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Future of electric cars hinges on better batteries

By Dana Hull
dhull@mercurynews.com
Posted: 07/10/2011 06:46:51 AM PDT
Updated: 07/10/2011 08:06:46 AM PD
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Mumin Rao focuses on assembling battery material in a sterile tank at the… ( Gary Reyes )«12345»Electric cars are a game-changing technology with an Achilles’ heel — the battery.

Current batteries are expensive and have limited range, making it hard to drive from San Jose to San Francisco and back without stopping to recharge. Experts agree consumers will never fully embrace electric vehicles until they can travel as far as a gas-powered car on a single charge.

So the global race is on to build a better lithium-ion battery, one that pulls off the herculean feat of extending range while being long-lasting, affordable, quick-charging and safe.

In Asia, governments and big battery companies are investing heavily in next-generation battery technology, while in the United States much of the cutting-edge research is being performed at Department of Energy labs and universities. The Bay Area — home to Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors (TSLA), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and two dozen battery startups — has emerged as one of the nation’s leading hubs of battery innovation.

“Transportation is going to go electric, and batteries have become a real critical technology,” said Steve Visco, chief technology officer of PolyPlus, a startup that was spun out of the Berkeley lab. “The Chinese government is subsidizing a lot of battery research, and in Japan the companies have 10-, 20- and 30-year technology road maps.”

The stakes are enormous. President Barack Obama wants to see 1 million electric vehicles on America’s highways by 2015, but many say that goal will be hard to reach until range improves.

“The perception of range anxiety is a real challenge for us,” Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, whose company makes the all-electric Nissan Leaf, said during a visit to Stanford University last month. “People are anxious because it is a double dip — the range is limited and then if I am stuck, where can I charge?”
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