Marshall Miller, Senior Development Engineer

Institute for Transportation Studies, UC Davis


Ingrid Lobet: You have heard some of the praises they are singing of this Altairnano battery, what do you think?


Marshall Miller: Well some of those attributes are actually quite good. One of the problems about batteries in the past was that a battery would not be able to be charged enough times in its life. In other words, it's battery life would be too small for the lifetime of the vehicle.  You would have to replace the pack.

If it's true that this battery has the life they say, then you would certainly not have to replace the battery and that would significantly lower the cost.


Another concern for lithium ion batteries has been safety. In the past the concern has been that if the batteries are charged improperly, they can catch fire. But some of the new technologies have improved on that problem and now the belief is that fire is really much less of an issue.


So other companies are also taking out the carbon and replacing it with something else?


Marshall Miller: Yes there are some companies that have looked at the power tool market. And are marketing batteries for that market.  And those are the batteries that are being looked at for the next generation of electric vehicles.


And in our lab we are testing batteries from A123.  They are being sold for power tools and when we test them in our lab, they certainly have properties that are at least similar to the Altair batteries. We have not tested cycle-life, but some of the other properties, such as fast charge, are fairly similar to the claims being made by Altair.


Ingrid Lobet: What do you think of this startup company Phoenix Motorcars?


Marshall Miller: There have been traditionally several problems with battery electric vehicles.  One problem is the range and that is a function of the energy density of the batteries. Lead acid batteries, which are fairly cheap, have much too low an energy density to be practical in an electric vehicle.  In other words, for a large or mass of batteries, you still only have 40-50 miles of range.


The benefit of Li ion technology is that its energy density is significantly higher than lead acid and it's higher that nickel metal hydride. The hope is with these batteries is that the weight of the vehicle would not be prohibitive for 200 miles.


But the biggest problem I have seen with commercializing electric vehicles is the cost.  The cost of the battery.  And one thing--with the cycle life being large, you do not have to replace the battery pack.  But still, it has been expected that Li ion would be too expensive to be practical in commercial vehicles--at least moderate cost commercial vehicles. So cost is still n my mind, the outstanding factor that has to be brought down to make battery vehicles commercialized.


Ingrid Lobet: Phoenix is relying on zero emissions vehicle credits to be able to sell the cars at a moderate price at first.


Marshall Miller: Well that's probably true. The battery costs and vehicle costs at low volume would be significantly higher and will prohibit consumers from purchasing them. With credits you can bring that cost down. And that is certainly a policy that people have felt is important for governments, in order to push these tehcnologies


But in my mind is--once you get past a relatively small number of consumers, when you want to get into the mass market, what will you do, the government will not give credits for electric vehicles when they are being purchased in large quantities, so then it would be important for the cost to be comparable with conventional vehicles. 


Ingrid Lobet: Do you believe that that the lithium titanate represents a breakthrough or is that hype?


Marshall Miller:  Well I am not so certain. Lithium ion batteries have been around for a while and we have tested them in our labs for at least five years now.  The properties of the battery, with the exception of cycle life, have not changed a lot. It may be that the Altair battery haas a slightly higher power density, in other words, for a given weight,  it can produce more power to the vehicle. But the power density of conventional lithium ion batteries has been high. The energy density has also not been a problem. They store quite a lot of energy for a given weight, and have a lot of power for that weight. The real problem has been the cost, and potentially the cycle life. The real issue has been cost and to a lesser extent, the range of the vehicle, which of course is related to battery size--weight.


The cost to me is still a major concern and in my view that was the dominant problem why the ZEV program did not move forward in Calfironia. Both the government and the auto manufacturers believed that battery electric vehicles were too costly to sell on the market.


Ingrid Lobet: Phoenix has an idea where you could bury a large battery underground at filling stations the same as fuel tanks are buried. It could charge up at night on off-peak power and then be available with a pump handle, metered just like gas.


Marshall Miller:

Technically, it is certainly possible.  The battery packs you mentioned --a 35 kWh battery-- I see no reason why you couldn't charge that in the 10 minutes to essentially the full charge.  The question is whether you could install the electronics necessary for that high power and whether public officials would consider that a safe situaiton-- charging at that high power.


We do that with those currents, not quite the same power and voltage, but at our lab we charge at very high power and we do charge lithium ion batteries in 6-7 minutes. In our lab it's not considered unsafe, but there may be issues in a public fueling station. It's certainly technically feasible, certainly a possibility, whether it is practical and we will see it in the future, is a question.


In our lab, the real question is, environmentally-minded people see the need for a change in our oil-based transportation structure, the question is, to what? There are four options.  One is battery electric, hybrid, fuel cell, and vehicles that use liquid fuels from bio feedstocks. The really exciting thing is WHICH holds the most promise and which will be commercialized first, and will there be more than one that will play a major role in the next ten years.


Ingrid Lobet:  Many people seem to put stock in the plug-in hybrid.


Marshall Miller:  I always thought plug-in hybrids had the same problem as battery electric vehicles, their battery pack makes them significantly more expensive and therefore possibly less likely to make major market penetration, so it has to do with the size of the battery pack and the cost of the battery pack.


We at the Institute are looking at plug-in hybrids again because we want to see what the costs and environmental benefits would be and so on.  We looked at these issues 6 or 8 years ago. And in my mind with the cost, it wasn't so exciting. Today it's possible the battery technologies might have lower costs so I might have have more confidence in that and therefore able to predict a  lifetime cost for the vehicle that is in the ballpark of a conventional vehicle and therefore potentially able to be mass marketed.


A number of elements still contribute to the cost being quite high.

One issue for Lithium ion batteries and other batteries for electric vehicles is they are not produced in big volume, so we don't know the true cost. We can call the manufacturers and ask them, but most likely they will give us an inflated cost because they know they will not be selling them in high volume, we don't have a market where these are produced in high volume.


Ingrid Lobet: What if there were an angel, someone like a George Soros were to build a battery factory?


Marshall Miller: Well certainly the cost would be lower, how much lower, I'm not an economist, I don't know.  The hope is to get the cost down to a factor of two higher than conventional lead acid batteries for the same energy storage. Even at that cost, the cost of the battery pack is fairly expensive, like $6,000 dollars for a vehicle that would go 100 - 125 miles or so.


The question, as you bring the price down, where does it plateau? How low can you get it, low enough to be mass marketable? I think that is something no one really knows at this point.