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FRANKFURT SHOW: EVs to dominate lithium battery demand

By just-auto.com editorial team | 18 September 2009

The global market for automotive lithium batteries to power the swelling ranks of electric vehicles is forecast to hit a heady US$70bn a year by 2020, according to a key supplier of the technology.

At that level, it will dwarf today's maturing market for lithium cells for laptops and mobile phones, which is currently worth just $7bn, said Ener1, the Norwegian/US battery maker.

Much of the difference is accounted for by the larger number of cells needed to power EV cars - typically several thousand - compared to maybe a dozen in a laptop computer.

Growth will come in the US, Europe and Asia, with up to 30% of the US market being accounted for by some variety of EV by 2020, according to the company's predictions. That could be up to 5m light vehicles a year in the US alone.

Similar market shares for pure EVS, hybrid EVs and range-extender EVs are forecast for the EU and Asia, claimed Ener1.

To take advantage of this predicted growth, it is planning major expansion in Europe and is looking for a production site on the continent to compliment its US facility in Indianapolis and another in Korea.

It would assemble individual lithium ion cells into specific battery packs for carmakers launching new EV models.

At this week's Frankfurt motor show, the NASDAQ-quoted company presented its business to potential investors as it gears up for expansion.

"We think the automotive lithium ion battery business is going to grow hugely in the coming years and we plan to be one of the major suppliers taking advantage of this growth," newly-appointed Ener 1 president Ulrik Grape told just-auto in Germany.

Ener1's lithium cells are already being used by California-based Fisker for its range extender hybrid sportscar, and Think, the Norwegian EV maker spun off by Ford a few years ago. Ener1 is also one of the major investors in Think with a 30% stake.

Volvo has also just announced Ener1 as the supplier of lithium ion cells for its experimental C30 battery electric vehicle (BEV).

Ener1's Korean facility makes the basic 'building block' lithium cells which can be assembled into unique packs specifically engineered for a particular vehicle.

The Think EV, for example, uses around 400 of the industry standard '18650' 1.5 amp hour cells in its battery pack. Tesla's Roadster EV has even more, around 6,800.

Ener1 also plans to sell 'value-added' engineering expertise in the design and composition of these built-up battery packs.

"Designing and balancing so many individual cells into a reliable and safe battery pack is a subject we are expert in," Grape said.

Previously, prototype EVs have suffered over-heating in their battery packs because the circuitry in the cells hasn't been sufficiently robust.

Ener1 is also planning to use its expertise on the crash safety of lithium ion cells.

With up to 400V of energy on tap in a typical automotive battery pack, any accidental discharge of that much electricity could be fatal.

"Around 40V you can feel the discharge and over 100V it can be fatal," said Grape.

Ener1 will have to find a niche in the growing EV business, with two of the world's biggest OEM supporters of EVs, Toyota and Nissan, forming joint ventures with electronics giants, Panasonic and NEC, to build automotive battery packs.

"We think there is plenty of business for a company like Ener1 to offer component and engineering services to other OEMs," added Grape.

Julian Rendell