Advanced battery show comes to Michigan

Oct 27, 2011

A lot of people are looking at advanced batteries as the next big industry for the state of Michigan. Especially things like lithium ion batteries that are in your cell phone and laptop... and power most electric cars. Right now there are 17 Michigan companies either producing – or planning to produce – advanced batteries.

And so – with all the buzz about batteries – the Battery Show came to Novi this week.

It’s an international trade show... and the industry’s so new, this is only the second time the show has been held.

“We have critical mass here in Michigan around the battery industry. We are globally significant now.”

That’s Nick Cucinelli. He helps researchers at the University of Michigan build start-up companies around technologies they invent. He’s really into advanced batteries... and the promise they hold for the way we’ll use energy in the future.

“One of the things you’ve probably noticed over the past 10-15 years is the length of time you can operate your laptop or your phone has increased dramatically.”

He says that kind of innovation continues.

In a lot of ways, the Battery Show is really meant for people who already know a lot about advanced batteries. There are scientists here who are working to make better batteries. There are guys here who build battery factories. And people who recycle batteries.

But there are also some flashier things to see – like the Jeep Renegade concept vehicle.

“Which looks like a cross between a very large Miata and the bottom end of a Jeep. It’s a diesel electric hybrid, which ten years ago people said made no sense but they’re coming now.”

And... Nick Cucinelli shows me his favorite thing at the show... the electric superbike.

“I’m a big motorcycle guy. This looks like a Mission bike. These are tearing up the electric bike racing circuit, as I understand it, and if these guys aren’t careful, this bike’s going to disappear today.” (laughs)

He says electric motorcycle technology is coming along... and there are a few start-up companies in Michigan that want to make them.

David Salguero is the guy showing off the electric superbike. He’s from Mission Motors in San Francisco.

“This technology is going to be increasingly coming out into the mainstream. The Prius came out 10 years ago; that was the first mainstream hybrid vehicle. This year, the first mainstream fully electric cars are starting to come along; you’re only going to see this technology improving. There’s going to be very exciting things happening in the electric vehicle space in the coming years.”

But hybrids and electric vehicles still make up less than one percent of the cars on the road. And the battery technology that drives those vehicles still has a ways to go.

Nick Cucinelli says the industry is trying to make car batteries lighter and more energy dense. That means you’ll be able to go farther on a single charge.

“Really what everybody’s focusing on is increasing the range of the vehicle and also, and this is very relevant to us in Michigan, figuring out how to make sure that vehicle performs consistently across a wide range of temperatures. You will not get the range you expect from an electric vehicle when it’s 20 degrees Fahrenheit in Michigan. It’s not going to go as far.”

Cucinelli says the battery industry and the auto industry are working on that together.

He says one thing’s for sure... the way we use energy will change.

“Who knows what our cell phones are going to be able to do for us five years from now. I can guarantee you they’re going to require more energy and power. There may come a time when batteries can’t keep pace with that and we have to look at generating electricity on the fly with a small fuel cell. So you’d be carrying a little bit of fuel and generating electricity on the fly.”

And in fact... he says that’s not terribly pie in the sky. There are people working with those teeny tiny fuel cells right now for phones and laptops.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.