Joule battery needs work
Cape Town - The battery pack for electric vehicles has much more potential than what is currently available, but requires more development.
"We expect battery performance to double in the next two decades because the lithium-ion battery is only at 15% of its theoretical limit," Optimal Energy CEO Kobus Meiring told News24 on the sidelines of the International Battery Association conference in Cape Town.
Optimal Energy designed the Joule electric vehicle and Meiring said that the battery pack was the most significant challenge in its development.
"The theoretical limit of lithium-ion batteries is 150 watt hours per kilogram and we already do 240km with the current battery. If we can extend the range to, say 500km, you can use the battery electric vehicle for anything.
"Safety is holding us back. In remote controlled aeroplanes they double that [battery power] already, but it's a toy, so it's not such a big issue."
Meiring said he believes the switch to electric vehicles (EVs) will be gradual, and would require a unique approach in countries where there is a lack of infrastructure to charge EVs.
"China made 13 million cars last year and that grew 50% from the year before so they don't have to make electric vehicles, but the government has stepped in and said, 'You have to do this.' In South Africa, we can roll out EVs without much infrastructure because we have a place or garage to park the car and charge it.
"In China, they have residential buildings, but with very little parking space because there were no cars, years ago when those were built. In Europe, we can roll out electric vehicles with a few plugs on the street," Meiring said.
In 2010, the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle won the European Car of the Year award and Meiring said that this demonstrated the company's commitment to electric vehicles.
"The Nissan Renault CEO has bet the whole company on the Leaf, but it is essentially a conversion of the Tiida. We took the decision to build the Joule as an electric vehicle from the ground up."
Optimal Energy isn't too concerned about being first to the market with an electric vehicle, and Meiring said that such a vehicle was difficult to mass-produce. The Joule is slated for production in 2014 of 50 000 vehicles a year.
"We'd love to get there as soon as possible, but not first. First is dangerous, but we wouldn't mind a close second. Investment is holding us back, and maybe there's a bit of afro-pessimism - that's such nonsense - we're all people.
"There are 400 cells in the Joule battery and they have to be matched. Quality control is the key and the battery isn't there yet; it’s a big industrial challenge," he said.
He added that international electric vehicle start-ups that produce the Tesla have had significant government support, and that the South African government needed to more fully support development of the Joule.
The department of science and technology initially provided the seed money for the Joule, and the Industrial Development Corporation is a shareholder in the company.
Electric vehicles attracted some controversy in Denmark with plans to zero-rate the tax on EVs while there is a tax of about 180% on ordinary cars. Meiring would like to see more government and private sector support to promote an electric vehicle ecosystem.
"The DTI (department of trade and industry) legislation protects incumbents in the motor vehicle industry and all governments give concessions to the car industry because it's such a big job creator.
"But we must ask ourselves where the profits from that production goes. It goes back to Germany. They just view South Africa as a source of cheap labour."
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