The company that helped bring the lithium-ion battery to life is spreading its wings.
Sony said this month that it will produce lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and start selling them by the middle of the decade.
"Sony's batteries have an advantage of long life, and they do not have to be frequently replaced," the company said, according to Nikkei Electronics. "Therefore, they are suited for EVs. We want to enter the market by the mid-2010s."
Sony has already made a prototype and is now in negotiations with several automakers in and outside Japan. It aims to sell Li-ion batteries for use not only in EVs but also in hybrid vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Rival Panasonic already produces batteries for Tesla Motors and Toyota.
The Japanese giant may be having trouble in its consumer division, but like Toshiba, Sharp, Panasonic and other conglomerates, the company still wields impressive hardware engineering divisions.
Sony rolled out the lithium-ion battery for notebooks and consumer electronics back in the early '90s. Technically, it wasn't the first lithium-ion battery, but it was the first commercial success and it set the standards for what followed. ExxonMobil actually produced the first lithium battery way back in 1977. Exxon's battery relied on a different chemistry, but the oil giant lost interest in the project after oil prices plunged in the early '80s.
Last year, Sony showed us the lithium phosphate battery packs it produces for grid storage at Ceatec, a large tech trade show outside of Tokyo. (See picture.) Lithium phosphates don't have the same energy density as lithium cobalt batteries, but are generally safer and last longer. Conventional lithium batteries might only endure 500 charge cycles. The lithium phosphates can endure 3,000 to 4,000 cycles, according to Masayuki Yasuda, senior general manager of the new business division at Sony Energy Devices. The battery pack was one of the finalists for a smart grid award at Ceatec. (Disclosure: I headed the award committee.)
“That’s maybe ten years,” he said. “They are improving in energy density but the important part is safety and longer cycle life.”
Some companies are producing lithium phosphates for the car market so these two applications might be based around similar cells.
All of the major Japanese manufacturers have EV plans. Nissan has been selling Leafs for close to nine months now. Mitsubishi brought out an all-electric in 2009 in Japan and will introduce a version for the U.S. in a few months that will sell for $28,000. I drove it in Japan last year. Mitsubishi's i looks a bit odd from the outside, but it drives quite well. Expect a price war in the near future.