You'll find more than one post here on Treehugger describing a 'lithium battery breakthrough.' Given that many non-hydrocarbon based energy breakthroughs we wrote about were destined to become fall-throughs, a healthy amount of skepticism is always appropriate when you see a headline like the above.
Successful new technologies often start out small.
Let's frame the 400Wh/kg breakthrough announcement with an analogy or two.
Four years ago I'd never have imagined that I'd own a cheap, light, highly-effective standup vacuum cleaner that runs on one small lithium battery. I have one of those now and it's amazing.
Anyone remember how sucky laptops were back in the early 1990s? PC magazines had ongoing debates as to whether laptops should be called "transportables" because they were so hot and heavy no one wanted one on their lap. Twenty years later, few consumers buy "desktops" anymore and laptop makers are tripping over themselves to emulate the super-thin Apple design -- a design enabled specifically because battery power density, form, and cost became favorable! (The choice of thin, aircraft grade aluminum shell by Apple is the other reason the design works out so well.)
The Holy Grail of Electric Vehicles: High battery power density and low OEM manufacturing cost
Will the Chevy Volt turn out, Apple-like, to have the energy storage system other car makers want to copy? Perhaps. Not giving it any odds, but the just-announced high power density lithium battery cell by Envia Systems looks like it has the potential to make Republican bailout-whiners and astroturf Volt-mockers eat their words.
From the press release of General Motors.
DETROIT -- General Motors Ventures LLC invested $7 million in Newark, Calif.-based Envia Systems to provide GM’s battery engineering team with access to advanced lithium-ion cathode technology that delivers higher cell energy density and lower cost. In a separate agreement, GM has secured the right to use Envia’s advanced cathode material for future GM electrically driven vehicles.
“Skeptics have suggested it would probably be many years before lithium-ion batteries with significantly lower cost and higher capability are available, potentially limiting sales of electric vehicles for the foreseeable future,” said Jon Lauckner, president of GM Ventures. “In fact, our announcement today demonstrates that major improvements are already on the horizon.”
Other participating investors in Envia are Asahi Kasei and Asahi Glass; as well as current investors Bay Partners, Redpoint and Panagea Ventures. The funding of the investor group totaled $17 million.
“With our high-capacity manganese rich cathode material, Envia is addressing two key issues in the next-generation battery cells – higher capability and lower cost,” said Atul Kapadia, founding investor, chairman and CEO of Envia Systems. “The investments announced today from GM and the two new strategic investors, demonstrate the excitement around our technology, as well as the importance of the challenge.
Outstanding issues and questions.
Looks like Envia makes their cells in China. Could that be in-sourced at the insistence of a major customer?
Is the lithium battery recyclable? It's already fairly obvious that Envia has made their cells intrinsically safe (see below).
By isolating and insulating so effectively, do the lithium salts in the electrolyte become more difficult to liberate for reclamation? Which is more important: recyclability or fire safety under crash conditions? How can journalists get voters and politicians to stop thinking of each such variable in isolation and think instead about design tradeoffs?
Can members of the US Congress no longer invest in such ventures, after making laws that affect them ...really?