December 3, 2013 7:00 am JST

New battery material lets electric cars keep on trucking

TOKYO -- Sekisui Chemical has developed a material that can triple the capacity of lithium ion batteries, allowing electric vehicles to travel about 600km on a single charge -- roughly as far as gasoline-powered cars can go without refilling.

     The new material stores electricity using silicon instead of conventional carbon-based materials. The company's silicon alloy overcomes the durability issue that had kept silicon from being used.

     Sekisui Chemical also developed a new material for the electrolyte, which conducts electricity within the batteries. This eliminates the need for equipment to inject liquid electrolyte into batteries, stepping up battery production by 10-fold from the current three or so per hour.

     The company believes that its new materials can bring battery production costs down to just above 30,000 yen ($290) per kilowatt-hour, a 60%-plus decrease from around 100,000 yen today. Electric cars can be priced at the same level as gasoline-powered cars if battery prices come down to 30,000 yen per kilowatt-hour, according to an official at a major Japanese automaker.

     Sekisui Chemical plans to begin sample shipments to domestic and overseas battery manufacturers as early as next summer, with mass production to kick off in 2015. It is targeting annual sales of 20 billion yen by fully entering the business of automotive battery materials.

     Electric cars have failed to make the inroads that hybrids have, in part because they have a range of only about 200km and their batteries cost a hefty 2 million yen or so to produce. Sekisui Chemical's new materials could give electric cars a much-needed boost.

     The global market for automotive lithium ion batteries will quintuple from the 2013 level to 840 billion yen in 2017, according to projections by market research company Fuji Keizai.