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Advances in lithium-ion battery technology over the last few years have experts and enthusiasts alike wondering if the new batteries may soon make high-performance electric vehicles widely available. Now one company, Altair Nanotechnologies of Reno, NV, has announced plans to start testing its new batteries in prototype electric vehicles, with road tests scheduled to begin by year-end.

The company says its new electrode materials allow higher bursts of power, longer battery life, and more available energy storage capacity – and far quicker “fill-up” – than previous lithium-ion batteries. The goal: an electric car that performs as well as a conventional car. “The user experience will be similar, except the vehicle is quieter and it’s environmentally greener,” says Alan Gotcher, the company’s CEO.

Altairnano plans to incorporate batteries that use their new lithium-ion electrode material into a prototype electric vehicle, in cooperation with Boshart Engineering of Ontario, CA. Gotcher says the batteries use a safe, stable structure that increases their lifetime by preventing the electrodes from expanding and contracting as the ions move in and out – a principle reason for the eventual death of conventional lithium-ion batteries.

The batteries can also handle big bursts of power, which occur in both fast charging and quick acceleration. Also, Gotcher says an electric vehicle using their batteries could charge in about the time it takes to fill a tank of gas and buy a cup of coffee and snack – six to eight minutes.

This efficiency and an expected range of 200-250 miles could make such an electric car more appealing to consumers than GM’s now-discontinued EV-1, for example, which took six to eight hours to charge and had a range of only 75-130 miles, depending on conditions. The extended range of the new batteries, which have a total storage capacity similar to today’s nickel metal-hydride batteries, is possible because they can be discharged more deeply while maintaining a constant voltage, increasing the usable energy storage capacity, Gotcher says.

Gotcher says the new battery materials can be produced for about the same cost as conventional lithium-ion materials, but will have two to three times the lifespan of today’s batteries. He says it’s too early to speculate on the price of a production vehicle using the batteries.

The performance figures seem promising to Ron Freund, chairman of the non-profit Electric Auto Association based in Los Altos Hills, CA. “Sounds great,” he says, “but the proof in the pudding is how they work in a vehicle, so it’s useful that they are going to create a vehicle.” He hopes the company won’t stop there, since data from just one prototype can be misleading – the real question, he says, is whether such vehicles can be made with consistent performance from vehicle to vehicle.

In the past, electric vehicles powered by lead-acid or nickel-metal hydride batteries, such as GMs EV-1 and Toyota’s RAV4-EV, have sold poorly, leading the automakers to discontinue them. Today consumers are limited to so-called “neighborhood” electric vehicles, which have to stay off highways, and some limited production full-speed models, such as the Tango, famously driven by the actor George Clooney, and some pricey high-performance sports cars. Many hobbyists also opt to convert hybrids and conventional cars to electric cars themselves.

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