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Dec 11, 2009

SA is gearing up to produce batteries for electric vehicles

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These batteries could be viewed as the twenty-first century’s ‘new oil’, with any country able to produce them securing a significant portion of their energy future.

It means lessening dependence on the whims of the crude oil price and the politics of the countries holding these resources, as electric vehicles use no fuel.

The development and use of electric vehicles are rapidly gaining ground as most vehicle manufacturers gear up for the large-scale production of these no-emission, plug-in-and-recharge vehicles in the wake of global warming.

Some estimates are that electric vehicles will make up at least 10% of global demand by 2020.

Japanese vehicle manufacturer Nissan, for example, earlier this year unveiled its first mass-produced electric vehicle, due for launch in Japan and the US in 2010.

The five-door hatchback, named the Leaf, will have a range of 160 km before it will need recharging. Consumer research demonstrates that this range satisfies the daily driving requirements of more than 70% of the world’s car users.

South Africa’s drive to build batteries include the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Optimal Energy, (which has designed South Africa’s own electric vehicle), and one or two other commercial entities.

The focus is on lithium-ion batteries – such as the ones used in cell phones and laptops today, but in a much larger size – and the type of battery the CSIR helped develop many years ago, and for which it still receives royalty payments.

However, a South African innovation can not simply be a battery – it must be a cost- effective battery with a technological edge if it is to succeed against global competition.


Government entity the IDC is in the process of determining the commercial feasibility of establishing a battery manufacturing business in South Africa, says strategic high-impact projects senior project manager Retief Bruwer.

“We initiated the idea as far back as April 2008,” he explains.

“We started the project to investigate the business opportunity, based on indications of future uptake of alternative and green transport mechanisms.”

Bruwer says the nature of the project has not been finalised yet, and will be influenced by the various stakeholders the IDC invites into the development of the project.

“We are investigating large-cell lithium-ion battery technology, and we anticipate that the first market for the batteries will be for the electric vehicle or plug-in electric vehicle market, with potential second-life application in stationary energy storage,” he notes.

Bruwer says the IDC is currently the driver of the project, but that the corporation is in the process of signing various agreements with South African and international organisations that it believes can play a major role in the development of the project.

“We cannot divulge who these companies are right now, as these agreements have not been formalised yet.”

He adds that the IDC also does not quite know the “full magnitude of the funds involved, as this will be determined during the process of assessing the feasibility of the project”.

Bruwer says the IDC considers batteries – “and for that matter any energy storage medium” – as important for the future.

“However, a lot of development still has to take place to make certain battery technologies cheaper, safer and longer-lasting, but this will be like any other technology – it will go to market when consumers determine it is good enough, while development and optimisation continue.

“We also believe that the early movers could gain the most.”

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies has confirmed, in response to a written question posed in Parliament, that his department is working on exploring ways to localise production of electric vehicle batteries in South Africa.

He adds that the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) has so far adopted two standards for electric vehicles, and that there are a few more that the International Standards Organisation has published that the SABS is looking to adopt as local national standards.

He says the DTI and the SABS are investigating the expansion of the SABS battery-testing facility in order to meet the increase in testing demand for different types of batteries, including batteries for electric vehicles.


Lithium-ion batteries were first proposed in the 1970s. Lithium-ion is simply one type of battery, but it appears to be the one winning the technology war in terms of pro-viding the greatest quantity of energy of all known rechargeable systems.

While American professor John Goodenough is widely credited with the partial invention of cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries, he was assisted by several research teams, such as the one at the CSIR, led by Dr Michael Thackeray, whose work in the 1980s led to the discovery of lithium-metal-oxide electrode materials with a spinel-type structure. These materials can be used as either the anode or the cathode in the batteries, depending on the type of metal used.

(A bit of technospeak here: the three primary functional components of a lithium- ion battery are the anode, cathode and electrolyte, for which a variety of materials may be used. Commercially, the most popular material for the anode is graphitic carbon. The cathode is generally one of three materials: a lithium metal oxide with a layered-type structure, a lithium metal phosphate with an olivine-type structure, or a lithium-manganese-oxide spinel. Depending on the choice of material for the anode, cathode and electrolyte, the voltage, capacity, life and safety of a lithium-ion battery can be altered dramatically.)

Sony’s commercialisation of the first lithium-ion batteries for consumer electronic products, in 1991, revolutionised the battery market because of their low energy-to-weight ratio, and a slow loss of charge when not in use.

They are now also growing in popularity for automotive, medical, defence and aerospace technologies.


After a 20-year career at the CSIR, Thackeray left South Africa in 1994 to join its US equivalent, Argonne National Laboratory, where he is now an Argonne Distinguished Fellow and senior scientist.

In 1992, after supporting lithium battery research for about ten years, CSIR management decided to terminate its investment in this technology, says Thackeray from the US.

“At the same time, quite unexpectedly and coincidentally, I received an offer from Argonne National Laboratory to establish and lead a materials group in a new lithium battery project that involved US industry. Sensing a bright future in lithium battery technology, I took the Argonne opportunity and left the CSIR for the US in January 1994.

“The battery group that remained at the CSIR continued to operate for another year before closing down its operations.”

However, the advent of the electric vehicle has now seen development work at the CSIR pick up again, with the formation of the Battery Research Centre (BRC) in 2009.

This centre is headed up by Dr Mkhulu Mathe, who earned his chemistry PhD at Georgia University, in the US.

