Companies from Europe, Japan and Israel believe on-board chargers and high-powered battery technology could give them an edge in the race to produce a commercially viable electric car – and investors are beginning to buy into the idea.
A Tel Aviv-based start-up, ETV Motors, has raised €8.4 million for R&D, and has adapted the top-selling Toyota Prius petrol-electric hybrid to test its theory. The new model does not have an internal combustion engine, but instead features an electric engine with a supercapacity battery and a micro-jet turbine which powers the vehicle from the rear.
The notion of a turbine-powered electric car is not entirely new, but ETV wants to fine-tune its design for the mass market. It says it has developed a micro-turbine engine to act as an on-board charger and a high-density battery that can power a vehicle for about 60-80 km (35-50 miles) on one charge.
The test car uses newly-designed components which are still undergoing development, the company said, adding that the final product should be ready for tests next year.
Another Israeli project, Better Place, was launched in 2007 with €140 million of venture funding. It has been gaining momentum across the globe, pushing for fully electric cars that recharge by plugging in to a grid network.
Better Place has partnered with Renault and Nissan to develop electric car infrastructure, with Nissan expected to focus on the Japanese market, while Renault looks to bring electric cars to European roads by the end of the decade.
Renault unveiled its first demonstration model in Tel Aviv in May 2008, pledging to begin sales by late 2010 – which would make it one of the quickest vehicles to go from concept to market in automotive history.
Renault and Nissan will hold large-scale joint testing events for its new electric cars in Paris and Milan next year, ahead of mass production scheduled for 2012. The trial conducted in the Paris region will include testing of a new car-charging network, which is being developed in conjunction with electricity giant EDF.
"One hundred electric cars from the Renault-Nissan alliance [...] will be tested from September 2010 for a year by individuals, companies and local authority employees," Renault-Nissan and EDF said in a statement.
Toyota Motor Corp, another of the auto giants developing hybrid and plug-in technologies, said it would start leasing 500 plug-in cars globally by the end of this year.
Toyota said its car will be powered by lithium-ion batteries, and Japan's Nikkei business daily reported this month that the plug-in will be able to run 20-30 km (12-18 miles) on battery power alone at full charge.
ETV Motors says its batteries will power a car for more than twice as long. With its on-board charger, the vehicle will not be dependent on a complicated electric charging infrastructure, although it will be plug-in compatible.
The jet turbine system is also a departure from General Motors Corp's Chevy Volt plug-in, which is also powered by a traditional internal combustion engine. GM aims to introduce the Volt, with its 64 km (40 mile) range, by late 2010.
The game-changing development, said chief technology officer Arieh Meitav, was a higher density battery, based on Lithium Manganese Nickel Oxide.
The batteries will be the first to have 4.7 volt cells, in place of existing Lithium-ion batteries with 3.2 volts. This allows for a longer range with a smaller battery, and it is projected to last throughout the car's lifetime, he said.
The second part of the system, the electricity producing micro-turbine, is being developed with the help of an aviation company – though ETV Motors would not say which one.
The turbine can run off a variety of fuel sources, like gasoline, diesel and biofuel, the company said, and will only operate to charge the battery when it runs low, spinning at a constant 80,000 RPM for maximum efficiency.