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U.S. Battery-Maker Says China May Lead the World in Electric Vehicles

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The C70 electric car from Beijing Electric Vehicle Co.

Despite the hip advertising seen in the U.S. for electric cars such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, analysts indicate that the vehicles will only make up a small percentage of the market for years to come. But a recent deal between a Boston-based battery maker and a major Chinese auto company shows that a strong movement is underway that could soon make China the center of the electric vehicle world.

Boston-Power has signed a multi-year agreement to provide lithium-ion battery systems to Beijing Electric Vehicle Company, a division of Beijing Automotive Industry Company (BAIC). The battery pack will be installed in thousands of electric cars by 2014, notably BAIC’s new C70 full-size sedan, which goes on pre-order this fall. The reasons Boston-Power reached a deal with a Chinese automaker, and not, say, an American or European company, reveal why China could rapidly lead the market.

The most fundamental reason is that “China has committed to achieving sustainable energy innovations in all aspects of society, including transportation,” says Christina Lampe-Onnerud, who founded Boston-Power in 2005 and is the company’s international chairman. China is now the number one auto market in the world, and is poised to claim that rank for electric vehicles as well.

A clear national policy brings certainty to that market. China is determined to create a basic electric car for people in urban areas, Lampe-Onnerud notes. Europe’s approach is clear too: launch innovations in high-end cars first then let them trickle down. The U.S. government, however, “is torn on its national priorities,” Lampe-Onnerud says. “It needs a clearer energy policy.”

Boston-Power’s chairman, Sonny Wu, echoed the sentiment in a prepared statement about the battery deal: “China is committed to leading the world in electric vehicle innovation, manufacturing, public policy, consumer adoption and export.”

Lampe-Onnerud stresses the innovation point. “BAIC is inviting innovators from around the world to bring it solutions. It is also encouraging innovation from within its company.” As a result, Boston-Power is establishing a research, development and engineering facility in China, as well as a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant there.

Government incentives are helping to scale up R&D and manufacturing in China, and consumer incentives are also being put into place. Individuals who want to use a car in megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, for example, must enter a lottery to get a license plate, and lucky winners can only drive their vehicles in the city on certain days—steps being taken to reduce gridlock and smog. But Beijing recently lifted the restriction for electric vehicles, so that anyone can get a plate and drive their electric car at any time.

China’s deal with Boston-Power also underscores the choice of lithium-ion technology, which some industry observers have said is too expensive for automotive applications or has maxed out in terms of performance, leaving it most appropriate for smaller products such as laptops and cell phones. But Lampe-Onnerud, a well-known battery entrepreneur and innovator who has 80 patents in various stages of filing, maintains that lithium-ion technology has plenty of room left for innovation. The product line Boston-Power is selling to BAIC—called “Swing”—“is really only the second generation,” she says. It still has a long evolutionary life.

The Swing batteries have 50 percent more energy density by volume and 45 percent more by weight compared to typical batteries on the market. The system for BAIC will last 10 years even if frequently recharged. It will work down to -40 degrees Celsius—“It gets cold in Beijing,” Lampe-Onnerud says. And it has passed the same high safety standards the industry, and Boston-Power itself, have imposed. Overall, Lampe-Onnerud says, second-generation lithium-ion batteries from her company and others “are better in all aspects—higher energy density, long life, quick recharge—which to some people is a bit of a surprise.”

Auto industry culture, more than technical innovation, may be the largest barrier to widespread adoption of electric cars. “It takes a long time to gain market acceptance,” Lampe-Onnerud says. China is apparently looking to promote acceptance globally even though its domestic market alone is so large. Fang Qing, general manager of the Beijing Electric Vehicle Company division, says his company intends to bring electric vehicles “to consumers in China and around the world.”

Photo courtesy of BAIC

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. scientific earthling 8:47 pm 08/22/2012

    China is the only nation in the world that seems to be interested in the survival of the human species. They have acted to control population growth, they have acted to reduce pollution. Lowering population also lowers pollution and sustains the biosphere and biodiversity.

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  2. 2. scientific earthling 8:49 pm 08/22/2012

    Matter of fact all our pollution and destruction of biodiversity is a direct result of our excessive population.

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  3. 3. alan6302 9:13 pm 08/22/2012

    I suspect that the ” great destruction ” will involve the emissions of the I.C.E. ..It will not be CO2.
    Future transportation will be air vehicles. A breakthrough is coming. Solid state technology.

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  4. 4. mackerirl 8:30 am 08/23/2012

    Pure electric does not make much sense owing to the problems of charging etc. Hydrogen Fuel cell vehicles are the real way forward. Use the electricity you would use to charge the battery to generate Hydrogen, then drive and refill like a normal car.

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  5. 5. jerryd 4:46 pm 08/23/2012

    China already is the largest EV user by a good amount.

    China has no choice about lowering pollution or they’ll literally die very young as their pollution is so bad now. Nor dispite what you hear it’s going to get better until they burn their extremely dirty coal up in less than 30 yrs.

    Fact is China is unlikely to survive intact 30 more yrs because of internal unrest.

    H2 fuel cell are not eff or cost effective as if one includes everything, a normal, eff gasoline/NG motor is more eff at 10% of the cost.

    The great destruction will be partly from all ICE emissions including CO2 but far worse is coal emissions. Saying otherwise show a lack of critical thinking and inability to look outside one’s beliefs to honest facts, not made up ones to suit your made up reality.

    The beauty of EV’s is they are so eff, 3-9x’s as eff, they need so little fuel of wherever it comes from which increasingly will be RE like wind, solar, etc.

    In my EV’s $500 worth of solar panels at $1/wt gives me transport fuel for 25 yrs. It’ll be hard for any fossil fuel to come anywhere near beating that. Sadly I had to have them custom made as real eff, very cost effective ones are not being made here in the US.

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  6. 6. sjn 2:28 pm 08/24/2012

    So – China leads the world in Photovoltaic production, so all US solar cell companies run to China. Just read another article, where US coal companies are running to China to buy carbon sequestration technologies.
    And now they will take the lead in electric cars – you can bet in 10 years all the electric battery R&D production/technology will either be in Europe or China, just like solar cell has followed the market away from the U.S..

    So meanwhile the GOP rants drill, drill, drill; cuts all government support for new energy technologies; preaches total denial of climate change; and declares an ever-expanding military budget sacrosanct.

    They will gladly lead us into the 19th century, while China and others dominate the technologies and economy of tomorrow.
    So who’s the greatest threat to real U.S. national security???

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  7. 7. Keith D. Patch 2:52 pm 08/24/2012

    @Mark Fischetti– you left out A123 Systems! They are poised to be another big player in China due to their recent deal with Wanxiang Group.

    @mackerirl– Using electricity to fill up a car can be done near term with battery-powered cars, as they are being sold now. Fuel cells are no earlier than 2015, when Toyota claims they will start selling them. So electrolyzers and hydrogen fuel cells are still a bit in the future.

    @jerryd– Your “…$500 worth of solar panels at $1/wt gives me transport fuel for 25 yrs.” means you must be running a small scooter or electric bike. $500 worth of solar panels at $1/wt means 500 watts of power, which is very undersized for typical 50,000 to 100,000 watt cars.


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