LEXINGTON, KY – The future success of electric vehicles largely rides on the battery systems that drive them, particularly regarding their development and costs.

But while the newly established Kentucky-Argonne Battery Mfg. Research and Development Center here is focused on cutting battery costs and improving manufacturing processes, its researchers are hesitant to say a big breakthrough is around the corner.

In fact, it likely will be at least a decade before current technology takes a major step forward.

Tony Hancock, the center’s business manager, says in general it takes about 10 years to put a new invention into production, noting that electrified vehicles presently are powered by systems developed a decade ago.

Adhering to that formula, he says, even if there was a major breakthrough in the short term, it wouldn’t show up in production form anytime soon.

“We’re trying to get the (development) time down by getting academicians and industry involved,” Hancock tells WardsAuto. “But lithium-ion (batteries) will be the solution for the next decade, maybe two.”

The Kentucky facility, an extension of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Chicago-based Argonne National Laboratory, is a collaboration of researchers from the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, battery-maker Hitachi and to a lesser degree Ford and Toyota.

Hancock says in addition to working to improve current Li-ion chemistries, the lab also is experimenting with new solutions, such as lithium-sodium.

Sodium is more abundant and less costly than lithium-ion. And some scientists say it is a better alternative for high-energy density, rechargeable batteries. However, research is in the inception stage.

Another key goal is reducing the cost of today’s battery packs, which he says is mostly incurred in the manufacturing process because of the volatile nature of Li -ion batteries.

“Dealing with complicated chemical structures has to be done right in clean and dry rooms,” Hancock says. “As we get smarter and (develop) more automated equipment, it will lower the cost.”

There will be hiccups along the way, he says, citing the explosion last month at General Motors’ battery lab in Warren, MI, during extreme testing on a prototype battery unrelated to the Volt. The incident is still under investigation.

Researchers agree that any time work is being conducted with high-energy density, there is potential for problems such as explosions.

Hancock says some companies are skipping safety standards in an effort to lower costs more quickly. That’s particularly true in China where the Beijing government is urging domestic auto makers to lead the world in EV development.

But he is confident the public’s safety concerns for EVs, amplified by the recent Chevrolet Volt fires following rigorous testing, will be alleviated.

“One hundred years ago, if someone had said, ‘We’re going to give you a vehicle to drive around, and right underneath your seat we’re going to store 30 gallons (113.5 L) of one of the most-explosive liquids you can imagine,’ everyone would’ve said they’d rather ride a horse,” he quips.

Hancock is not the only staff member at the Argonne facility taking a long-view approach to battery development. Ralph Brodd, the center’s director and a respected battery-industry veteran, says in 10 years researchers will be able to “fully define the scope of Li -ion technology.”

Even when the full potential of Li-ion batteries is realized, it will never reach the energy-density level contained in gasoline, Brodd says. “There’s about 13,000 Wh/kg in gas, and with a battery it’s going to be tough to make 5,000.”

But electrified vehicles can make up for the limitation in other ways. One example is the greater efficiency of EVs compared with internal-combustion engines, he says. ICEs are only 25% efficient, whereas battery systems are 80%-90% efficient in the use of energy stored in a battery, if used correctly.

Brodd says the future of battery technology likely lies in Li-air, a new chemistry that potentially could power an electric vehicle up to 300 miles (483 km). But he warns it “won’t be quick,” noting there is much research to be done.

“I know (Americans) are impatient,” Brodd says. “But there’s really not a battery industry in the U.S., and we don’t have the ability to go out and find a person that understands the manufacturing side, and that’s the key. We have to couple that with the technology, and we’re just learning how to do that.”

bpope@wardsauto.com