By Marc Lachapelle
The latest sports cars and exotics are always a great attraction at any auto show, but the biggest news at this year’s Montreal International Auto Show might very well be about a tiny Indian electric car that is powered by components and technology developed by Hydro-Québec and one of its subsidiaries, a few dozen kilometres from downtown Montreal.
State-owned Hydro-Québec, the world’s largest producer of hydroelectric power, has a long history of research on electricity and its virtually infinite uses. Teams within its research institute have been working on automotive applications for almost two decades and some of this research and development work has been spun off to smaller and potentially more agile subsidiaries.
TM4 Electrodynamic Systems is among these and it had important news during press day. TM4 announced that the company had been chosen by Miljø Innovasjon, a subsidiary of giant Indian carmaker Tata Motors – also the owner of Jaguar and Land Rover – to provide electric motors and systems for an electric car ‘demonstration’ and testing program to be conducted in Norway over the next two years.
Electric car to brave Scandinavian winters
For this program, Miljø will build a hundred all-electric versions of the Tata Indica Vista minicar using components developed by TM4 over the past decade and trademarked as the MФTIVE series. Among these components are a permanent-magnet, 37-kilowatt electric motor with “the best power-to-weight ratio in its class and industry-leading efficiency”, according to its maker, and a Lithium Ion SuperPolymer battery at the forefront of development for this critical element of electric propulsion.
The Miljø Indica EV, a prototype of which was on display in Montreal, is claimed to accelerate from 0 to 60 km/h in 9 seconds and reach a top speed of 110 km/h. It should have a range of up to 200 kilometres and can be fully recharged in 8 hours through a 16-amp, 220-volt outlet. And of course, it can reclaim kinetic energy through regenerative braking and coasting, like any good hybrid. The Indica can carry four adults and their luggage and it has airbags and ABS brakes.
Norway’s climate is much like Canada’s. TM4 pins great hopes on its successful completion and notes that its 37 kW electric motor can be used not only on pure electric vehicles but also on classic or extended-range hybrids with a conventional internal combustion support engine.
Is the long-awaited miracle battery finally here?
Right next to the Indica EV in the TM4 booth within the ‘Green’ section of the MIAS, scientist André Besner, head of the materials science department at Hydro-Québec’s research institute, was proudly extolling the exceptional virtues of a small green box with a clear cover. It contained a battery made up of a series of small, individual electrical cells and developed by Hydro-Québec’s ‘battery team’ under the direction of Karim Zaghib. The Lithium-iron phosphate battery (C-LiFePO4), Besner explained, is safe, durable, powerful and both environmentally-friendly and relatively cheap to produce since it mostly uses iron, a chemical element that is extremely abundant but also much less toxic and costly than other chemicals such as nickel and cobalt used in other lithium-ion batteries.
According to Besner, you can literally drive a nail through a C-LiFePO4 battery – a standard industry safety test – and temperatures will go up to about 130 degrees and the battery will keep working as if nothing happened: “the same ‘nail-test’ with some lithium-ion batteries with cobalt, for instance, will trigger a short circuit and an intense temperature gain of up to 400 degrees in only 1/10th of a second and then reach the point of combustion.” Hydro-Québec also holds 90 per cent of the world intellectual rights to safe, non-flammable ‘dissolved salt’ ion liquids for batteries, another area where huge developments should be expected in the near future.
The Lithium-Phosphate Iron battery (LiFePO4) was invented in 1995 at the University of Texas by John Goodenough, a Ph.D. in physics, and subsequently developed by Hydro-Québec at its research institute in Varennes, Québec, from 1997 to 2001. This work led to a substantial improvement of the battery’s conductivity – the weak point of the original design – through the addition of carbon molecule to the iron phosphate particles, turning it into the C-LiFePO4 battery displayed in Montreal. The PHET ‘environfriendly’ C-LiFePO4 battery is currently made by Pihsiang Energy Technology, a Taiwanese company that holds exclusive mass production rights from Phostech inc. the Québec-based licensee of the world patent for the Carbon-coated Lithium Iron Phosphate battery jointly held by Doctor John Goodenough, the University of Texas and Hydro-Québec. Doctor Besner also mentioned that the next generation of the Tesla electric sports car would use a C-LiFePO4 battery pack made by Pihsiang.
Interestingly and ironically, the electric concept car and hybrid production cars shown by Chinese carmaker BYD (Build Your Dreams) at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit also use iron phosphate batteries which BYD laconically calls its ‘Fe’ batteries. According to Hydro-Québec’s André Besner, the battery technology used in these vehicles by BYD – reportedly also the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery manufacturer – is effectively identical to the C-LiFePO4 battery for which it jointly holds world patents: “No patents were originally filed in China (for this technology) so they are legal as long as they operate within China, but when they decide to sell outside the country they will have a problem.”