Traction Battery Winner will be Toyota?

We used to have battery makers and car makers and little connection between the two. The lead acid battery in a car never controlled cost or performance and it became a commodity. Now we are in the decade of the hybrid electric vehicle to the extent that the three percent of new cars that are hybrids will rise to many times that percentage in ten years. Indeed, outdoor forklifts, military vehicles, some small aircraft and most electric buses are becoming hybrid. This is detailed in the new IDTechEx reports, “Electric Vehicles 2011-2021", “Electric Buses and Taxis 2011-2021" and “Electric Aircraft 2011-2021".

Toyota is the world’s largest manufacturer of electric vehicles by value and the leader by a big margin in hybrid cars. Toyota obtained its hybrid batteries from Panasonic EV Energy of Japan, a joint venture with the world’s largest battery maker, Panasonic of Japan, formerly Matsushita. These were nickel metal hydride NiMH, because of its good cycle life, lighter weight and smaller size than conventional batteries.

However, the battery industry thinks of that as something of yesterday’s story because the demand for longer all-electric range with hybrid vehicles exposes the fact that the self-leakage of NiMH is poor and its energy density is greatly inferior to the new lithium-ion batteries coming along, where others are in the lead in deliveries. Indeed, the Chinese control supplies of the lanthanum in NiMH batteries and they now severely ration that material, even cutting off supplies to Japan recently in an unrelated political dispute.

Turned on its head

Now the traction battery power game has been completely turned on its head by Panasonic buying Sanyo of Japan, which supplies those lithium-ion traction batteries to a huge variety of pure and hybrid electric vehicles of all sorts. Antitrust legislation required Panasonic to hand control of Panasonic EV Energy to partner Toyota in June 2010 to head off a monopoly forming in traction batteries. After purchase of these shares, Toyota now has 80.5% of the battery maker, now renamed Primearth EV Energy, a company that has made over three million traction batteries albeit only NiMH, a chemistry that will peak in usage within the decade. Indeed, observers have predicted that, even as Primearth starts to make lithium-ion traction batteries, there will be few beyond its current customer General Motors that will buy such a critical component from a subsidiary of a competing car manufacturer. However, there is much more going on here.

Remarkable depth and breadth

IDTechEx has been digging deeper and we have discovered a remarkable depth and breadth of activity by Toyota in traction batteries that will certainly give it a huge advantage with all its electric vehicles from forklifts to buses – already a multibillion dollar business. The first clue came from Toyota’s patent filings which grew faster than those of any battery maker in the period 2005-2008, the last year in which statistically meaningful data are available. They rocketed from five in 2005 to over 70 filed in 2008. Toyota is filing faster and faster across everything from anode and cathode design, electrolytes, separators and mechanical construction to other aspects. Additionally, Toyota is now filing in the name of Primearth. An in-depth analysis of patent filings on traction batteries“Traction Battery Patent Trends and Company Positioning" is currently being prepared by Dr Victor Zhitomirsky of PatAnalyse and Dr Peter Harrop of IDTechEx.

Exploring every option

The Nikkei business daily recently reported that Toyota Motor Corporation will mass-produce lithium-ion batteries for its plug-in hybrid vehicles from this autumn. Toyota's first-ever production lines for lithium ion batteries at its plant in Aichi Prefecture and at a factory operated with Panasonic Corp in Shizuoka Prefecture will cost the carmaker 10 billion yen ($120 million), the Nikkei said. A Toyota spokeswoman refused to comment on the article, saying the company was checking the report. The two facilities combined will make batteries for approximately 100,000 plug-in hybrid vehicles a year, according to the Nikkei, which reported that Toyota will release these vehicles in Japan, the United States and Europe at the start of 2012.

Toyota has been negative about pure electric cars, saying that affordable battery technology cannot provide acceptable range. However, a closer look shows that Toyota is pouring money into solving this problem. It even raised eyebrows by announcing that it will work with its investment Tesla to use its battery technology in a Toyota car. Currently this consists of an inelegant stringing of over one thousand regular lithium-ion cylindrical batteries combined with powerful water cooling and complex battery management for safety . Hopefully Toyota and Tesla will move on to the inherently safer second generation chemistries in such cells. These are evaluated in the new IDTechEx report, “Electric Vehicle Traction Batteries 2011-2021".

Indeed, Toyota is pitching headlong into the investigation of all options for traction batteries. It has even announced that it is developing a magnesium traction battery that holds twice the energy of lithium-ion cells as automakers seeks better ways to power electric cars.

Its Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is working on this magnesium-sulfur battery, complementing development of other future electric-power chemistries at Toyota labs in Japan, Jeffrey Makarewicz, the engineer managing the U.S. project, said in an interview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that, “Going from nickel-metal hydride to lithium ion, you essentially double the energy capacity," he said. “Lithium- ion theoretically, under ideal conditions, has a capacity of about 2,000 kilowatt hours. That’s still not enough to really make a very competitive battery that’s necessary for future plug-in, electric and hybrid-electric vehicles." He added that, “Vehicles with magnesium traction batteries or alternative materials may be ready by about 2020".

Toyota also has a development center in Torrance, California, and that is looking at aluminium and calcium as potential battery materials, Makarewicz said. As if that were not enough, in Japan, Toyota engineers are researching lithium air and other metal air batteries. For example, one patent on lithium air traction battery technology dating from 2008 suggests a way of improving the problematic cycle life.

Lithium air batteries are currently unsafe and short lived but their theoretical potential is the highest energy density of all and it is energy density that will matter most with both advanced hybrids and pure electric vehicles in future. Ignoring Toyota, press comment on so-called Third Generation Traction Batteries usually focuses on companies such as Sion Power getting its lithium sulphur traction batteries into military and unmanned aerial vehicles UAVs, PolyPlus Battery Company developing lithium sulphur and lithium air and IBM entering lithium air development in partnership with US national laboratories.

The battery is the car

The most formidable traction battery manufacturer in ten years may be a car manufacturer – Toyota. The battery manufacturers engaged in multibillion dollar investments intended to create ten billion dollar leaders in traction batteries need to closely track what Toyota is doing. It is deeply significant that this battle is being fought across all forms of electric vehicles, not just cars, and very few automotive manufacturers still make a wide variety of types of electric vehicle, let alone the traction batteries to go in them. It is increasingly believed by automakers that “The battery is the car" and therefore far too important to be left to third parties.

Unique event

A unique event looking at the whole picture “Electric Vehicles – Land, Sea, Air Europe 2011" will take place in Stuttgart, Germany June 27-28 as a two day conference and exhibition. Optional masterclasses and visits to local centres of excellence in the subject are offered on the day before and the day after this event. There will be an investment session and an awards dinner. See Contact Teresa Henry if you wish to be involved in any way.

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