To speed widespread acceptance of battery electric vehicles, it is believed a few objections will have to be overcome, including the relatively lengthy time required to recharge them.

Other objections like “range anxiety” are met with the Chevrolet Volt, but as GM-Volt’s founder Lyle Dennis once described it, the car is an excellent “bridge” technology toward electric vehicles with no petrol-power assistance.

Another objection to BEVs is high perceived prices. Reducing battery production costs to help enable lower pricing is currently the highest priority for the industry, according to a spokesman for Proterra, the electric city bus company in which GM Ventures just invested $6 million.


The original case for the Volt was a majority of people drive under 40 miles per day and it can slowly recharge overnight using unspent capacity. It is a conservative approach do-able with existing tech.

As it is, we have heard several accounts of fast charging innovation, and – no – none of them are about anything named EEstor.

Credible examples of ultra-fast charging development include efforts by Opel in Europe, existing technology in Proterra’s buses, rumblings out of Germany from Kolibri, and a process in Japan that can recharge a Nissan LEAF in five minutes.

The challenge

At the rate technology is improving, there may be hope yet to induce 57 percent of Americans do what they said they never would: Buy an electric vehicle – or at least this is what a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll said.

While we tend to consider such surveys as only so good an indicator of anything in these rapidly changing times, we will say it at least shows some people still need to be convinced.

Sure, painfully expensive gasoline would help, but rather than beat them into submission, how about winning more flies with honey? For today, our definition of “honey” for seemingly recalcitrant, late-to-never EV adopters will be “fast charging.”

Rumblings

Last year Opel said it was able to recharge a lithium-ion battery the same size as found in the Volt – not overnight, not in four hours, but in under one hour.


Opel Meriva EV1, September 2010.

“We are testing charging at high currents in less than one hour, as well as the communication protocols between the vehicle and charging station,” said Opel Vice President of Engineering Rita Forst last September of its converted Meriva EV1.

At the time, GM was using 400 volts to charge it, as well as testing vehicle-to-grid capabilities. We have not heard much about this German project since.

However, another ultra-fast charging demonstration in Germany has happened more recently with DBM Energy. A couple months ago we were told it could charge a battery with six times the capacity of the Volt’s (or Opel Meriva's) battery inside a scalding-quick six minutes.


DBM Energy's battery was put through German government tests this year. Examples of it are already being used by forklifts in busy logistics centers.

This statement, and intentions to push toward commercial viability, came unequivocally from the company's Chief Operating Officer, Markus Röser. This was not long after its battery had been shown by the German government to be able to deliver 300-plus mile all-electric range, and indications were it would be cost effective, safe, and was almost ready for EV production.

Here now

Promises aside, the electric bus company in which GM Ventures just invested is in production, and able to drive 300 miles per day thanks to a fast charging station that zaps it back to life in a few minutes between 30-40 mile trips.

Proterra’s FastFill™ system is comprised of software and hardware to rapidly charge the TerraVolt™ Energy Storage System from 0 percent to 95 percent with over 92 percent energy charge efficiency in as little as 6 minutes.


Proterra EcoRide™ BE35.

The way it works is massive current is fed through the roof via heavy cables supplying a robotically controlled apparatus to recharge the battery. Not only is it nearly fast as lightning, the batteries presently ranging as high as 72 kWh are estimated to have a life of 8,000 to 25,000 recharge cycles – substantially higher than automotive EVs.

The Altairnano lithium-titanate batteries in the bus are based on lithium-ion technology and have a titanium-oxide, nano-based coating on their anodes, said Proterra spokesman and engineer, Joshua Goldman. This enables reliable fast charging with less heat generation.

Goldman expressed doubt for the likelihood of this battery technology being adapted to automotive use anytime soon however.

For one, it is comparatively expensive for consumer applications, although part of this is only due to present low volumes. Secondly, it has half the energy density of the battery in the Volt – the Proterra’s water-proof, water-cooled battery pack occupies half the physical volume of a Volt, and weighs upwards of 5,000 pounds. The third downside is it is just too durable.

Yes, in this world of planned obsolescence, it would be undesirable if a battery were developed for an EV that could outlast the car by two-three decades, which is what you could wind up with if a battery is good for up to 25,000 charge cycles.

Thanks to Joshua Goldman who scrambled to post this personally produced video for GM-Volt readers to better understand Proterra's system.

While we are not as impressed with the too-durable objection, we understand it, as we do the heavy, bulky and expensive impediments.

Goldman said the chief driver these days in EV battery development is cost. We have heard this priority several times from GM, and others.

Driving down costs is predicted to cure sticker shock presently causing some would-be consumers to shake like a leaf at the prospect of an EV that might go 80-100 miles on a charge, requiring hours to recharge, and costing as much as a nice Acura.

On the other hand, while the talk on these shores particularly is cutting costs, some engineers in Japan apparently did not get the memo that fast charging EVs was not a priority.


What if instead of this, charging could be done in five minutes? Would it change GM's strategy as well?
This month it was reported a Japanese system was patented and will soon go on sale that can recharge the 24-kWh Nissan LEAF battery to 90-percent full in five minutes.

We have not learned of any downside, such as decreased battery life, although we have not heard battery life will not be adversely affected either.

As it is, Kanno Tomio and his team of engineers in Tochigi, Japan demonstrated a system using capacitors that dump current into the LEAF’s battery.

It is similar in concept to Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) used in Formula One racing.

The system can still take advantage of off-peak grid rates by charging the capacitors overnight, answering one possible objection to daytime fast charging.

Tomio and company expect to install its systems in homes and businesses in Japan by 2012, and not long after, offer them to Europe and North America.

We have not learned of proposed price or other specs as of yet.

More than one way to skin a cat

Reducing production costs and MSRP are indeed priorities, but also important is increasing all-electric range and (ultra-) fast charging – at least this is what some EV fence sitters say.

It takes economies of scale to enable any or all of these. Which one will come first?

Price is an obvious metric to try to improve, but it implicitly says a car's performance, options or durability might be sacrificed for the sake of lower price.


Proterra battery electric bus.

We believe the USA Today/Gallup survey and other empirical evidence suggests most consumers want no cost or performance downside compared to ICE vehicles, if possible. Many would want clean electric cars and no perceived sacrifices.

And if so, this would mean it is not just price that is important. What if an EV could be recharged in five minutes? Or what if an EV could provide double, triple the AER of current designs? More people would pay current prices or higher for that, we believe.

As for today's subject, ability to recharge as fast as a petrol vehicle could be one route to larger acceptance – and in turn could draw more innovative companies into the EV wading pool.

Ultra-fast charging also potentially means larger batteries could then be used without them needing 16-24 hours to recharge as would be the case now, which could solve the range anxiety problem at the same time.

Although we have not heard from DBM Energy lately, we suspect it knows this. It is already stuffing 60-100 kWh batteries in subcompacts, aiming to fix the range, charge time and cost objection in one shot.

At this point, the accounts of ultra-fast charging are noteworthy as they are a cut above mere urban legend status – and at least one prospect looks ready to go in Japan.

Time will tell what it will take to inspire 57 percent of Americans to change their mind about never buying an EV.

Reuters , Proterra , Gas 2.0 .