November 30, 2006 10:40 AM PST

Revving up for the all-electric SUV

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Altair makes the nanoparticles in Reno, Nev., and then ships them to Asia for packaging into battery cells. The cells then return to the U.S. and get assembled into batteries in a facility in Anderson, Ind.

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Changing the anode material does reduce the ultimate performance of the batteries. In a notebook, an Altair-like battery might only give a user a four-hour charge, versus a six-hour charge with a high performance lithium battery, said Gotcher.

But the Altair-style battery will store more energy than a conventional car battery, which explains why the car manufacturers are intrigued and the notebook manufacturers are less so.

Plug-ins going mainstream

Major manufacturers are also now key players in the electric car market. General Motors Chief Executive Rick Wagoner, speaking at the opening of the Los Angeles Auto Show, said plug-in hybrid technology is a "top priority" for his company. The company is working on a plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn Vue sport-utility vehicle, although he didn't say when such a vehicle would be available commercially. It's not quite the same as an all-out electric: a plug-in has a gas and electric motor, but the electric motor can be charged from a wall plug.

Also at the auto show, GM will show off a pair of current-generation hybrids: the Saturn Aura and the Yukon sport-utility vehicle. And a host of manufacturers, including GM, BMW AG, Honda and Nissan, will demonstrate hydrogen-powered vehicles.

That still leaves the problem of charging the cars. So where does the quick charger come from? Neither Phoenix nor Altair will say. A company called GreenIt says it will build rapid-charging stations for electric cars.

Phoenix will only produce around 500 cars in 2007, but hopes to expand production to more than 6,000 in 2008. It will primarily sell cars to fleet purchasers, i.e. government agencies and companies with large groups of outside representatives. Some government agencies are already buying up plug-in hybrids, which are close to electric cars.

The two companies demonstrated Phoenix prototypes at trade shows this year. In April, it will show off a model at a taxi trade show in New York; the taxi commission there has set out goals to reduce fuel consumption.

"Their battery removes a lot of problems with lithium-ion batteries," said Bryon Bliss, vice president of sales at Phoenix.

Additionally, the company is getting a lot of interest from consumers, and it may start selling to them in two years or so. At $45,000, the truck will cost significantly more than your average $20,000 pickup. Nonetheless, a full charge that will carry a driver 100 miles or so only costs about $3.

Trucks and SUVs get typically 12 to 24 miles per gallon and few expect gas prices to plummet anytime soon.

Electric cars have another advantage, Bliss said. The parts don't burn out as fast. The Altair battery has a lifetime expectancy of about 12 years, longer than the 4- to 5-year life of conventional car batteries. Electric motors also eliminate a lot of moving and breaking parts.

"With our vehicles, there is no maintenance," said Bliss.

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