Electric car battery development to speed up with new R&D centre

25th September 2012

In an exciting announcement for electric vehicle users, the government has unveiled plans for a new UK-based energy storage R&D centre to accelerate the development of the humble car battery.

The facility will be based at the University of Warwick's High Value Manufacturing Catapult, a consortium of seven world leading research centres covering a wide variety of disciplines including electrochemistry.

As part of the government's strategy to encourage growth in the country's automotive sector and increase the rollout of green cars, the R&D centre will work towards the development of more energy-dense batteries for electric and hybrid cars.

The eventual goal is to produce batteries that are more economic and stable, but boost higher energy density levels than those currently on the market.

Co-funded by government (£9 million) and industry (£4 million), the £13 million facility will also allow the UK to capitalise on the growing electric and hybrid vehicle battery market, which is estimated to be worth £250 million for the the UK by 2020.

"This £13 million facility will help accelerate the development of battery cells for the next generation of vehicles, is a vital investment in the future of the automotive sector. It complements over £5.5 billion that global vehicle manufacturers have committed to UK projects in the last 18 months," said Michael Fallon, minister of state for business and enterprise.

He added the development would put the UK in a significantly stronger and more competitive position alongside other world leaders in the low carbon vehicle arena, such as the US, Japan and Germany.

Despite continued progress towards electric and hybrid technology being an everyday sight on the UK's roads, it is very much an emerging product in the minds of many drivers – though the turning point may not be that far away.

A survey conducted by British Gas and Motor Trader last month (August 2012) found 32.9 per cent of UK car dealers believed the majority of their customers were open to the idea of purchasing an electric vehicle (EV). A further 30.8 per cent said they would if given more information.

However, while models such as the Nissan Leaf have been successful in transferring the concept of an eco-car to the family home (with around 38,000 sold since launch), and government tax-breaks for low carbon vehicles have spurred some motorists to action, the business case for car manufacturers still isn't crystal clear.

Toyota recently scaled down its ambitions for its latest all-electric eQ minicar, admitting it had misread the market and the ability of new battery technology to meet consumer demand. It will now sell about 100 of the cars in the US and Japan instead of a widespread rollout.

"The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society's needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge," argued Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota's vice chairman and the engineer who oversaw the eQ's development as well as that of Toyota's Prius hybrid in the 1990s.

Toyota is the frontrunner in hybrid technology, stating it expects to have 21 hybrid gas-electric models in its roster of vehicles by 2015.

Statistics from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show sales of alternatively fuelled vehicles rose by seven per cent in the first five months of 2012 compared to 2011.

Overall, it seems the outlook for electric vehicles is still somewhat chequered; middling support from manufacturers and government and a slowly growing public appetite has led to progress, but of a limited variety.

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