China's Unfair Advantage in Hybrid Car Batteries
A current production Toyota Prius nickel metal hydride battery pack uses 30 kilograms of nickel, 2 kilograms of cobalt and 12 kilograms of lanthanum because the active hydrogen storage alloy in the battery is either LaNi4.5Co0.5 or (Ce, La, Nd, Pr)Ni5. The Prius assembly plant in Japan has so far used one and 1.5 million rechargeable nickel metal hydride battery packs and achieved with them some of the lowest numbers of service issues ever seen in the OEM automotive industry. In fact most of the original Prius rechargeable nickel metal hydride battery packs have exceeded their 8-year 100,000 mile warranty and are still functioning, according to Resource Investor website.
China controls 95% of the world’s supply of rare earth elements, a class of ores used not just in Prius batteries but in a wide range of high-technology applications, from sonar systems to wind turbines, mobile phones and fluorescent lights.
All this gives China an extraordinary - some might say unfair - advantage to lead the race to dominate the manufacture of cutting-edge technology, according to the Wall Street Journal. Even before any major technology partnership announcements, there are reports that the legendary US investor Warren Buffet is investing in BYD, an obscure Chinese battery, mobile phone, and electric car company.
Toyota and Honda, the two currently leading makers of hybrid vehicles, do not think the Li-on technology is ready for prime time yet. They reportedly are going with an upgraded NiMH battery, using the rare earth elements found in China. Carlos Ghosn, on the other hand, is taking Nissan directly into what he thinks will be the ultimate answer, a Li-on powered electric car with a short stop in hybrid-land, but still powered with Li-on.
Last year, Honda announced that it would produce only hybrid motor vehicles by 2018, and others are likely to follow in its footsteps. As the demand for nickel hydride car batteries grows, those depending on such ores may be forced in the near term to invest in rare earth development in Inner Mongolia, Jiangxi and some other southern provinces to secure supply. In fact, some companies already have done just that. Right now, it’s stuff like X-ray screen makers, phosphor-panel and lamp manufacturers and other electronics firms that have set up joint ventures in China.
What China is waiting for is for the really high-end technology with mass market leverage like hybrid car batteries to beat a path to its door, says the Wall Street Journal. Beijing will have a window to get to a position of advantage with high-end manufacturers as it holds most of the cards for now.
Meanwhile,the new auto-industry plan, published on the main Web site of China's central government, says China aims to build capacity to manufacture 500,000 "new energy" vehicles, such as all-electric battery cars and plug-in electric hybrid vehicles. The plan aims to increase sales of such new-energy cars to account for about 5% of China's passenger vehicle sales.
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