Inventors look to crack electric car conundrum

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Researchers grappling with the problem of developing the most fuel-efficient electric cars are using micro-jet turbine engines and 'supercapacity' batteries to help energy-conscious consumers drive further.

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. 

Better batteries 

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. 

Positions: 

At an event in Japan this week (27 July), Nissan  showcased a prototype of its new zero-emission electric car and said it would cut gas emissions by 90% by 2050. "Nissan will be a leader in zero-emission vehicles," Chief Operating Officer Toshiyuki Shiga said ahead of a test-drive event at the automaker's facility in a Tokyo suburb. "EV is the answer." 

Last week (20 July), Nissan revealed plans to build an electric car battery plant in Sunderland, north-east England. The new facility will produce around 60,000 batteries per year and create 350 jobs. 

For its part, Renault is expected to exhibit three electric cars at the Frankfurt motor show in September, which the company said would have a unique style. "We want a real signature for our electric range, so when people see one in the street they will know it is a Renault electric car," said Christian Steyer, Renault's development chief for small cars. 

"The key is to do this without frightening customers away. Customers must be tempted, and not rushed too fast. Maybe there is room for something very radical to rewrite the design rules that can be found from electric. So far we can't find it, though. But it is certainly possible in the future thanks to the changes and possibilities of battery technology." 

Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, an independent Palo Alto-based non-profit startup promoting plug-in hybrids, said the company had two very promising solutions but that they were far from commercialisation. 

"Today, every major automaker is now hard at work developing its first production plug-in vehicles in the next four years using existing technology," Kramer said. "Once ETV Motors has fully developed prototypes, potential customers will be able to analyse both the performance and cost benefits of the new systems compared to other contending advanced technologies," he said. 

Arnold Roth, ETV Motors' chief operating officer, said the company was discussing options to either manufacture parts of the system itself or license it out to a larger company. 

"We have been approached by Tier 1 manufacturers, who are interested in our technology," Roth said. 

The CEO said their hybrid system will be cheaper than other hybrids on the market today. 

Timeline: 
  • Sept. 2009: Renault-Nissan will test its electric cars in Paris and Milan.
  • Sept. 2009: Renault will unveil three electric vehicles at the Frankfurt motor show.
  • Late 2010: GM aims to introduce Volt, its jet turbine-powered electric car.
  • Late 2010: Renault plans to begin sales of its new electric cars.
  • 2012: Renault-Nissan plan mass production of electric vehicles.
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