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Israeli Battery Start-Ups Could Charge Truck Market

They’re not nearly as sexy as a Tesla Model S, but when they’re rolling down the streets of Santa Clara, Calif., later this summer, a new fleet of garbage trucks should be nearly as quiet. Like a Tesla, the trucks will be fitted with an electric drive system.

There’s growing interest in using battery propulsion for commercial vehicles, particularly light- and medium-duty trucks and buses, said Stephanie Brinley, an IHS automotive analyst.

“You’re looking at a duty cycle that’s low in daily driving distances but high in terms of stop-and-go driving, which would give these vehicles a chance to recharge,” Brinley said.

But whether experimental electric powertrains like the ones in Santa Clara will be able to go mainstream may well depend upon long-sought breakthroughs in battery technology, particularly those that address “the total cost of ownership,” said analyst Oliver Hazimeh, an automotive expert at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the international accounting and consulting firm.

Two Israeli startups could make such applications even more appealing by overcoming three of the most nagging obstacles to widespread acceptance of electric powertrains: cost, range and charging times.

StoreDot, based in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya, is working on a version of the conventional lithium-ion battery that could be charged up in about the same amount of time it would take to refuel conventional gas or diesel vehicles.

“Our target is to charge electric vehicles in five minutes,” said Erez Lorber, a senior vice president with StoreDot.

Yet don’t expect to see this technology driving down the street soon. There are still major hurdles StoreDot must overcome. For example, its test batteries don’t match the lifecycle of current yet slower-charging batteries now used in electric vehicles.

Lorber said the company is closing in on technology that will give the batteries the same life as current batteries. He plans to have fully functioning prototypes ready later this year. They could be ready for commercial sales sometime in 2017.

With enough manufacturing volume, StoreDot hopes to bring out the batteries at about $150 to $200 per kilowatt-hour, around what General Motors Co. says it will pay for the batteries in its new Chevrolet Bolt long-range electric car.

That’s a fraction of what vehicle manufacturers were paying—typically $800 to $1,000 per kWh—at the beginning of the decade, but not the $100 many experts believe will be necessary to make battery power fully cost-competitive with the internal combustion engine.

A second Tel Aviv firm, Phinergy Ltd., aims to come in at an even lower base price for its unusual aluminum battery technology. The Alunergy battery can be thought of as something of a hybrid: though it produces current to run electric motors, it can be refilled, somewhat like a conventional fuel tank.

Aviv-Tzidon-phinergy-chief-executive-alunergy-battery

Aviv Tzidon, Phinergy’s chief executive, with Alunergy battery. (Photo: Paul Eisenstein/Trucks.com)

The basic battery pack contains pure aluminum bars that when bathed in an alkali electrolyte produce about 8.1 kilowatts per kilogram of the metal, a much higher density than lithium-ion batteries. The process slowly eats away the metal, turning it into aluminum hydroxide. Depending upon the size of the electrolyte tank, a vehicle might travel up to 1,200 miles—it varies by the size of the vehicle and its power demands—before it needs an alkali electrolyte refill. The bars would be replaced perhaps every 12,000 miles, said Aviv Tzidon, Phinergy’s chief executive.

Aviv Tzidon, Phinergy’s chief executive. headshot

Aviv Tzidon. (Photo: Paul Eisenstein/Trucks.com)

The technology has an unexpected secondary benefit: aluminum hydroxide is in high demand for a variety of uses, including water purification and fireproofing such things as construction materials and plastics, Tzidon said.

Alcoa Inc. has already developed a filtering system that extracts the compound and then allows for the reuse of the originally electrolyte. The aluminum hydroxide would then be sold off, offsetting the price of the electrolyte.

The two Israeli startups are by no means the first battery companies to promise big breakthroughs.

Battery companies “routinely promise more than they can deliver,” Tzidon said during a demonstration for Trucks.com at Phinergy’s lab in Tel Aviv.

At best, said analyst Hazimeh, out of every 100 promising startups, “only a few will come through.”

But that still gives reason to be upbeat, said Dan Hearsch, a battery and energy-storage expert at consultancy AlixPartners.

“I can’t say whether these guys have solved it,” Hearsch said, but “quick charging would certainly be helpful … to whether people would readily adopt electric vehicles.”

Phinergy’s battery technology will appeal to the truck industry for several applications, Hearsch said. One might be to power local delivery vehicles with prescribed routes. The technology might also be used specifically to power the refrigeration units on long-haul trucks.

Phinergy plans to demonstrate the Alunergy battery at a major Chinese bus and truck show in Shanghai this month.

Tzidon thinks buses might be one of the first commercial opportunities for his company’s batteries, along with a mobile generating system. He is eyeing the Chinese market because the Beijing government is pressing for alternatives to the conventional internal combustion engine to fight China’s endemic smog problems.

The automotive and trucking industries are watching for improvements in battery technology. If the two Israeli firms are successful, they will find a ready market, Brinley said.

“A 10-minute charge would be an absolute breakthrough,” said Peter Mertens, global director of research and development for Volvo Car. “Anything better would be too good to be true.”

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