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Electric power

A time for batteries

Lithium-based equipment developed in São Paulo to drive vans

eduardo cesarAris with the Brazilian-made battery in a street on the campus of the Cidade Universitária, in São Pauloeduardo cesar

Lithium batteries are widely used – for example, in mobile devices and notebooks, the most common gadgets to run on these batteries. By accumulating and releasing electric power in these electronic devices, they make life easier and fun for everybody. Bigger and more powerful, lithium batteries are the main component of recently developed electric cars, such as Nissan’s Leaf. These batteries are being tested in two taxi cabs in São Paulo. Lithium batteries are also a component in hybrid cars with gasoline engines, such as GM’s Volt. These batteries emit very little pollution and this is why they have a powerful environmental appeal, as they have become a source of clean energy in comparison to engines fueled by oil by-products.

In Brazil, the first lithium battery prototype – lithium batteries are manufactured by more than a dozen companies around the world – was manufactured in July by Electrocell, a small company installed in the Center of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology (Cietec), at USP’s Cidade Universitária campus, in São Paulo. Soon thereafter, the battery was installed in a small van – the Aris – that can carry 350 kilos of cargo. The silent van is part of a project being conducted by electric power utility CPFL from São Paulo State. The Aris van was made by Edra, a producer of special cars in the city of Rio Claro (SP). Initially equipped with batteries made in China, the vehicle, now equipped with a Brazilian-made battery, may become commercially feasible for specific niches, such as CPFL, to deliver mail, transport electronic equipment, or deliver ingredients to restaurants.

“We have already identified the partners of the entire automotive technology chain,” says Flávio Eduardo Lopes, director of Edra. Building a factory to manufacture electric vans will require investments of R$ 10 million to produce one thousand units a year. “If we manage to achieve this production, and taking into account that the battery costs half of the price of the vehicle, it’s possible that each Aris can be sold for about R$ 60 thousand,” says Lopes. “The vehicle is feasible, though it is more expensive than similar dual fuel vehicles, because each battery is expected to last for 10 years, the equivalent to driving a car for 300 thousand kilometers.” The vehicle can reach up to 80 kilometers an hour and needs to re-charge the battery every 100 kilometers. It takes the Aris up to seven hours to recharge the battery plugged into a standard 200-volt outlet.

A higher number of electric vehicles is expected to become part of the planet’s total fleet, slowly and steadily. In the United States, according to a study on the production of lithium ion batteries, conducted at Duke University’s Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness, published in October 2010, hybrid or electric cars and vans are expected to account for more than one half of new car sales in the U.S. market by 2020.  In the conclusion of the study, the researchers, headed by Marcy Lowe, state that the automobile industry is moving away from gasoline engines to invest in electric motors and that the key element for this change is the availability of advanced lithium batteries. “The United States must be able to produce lithium ion batteries to remain competitive,” the study warns.

The global battery market is expected to react soon, according to the estimates of the German consulting firm Roland Berger. As stated in a report published early this year, the lithium ion battery market for automotive use is expected to total more than US$ 9 billion by 2015. In the restricted field of advanced batteries, used in electric systems and equipment, the market is expected to total US$ 7.6 billion in 2017, according to Pike Research, a U.S. consulting firm.

The market for batteries in electric systems is another business that Electrocell is focusing on. In the so-called smart grids, consumers – especially companies – will play a leading role in monitoring and managing the electric power consumed. Each consumer will be able to generate and distribute his own power through solar or wind-powered systems, for example, and electricity may be accumulated in lithium batteries. The batteries can also be charged during non-peak hours, such as the very early morning, for instance, when power rates are cheaper, rather than during peak hours, which run from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm, when the rates are higher. To become fully functional, smart-grids still depend on specific laws in Brazil.

eduardo cesarElectrocell’s battery, assembled in modules, is installed in a vaneduardo cesar

According to the Center of Management and Strategic Studies (CGEE), linked to the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT), 178 smart grid projects have been registered in R&D programs coordinated by the National Power Agency (Aneel). In December 2011, the Center presented the paper Redes elétricas inteligentes: contexto nacional [Smart power grids: national context], with a list of 178 smart grid projects. The smart grid projects encompass such items as intelligent power metering services, and the generation and distribution of electricity in micro-grids, specifically, for instance, for a company running on solar or wind power systems. The 178 projects account for investments of R$ 411 million. Data collected and analyzed by the CGEE shows that China, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States lead the financial forecasts for projects focusing on the modernization of the respective power grids. By 2030, investments in these smart grids is expected to total US$ 178 billion.

Electrocell plans to build a plant in 2030 to manufacture lithium ion batteries to participate in the national smart grid and electric car markets. “We are negotiating the investment funding with venture capital firms and investment banks,” says engineer Gilberto Janólio, a partner in Electrocell. The company went into business in 2000, with a fuel cells project, a battery that produces electric power from hydrogen. The project was funded by FAPESP’s Innovative Research at Small Companies Project (Pipe) (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº. 92 and nº. 173).

Developing the battery in Brazil was a challenge for Electrocell. It took the company a year and a half to produce it. “It was an integrated engineering development; we defined the control and the equilibrium of the electric charge of each element in the battery and the arrangement of the entire set. All of this was done in line with the car’s control software. We also worked on collision and vibration engineering,” says Janólio. “Another major factor was the development of a suitable ventilation system for the country’s warm climate,” says Volkmar Ett, another partner in Electrocell. To manufacture the batteries, the company partnered with Cegasa, a Spanish enterprise that manufactures batteries and set up business in Brazil two years ago. In Spain, Cegasa develops experimental batteries for the Spanish car company Seat, controlled by Volkswagen. “They supply us with the lithium wafers and we build the battery,” says Janólio.

The market for these batteries includes hybrid buses with electric and conventional engines, small trucks, company data processing centers, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). “We have received many orders, and all we need to do now is to produce the batteries in series,” says Ett. The company’s business plan, prepared by consultant Luiz Carlos Rocha Paes, foresees the manufacturing of 213 batteries for vans, buses and small motorcycles in 2014. Sales estimates amount to R$ 25 million. “But the predicted demand potential in 2014 is 966 batteries, which will probably be complemented by imported batteries,” says Paes. “We believe that Electrocell may achieve a 22% market share,” he says.

In the case of CPFL, which first built electric cars in 2009, the Brazilian-made batteries guarantee the continuity and progress of the project. “For CPFL, electric cars exemplify the technology that enables us to find out how this technology works on a daily basis. This is not an R&D project; we want to show that it is possible to manufacture electric cars in Brazil and we have already bought four Aris cars,” says engineer Marcelo Rodrigues Soares, coordinator of the project at CPFL. The company invested approximately R$ 3 million for the purchase of the cars and the batteries. “Our tests showed us that the cost of driving this electric vehicle is equivalent to one-fourth (1/4) of the mileage we get from a vehicle that runs on gasoline,” says Soares. The Aris has been ratified by the National Transit Department (Denatran) since March 2010 and can travel all over the country.

In spite of the favorable outlook for this new market, the price of the batteries is expected to drive some consumers away. “In Brazil, we need to see how much more consumers are willing to pay than they pay for a vehicle with a gasoline engine, for example, in order to have a more efficient way of reducing CO2 emissions,” says Francisco Nigro, a professor at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP) and technical advisor to the São Paulo State Bureau of Economic Development, Science, and Technology. “The prospects indicate that going forward, the price of the battery will drop and the equipment will become more feasible for the automotive market,” Nigro explains.

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