Thursday, April 02, 2009

China and the Electric Car Race

China is moving ahead fast in the electric car field.   Maybe it won't be the Volt, Chevrolet's promised plug-in, that changes the way America drives.

BYD is a battery manufacturer and now car maker in Shenzhen, a fast-growing city in Guangdong province, about 15- 20 miles north of Hongkong.  BYD (Build Your Dream) is a new name to most Americans, but not to financial giant Warren Buffett, who bought ten percent of the company in the summer of 2008. Buffett is not a gambler. He investigates a company thoroughly, considers value rather than glitter, and buys not to speculate but to hold.

So what is it in BYD that caught Buffett's attention? We can only speculate, but here are the basics. BYD is the largest rechargeable battery make in China, and its expertise in batteries is a key to making an electric car. The company launched a mass-produced plug-in electric, the F3DM model, in December, 2008. That model can be recharged to 80% capacity in 15 minutes. The company has already signed a deal to export its cars to Israel and hopes to enter the American market in 2010. They are working on a car similar to the still unavailable Chevy Volt for under $22,000. The Volt, meanwhile, is likely to be nearly $40,000.  By waiting decades to take baby steps towards the electric car, American  auto companies stand to lose the competitive edge in plug-in cars the way they've already lost out to Toyota in the hybrid arena. 

Skeptics point to problems with lithium-ion batteries, in particular explosions not only with counterfeits but the real McCoy. However, newer lithium-ion phosphate batteries now being used in cars are more chemically stable.

However, what electric cars have behind them in China is the support of the government, which is offering not only large subsidies to buyers, but also new charging stations for electric cars in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. A large number of the potential buyers live in cities, where slow speeds and limited mileage range between charging is not much of a problem. The Chinese government also hopes to reduce its dependence on foreign oil (sound familiar?). China's recent history in making giant strides in building, manufacturing, solar cities, and, most obvious, their great Olympics endeavor make it likely the Chinese may actually take leadership in the electric car race.
A Viral Footnote to China's Electric Car Venture.
Scientists in South Korea have multiplied the strength of the lithium-ion battery by a factor of ten. Using a virus known as M13, researchers at the Korea  Advanced Institute of Science and Technology collaborated with scientists at MIT  to create carbon "nanotubes" used in the new batteries.

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