Friday, August 18, 2006

Flaming Laptops

On the surface, the biggest energy story of the week was the success of BP and its partners on the Alaskan North Slope in keeping half or more of the Prudhoe Bay field running, despite major repairs to the gathering system pipelines. Given the drastic decline in Alaskan production since its peak in 1988, which has created large amounts of spare infrastructure capacity, this shouldn't be too surprising. In the long run, however, I think the more significant event might be one that wouldn't immediately be associated with energy and environmental strategy: Dell's recall of four million defective laptops batteries. Although less dramatic than the Hindenburg explosion, images of flaming laptops could become as much of an impediment to public acceptance of battery cars as the airship disaster has been for hydrogen.

For advocates of electric vehicles (EVs) driven only by batteries, as opposed to gas-electric hybrids or variants of the hybrid, one of the best technology pathways has been the steadily improving Lithium Ion battery. Lighter in weight than competing metal hydride or lead acid batteries, they promise comparable onboard energy density to gasoline--if not in actual BTUs, then at least in equivalent miles of range--without adding lots of performance-reducing weight to the vehicle. The Tesla Roadster I mentioned recently is based on this technology, employing 6,800 Li-ion batteries under the hood. Unfortunately, the problems encountered by Dell are inherent in this battery chemistry. The recharging cycle of Li-ion batteries must be carefully managed to prevent fires. Manufacturers have been wrestling with this problem for years, and have largely overcome it with better electronics, though not perfectly, as we have seen.

The point here is not that Li-ion batteries can't be made safe enough for use in cars. Rather, it's the perception, created by this incident, that Li-ion batteries could pose a serious safety risk in vehicles. If I were marketing competing battery technologies to carmakers, I would include this issue--perhaps with photos of flaming laptops--in every presentation I made. While engineers might scoff at this, the message wouldn't be lost on management: put a few hundred or a few thousand of these batteries in every one of your cars, and you risk embarrassing and expensive recalls, not to mention potentially devastating product-liability lawsuits.

The risk for consumers is comparable. It's not even the fear of your car going up in flames, though Hollywood has worked overtime for decades planting those images in our minds for gasoline-powered cars. Consider the inconvenience if your EV's battery pack is recalled. Unlike your laptop, the car won't run without it, and we're not talking about replacing one battery in a few million computers, which looks like it will take at least several weeks, but potentially thousands of batteries in what would eventually be large number of vehicles.

Let's be clear that I'm not implying the Tesla Roadster or any other car with Li-ion batteries is inherently unsafe. I understand that Tesla has engineered their vehicle to manage the battery cycle appropriately. But I do think this event represents a serious step backward for EVs--which have plenty of other problems of perception and reality to overcome. It also gives an advantage to hybrid cars and plug-in-hybrids. Because they require many fewer batteries than a true EV, they can get perfectly satisfactory performance from metal-hydride battery packs.

No comments: