LOS ANGELES – Ford is leaving nothing to chance when it comes to developing the next promising battery technology, says a top engineer.

Chuck Gray, chief engineer-Global Core Engineering Hybrid and Electric Vehicles, says while the auto maker currently sources lithium-ion batteries from preferred suppliers LG Chem and Sanyo, it’s always on the lookout for what other suppliers may have to offer.

“We have a process where we entertain cell manufacturers with proposals,” he tells WardsAuto at a recent media event here. “Several years before we go to production, or even think about it, we will take cells and cell data from a supplier and study it.”

The practice ensures Ford has access to the newest and best battery technology on the market and is in line with the auto maker’s strategy to bring more technical know-how in-house.

Gray says Ford now is using advanced equipment that allows up to four battery chemistries to be tested simultaneously, double its capability of two years ago. The equipment allows engineers to thoroughly test different battery chemistries to see if they are suitable for automotive use.

Gray says a supplier often will tout a new chemistry for superior performance in one area, such as energy density. But when the chemistry is tested in Ford’s labs, it may fall short in other critical areas.

“There may be huge energy density discovered in this ‘XYZ’ chemistry,” he says. “Well, that’s great, but what about its life in an automotive environment where it’s hot and also has to run cold? A lot of times those claims fall apart and (the chemistry) can’t be used for automotive.”

When a supplier submits a battery chemistry to Ford, the auto maker tests it in-house and asks the supplier to do the same. Following testing, the results are analyzed side by side, Gray says.

Any supplier with a “legitimate capability in cells” is able to submit a chemistry to Ford. “We don’t want to miss what may be a breakthrough out there,” he says.

If a chemistry meets all of Ford’s criteria in energy density, longevity, cold-start performance and high-temperature tolerance, the auto maker begins commercial discussions with the supplier about its technical and manufacturing capabilities and the battery’s potential cost.

Gray says a supplier’s manufacturing capabilities and its focus on quality are keys to winning a contract with Ford.

“We continually rank and assess suppliers on commercial performance and, of course, on their technical capability,” he says. “If the cells aren’t made properly you can have big problems later in the field, so we put a lot of emphasis on their quality of manufacturing before considering them for high-volume production.”

Gray doesn’t expect big breakthroughs in battery chemistries anytime soon, although he doesn’t rule out the possibility.

In the near future, he says Ford is seeing a “convergence of lithium NMC (nickel manganese cobalt oxide) chemistries” and are encouraging “suppliers to go down that path.”

“We think (NMC) oxide provides the best balance of power, density, safety, longevity and temperature capability,” he says. “But we’re still open to other blends.”

More advanced battery chemistries, such as lithium air, which some say could have the same power density as gasoline, likely are years away.

While Gray doesn’t foresee any great advancement in battery technology, he says incremental improvements in the batteries Ford uses will be made every year.

“We see modest, single-digit improvements every year or couple of years in terms of energy density,” he says. “We see potential with the current chemistries by refining how cell makers build the cells and how we use them.”

bpope@wardsauto.com