While conducting its own research, the centre is also working with Thackeray to take his work further.

A team from the centre has already visited Thackeray in Illinois.

“A visit there helped us establish the trends and skills needed to leapfrog the BRC,” explains Mathe.

He says the ultimate aim of the centre is to be a research partner to industry and tertiary education for automotive and stationary/ utility lithium-ion battery applications.

Power utilities can use batteries from electric vehicles for power storage, once they have completed their life-cycle in these vehicles.

Electric cars consume only around 60% of the battery’s life, says Mathe.

The BRC currently employs six people, which will grow to between 10 and 20.

“For now, the equipment is still arriving, we’re developing our research plan and forming strategic partnerships with industry and universities,” says Mathe.

But what will differentiate the centre’s work from any other global effort to develop battery technology? What will make the South African battery succeed?

The nature of the highly competitive battery industry is that no one really discloses much of their research, says Mathe.

However, he adds: “The things that would make a South African battery excel would [centre on] the electrolyte, to improve the life and power of the battery. The focus is also on batteries that can be recycled more easily.

“We are also looking at the chemistry of the anode, and making use of nanomaterials.”

Thackeray, who maintains strong links with South Africa, is once again involved in the process to develop a home-grown lithium-ion battery, and is helping the CSIR to protect and license the lithium battery patents with which he was involved while at the research body.

“This has been an ongoing process – 1994 to 2009 – and we are still pursuing further licences.

“I have also been contacted by the South African Consul General, in Chicago, Nomvume Magaka, and her staff regarding lithium battery initiatives in South Africa.”

Thackeray now has 35 patents to his name, and has met with former US President George W Bush for discussions on energy policy relating to the lithium-ion battery technology.

He emphasises that developing lithium-ion battery technology is “very important” for securing an oil-free future.

“With respect to transportation – all electric vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles – it is likely that lithium-ion batteries will ultimately play the major role in this market sector. Currently, hybrid electric vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, are powered by nickel- metal-hydride batteries. However, these batteries are unlikely to be used for all electric vehicles or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, because they have limited energy compared to lithium batteries and are, therefore, unable to power the vehicles over an acceptable driving distance before recharging becomes necessary.

“For transportation applications, lithium-ion batteries appear to hold the best future opportunity.”


Mathe reiterates Bruwer’s statement on clinching early-mover gains.

He believes there is a three- to five-year window to enter the market, as electric vehicles start to roll out in large numbers starting in 2010.

This is why the first small-sized (50c coin size) lithium-ion battery will be produced at the CSIR by February 2010.

From then on, Mathe plans to have an electric vehicle prototype lithium-ion battery ready by mid-2011.

“It will be a battery ready for testing in an electric vehicle. It means [a company] like Optimal Energy can test the battery in their vehicle.”

Apart from offering energy security, manufacturing lithium-ion batteries in South Africa will see electric vehicles become more affordable to local customers.

Electric vehicles are still expensive compared with standard internal combustion engine cars, owing to the battery technology and the fact that manufacturers have not yet achieved economies of scale.

More equals cheaper, in other words.

The battery is responsible for around 25% of an electric car’s price tag. However, if made locally, it could be cut to an estimated 15%, says Mathe.

Cape Town-based Optimal Energy plans to start pilot production of its Joule electric vehicle in 2010, with volume production to kick off in 2012, starting with 500 right- hand-drive units, and moving to 60 000 units in 2015, with a percentage of this destined for export markets.

The Joule is a five-seater lithium-ion battery electric vehicle with a top speed of a 135 km/h, and a range of 300 km before it must be recharged.

Optimal Energy says it makes little sense to import the heavy, bulky batteries.

“At the volumes required to support Joule production (1,8 GWh/year), local manu- facture is essential,” says chief technical officer Gerhard Swart.

“Tying up a huge amount of money in cells lying on ships between South African and Asia just doesn’t make sense.”

Although not involved with the BRC, Swart says Optimal Energy has been encouraging industry and academic players to establish a local lithium-ion battery industry in South Africa.

“The CSIR has an impressive battery history and is naturally on our list.”

Swart says establishing a local battery industry holds many advantages.

He says large-format lithium-ion batteries (as opposed to smaller-scale laptop batteries, for example) are not yet a commodity, and are not yet really mass-produced anywhere in the world.

“There is an opportunity to [establish] the new manufacturing plants here and improve the processes so that they will be more efficient. South African engineers are good at this sort of thing.

“The CSIR has done some amazing research – I expect them to be able to catch up.

“South Africa also has much of the raw material needed for battery production.”

Mathe explains that lithium-ion batteries require phosphorous, cobalt, nickel and manganese, all minerals found in South Africa. However, the country does not have large-scale lithium deposits. Bolivia, in South America, has about 50% of the world’s known lithium deposits, at about 5,4-million tons.

According to the Council of Geosciences, countries in Africa which have lithium are Zimbabwe, Namibia, Niger, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Mali.

In the end, notes Swart, Optimal Energy has some simple, but demanding, battery requirements.

Any battery produced in South Africa will need to comply with these requirements to be a commercial success, he adds.

“The cells would need to meet the stringent safety, performance, cost and life requirements for an electric vehicle.

“The Joule cells need to cost less than $250/kWh, have an energy density of better than 130 Wh/kg, and last at least seven years in operational conditions.

“If the South African-made cells can consistently meet this target, they will be sought after throughout the world.”

Edited by: Creamer Media Reporter
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