for car companies to realize the full potential of nickel metal hydrides, but this isn’t the final step. Bradley Berman is editor of hybridcars.com. He says the next wave of batteries is coming from the world of iPods and laptops.
“It’s already out there in small electronic devices, and the big question is can it scale up for an automotive application? And the race is on to make that happen.”
Many say these lithium-ion batteries have the potential to be cheaper, lighter and more powerful than today’s nickel metal hydride batteries. The problem with them right now is safety. You might remember hearing something recently about batteries in laptop computers exploding. Well, those were lithium-ion batteries, and bigger, more powerful batteries in cars could mean a higher chance of catching fire for lithium-ion batteries.
Berman is confident that problem can be overcome, and he says we could see these kind of batteries in cars within 4-8 years. And that could mean big changes in gas mileage for hybrid owners. Berman says while the current generation Prius gets 60 miles per gallon in the city, lithium-ion batteries could get the next generation up to 80 miles per gallon. And the next step, a new plug-in car.
“If one of these carmakers comes through with some limited capacity for plugging in, which means you could charge more of it up, and you could use more of the battery on a regular basis, you’re starting to approach maybe triple digits.”
Some argue that plugging in just moves the environmental harm elsewhere. Instead of using gas to power your car, you’d generally be using coal or nuclear power from your local energy company. But supporters say that still leads to lower overall emissions.
Also, hybrid technology for cars doesn’t come in a vacuum. It can be combined with new biofuels, or eventually hydrogen. That could mean significantly cleaner cars – even cars with zero emissions. But just like the development of the nickel-metal hydride battery, these technologies could take a number of years before they’re ready.
For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.