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Ford, Univ. of Michigan open new battery lab

Mon, 10/14/2013 - 8:06am
Dee-Ann Durbin, Associated Press

Ford Motor Co. and the Univ. of Michigan are opening a new battery research and manufacturing laboratory that they hope will speed the development of batteries for electric and hybrid cars.

The center, on the university's campus in Ann Arbor, will bring together battery makers, car companies and researchers who will test new batteries for prototype vehicles.

Ted Miller, who manages battery research at Ford, said the laboratory will be unique in the U.S. He said that laboratories currently testing new battery chemistries can't produce them in the amounts or formats needed for automotive research. And battery companies aren't always sure that what they're developing could be useful to the automotive industry.

Ford and other automakers all have laboratories where they test batteries for durability and quality, Miller said. But that's happening very late in the battery development process. The new laboratory could ensure that automakers' input is heard earlier.

Electric cars have been slow sellers, making up less than 1% of U.S. auto sales last year. Gas-electric hybrids and plug-in hybrids—which can go further on electricity—sell in larger numbers, but still make up just 3% of sales. That's partly because the batteries in those cars can add thousands of dollars to their price tags. Battery costs are expected to fall over the next decade, as new materials are discovered and production increases. The new laboratory could accelerate that.

"There's a lot of hunger for this," Miller told media last week at Ford's battery research facility near its headquarters in Dearborn. He said the laboratory should be able to start making batteries early next year.

The $8 million center received a $5 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., a public-private agency, and $900,000 from the university. Ford contributed $2.1 million, but Miller said other automakers have already asked about doing research there.

"This is open innovation," said Mark Barteau, a prof. of advanced energy research and director of Michigan's Energy Institute. "I believe that cooperation between university researchers and industry is essential to create advances that have real-world impact."

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