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Fleet feat: GE's 'electric bus of the future' combines lithium, sodium battery tech

Fleet feat: GE's 'electric bus of the future' combines lithium, sodium battery tech

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GE researchers say their new dual battery system combines the best of lithium and sodium batteries to help electric fleet vehicles perform better and cost less.

Researchers at General Electric said on Thursday that they have achieved a breakthrough that could accelerate the electrification of fleet vehicles.

GE's hybrid systems research team says its dual battery system -- which it recently demonstrated on a zero-emissions hybrid transit bus -- will help city bus fleets, delivery trucks and other large, heavy-duty vehicles go electric.

The battery

Batteries, of course, have been the weak link of the electronic industries, from computers to cars. While software and hardware development moves at a frenetic pace, battery advancements have been few and far in between. To boot, they're big and expensive.

GE's new system pairs a high-energy density sodium battery with a high-power lithium battery. The researchers believe such a system allows for a sufficient electric driving range without sacrificing acceleration.

Succinctly:

  • Lithium batteries, provide a lot of power for acceleration, but are not optimized to store energy for driving range.
  • Sodium batteries store large amounts of energy, but are not optimized to deliver power.
  • Combine them, using lithium for vehicular "sprints" and sodium for "marathons," if you will.

The researchers say the dual system -- two cheaper batteries, rather than one massive, expensive one -- reduces the cost of a battery by 20 percent, putting electric vehicles within reach for companies that want to be more sustainable.

“Public transit and delivery service providers recognize the importance and benefits of transitioning to an electric fleet, but are looking for cost-effective solutions to make that possible,” GE Global Research engineer Lembit Salasoo said in a statement.

The pitch

For now, companies have welcomed electrification but balked at the price tag, mostly due to the batteries necessary to make it happen. Scale that issue, and it becomes a non-starter.

GE hopes this advancement will lead to thousands more EVs on the road. According to the company, there are 843,000 buses registered in the U.S. (among them, 63,000 transit buses and a whopping 480,000 school buses).

Most of them travel less than 100 miles per day, providing an opportunity to go green -- all-electric and zero-emissions, even -- without much fanfare. Reduced fuel consumption (and thus costs) are the attraction, not to mention the reduction of carbon emissions.

The business interest

GE's interest is to license its battery technology to vehicle manufacturers. It's also interested in charging those batteries, too: in April, it signed a contract with automaker Nissan for smart charging infrastructure, per its WattStation product and recent deal with Better Place.

It's already building a new battery factory in Schenectady, N.Y., to commercialize the technology. And earlier this year, the company announced that it would purchase 25,000 electric vehicles for company use.

The research is part of a $13 million research project by GE, the Federal Transit Administration and Northeast Advanced Vehicle Consortium, funded by the National Fuel Cell Bus Program.

Here's a video of the bus in action:

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure