Friday, December 10, 2010

Temperature Extremes and EV Battery Trade-offs

The first production-model Nissan Leaf electric vehicle is scheduled to be delivered to a customer in the San Francisco Bay Area tomorrow. I know if I were on the receiving end, I'd be as excited as a kid on Christmas morning, particularly in a place where having the first Leaf will score its owner many green points. However, if the assessment by MIT's Technology Review of Nissan's choices concerning the temperature control of the Leaf's battery pack is accurate, then it's probably just as well that the first one is going to a location with such a benevolent climate, instead of the Midwest, upstate New York, or the desert Southwest. Batteries are sensitive to external temperature, in terms of both performance and longevity, and Nissan appears to be betting that making the battery simpler to replace is a higher priority than optimizing its condition at all times, as GM has done for the battery pack in the Chevrolet Volt.

It's easy to forget that batteries are fundamentally chemical, rather than just electronic devices. The chemical reactions in a battery absorb or release heat during the charge/discharge cycle, and the capacity of the battery's environment to accommodate those heat flows can affect these reactions. For a battery pack storing and delivering as much energy as required to run a car, these interactions are significant, and early adopters of EVs are already learning that the range of EVs becomes more limited in hot or cold weather. It's not as clear that they understand the degree to which extreme temperatures can degrade battery life. The economics of an EV could look very different if a battery pack only lasted six or seven years, instead of ten.

As the article explains, GM chose a liquid cooling system for the battery pack in its Volt range-extended EV. This system cools or heats all of the battery's cells, as necessary, and sometimes draws power for this purpose even when the vehicle is parked, as I learned when I test-drove one with the Volt's Vehicle Line Director last winter. According to him, GM's design team knew it had to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the battery would perform reliably and last the expected ten years or 150,000 miles. Nissan appears to have taken a different path to battery management, providing a cooling fan for the battery pack and an optional battery heater--an option reportedly not available on the first Leafs. You don't have to be an expert in heat transfer to guess that air won't move heat around the battery pack's cells as well as liquid can, and that as a result, at least part of the Leaf's battery could potentially be exposed to more heat and cold--and possibly suffer more performance impact from them--than the Volt's.

That trade-off might reflect a different vision for how the battery will be used. Nissan (with its alliance partner Renault) is the main carmaker working with Better Place, Shai Agassi's EV battery recharging-and-exchanging start-up. A battery pack with only electrical connections to the car will be much easier and neater to swap in and out than one with liquid hoses running to a radiator and heater. This situation wouldn't even be a consideration for the Volt, which has an onboard generator to take over when the battery's charge falls too low. But for battery-only EVs, battery-swapping is as close as they can get to replicating the convenience of refueling a gasoline or diesel car in a few minutes. If EVs catch on via a business model like Better Place's, in which consumers routinely exchange their flat batteries for fully-charged ones (and might not even own the battery pack, but instead rent it by the month or the mile) any shortcomings from Nissan's less robust battery-conditioning strategy would fall on someone other than the consumer, as a statistical cost of doing business.

From my perspective this is just one of the uncertainties concerning the operation and consumer acceptance of EVs about which we'll learn more as their numbers climb from the low thousands to the hundreds of thousands and millions. However, I find it interesting that few journalists have picked up on an issue that could have far more impact on the EV ownership experience than the tempest in a teapot that some stirred up when they found out that the Volt's wheels are occasionally driven partly by the engine-generator, rather than entirely electrically. If I were buying one of these cars, I'd be a lot more interested in how far its expensive battery pack will carry me and how long it will last, than in whether the car is truly a range-extended EV or just a plug-in hybrid.

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