Nissan Plans New Batteries, Plug-Ins



Could the electric vehicle be poised for a comeback? A new joint venture between Nissan Motor Co., NEC Corporation, and its subsidiary, NEC TOKIN Corporation, could pave the way for a new generation of battery cars, including super-high-efficiency hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric vehicles with far more range than the EVs California consumers snubbed in the 1990s.

The new company, Automotive Energy Supply Corporation (AESC), will, according to the partners, “focus on the development and marketing of advanced lithium-ion batteries, designed to power future generations of electric-powered vehicles.” By mid-2008, AESC hopes to begin production of the highly-efficient lithium-ion batteries, with “wide-scale automotive application” expected by 2009.


“Nissan will introduce our own original hybrid vehicle by 2010, followed by our next-generation electric vehicle in the early part of the next decade,” said Carlos Tavares, executive vice president of Nissan.


Meanwhile, a ranking source at the Japanese company tells that a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle is also under development. Similar in concept to the Chevrolet Volt prototype unveiled by General Motors, early this year, plug-ins can be charged up from a conventional wall socket, storing enough energy to handle a typical daily commute. But during longer trips, a gasoline engine would take over, overcoming the limited range problems of pure battery cars.


The Japanese automaker has been faulted for its slow start-up in hybrid-electric vehicle technology, only just launching its first hybrid this year, in the form of the Altima Hybrid. That model is similar in concept to existing offerings from competitors such as Toyota – considered the leader in current hybrid technology – Honda, and Ford.


Two powertrains are used to drive the Altima, a gasoline engine and an electric motor. During braking and coasting, energy normally wasted is recaptured and temporarily stored in a pack of nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. That power can then be reused to drive the electric motor, which assists the gasoline engine during takeoff and under hard acceleration.


While NiMH batteries are a significant improvement over old-style lead-acid batteries, next-generation lithium-ion technology can store far more energy, potentially doubling range while reducing vehicle weight and cost. But scaling up from the batteries used in cellphones and laptop computers is a serious challenge that the new Nissan/NEC joint venture has to address.


Even in compact form, lithium-ion batteries generate lots of heat and, if not managed properly, can catch fire. Under automotive applications – which means interconnecting a sizable number of large battery cells and then operating under a wide range of weather conditions – the technology would be pushed to its limits.


“The battery just isn’t ready yet,” cautioned GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, after unveiling the Volt concept vehicle at the Detroit auto show, in January. Like Nissan, GM is teaming up with various partners to push the development of auto-ready lithium-ion technology. But by directly forming a joint venture with NEC, Nissan officials believe they can speed up the process significantly.


“Moreover, the alliance with Nissan guarantees Nissan as a prospective customer of AESC,” said Konosuke Kashima, executive vice president of NEC. “We will also strive to accelerate growth by expanding marketing to auto manufacturers worldwide.”

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