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Electric and hybrid vehicles encounter bump in the road with reliance on lithium

While hybrids and other electric-powered vehicles are beginning to gain some traction with consumers—especially as gas prices top $4 per gallon—widespread adoption is still years away, say most auto analysts.

“Electric vehicles are not going to be there for another 10 years due to many factors,” says Tracy Schneiter, a vice president for automotive analysts IRN Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.

It starts with consumer acceptance. So far, the hybrid vehicle’s increased fuel efficiency is not sufficient for most consumers to justify its high price tag. When federal incentives to purchase hybrids expired, their sales dropped through the floor, Schneiter says.

Even for those environmentally-conscious individuals willing to invest in the various forms of electric vehicles, the absence of the necessary support structure remains an issue. In a report on electric vehicle deployment rates, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research says infrastructure, such as public charging stations, will be an important factor influencing adoption of electric vehicles.

Adoption of electric vehicles is likely to occur on a state-by-state or city-by-city basis, with electric-vehicle-ready communities targeted first by the automakers, experts say. According to CAR, when selecting markets for deployment of electric vehicles, Ford “considered past hybrid purchasing trends, utility company collaboration and commitment to electrification by local governments.”

Even if communities, the carmakers and the public are willing to embrace electric or hybrid-type engines, there remain obstacles to full deployment. At the March Steel Business Briefing Steel Markets North America Conference in Chicago, analyst Chuck Bradford noted that one key element of the electric car, the lithium used for batteries, shares a trait with the petroleum the U.S. is trying to wean itself from. “I’m concerned with where we’re going to get the lithium for all these lithium batteries,” said Bradford, president of Bradford Research Inc. in New York. “The lithium mined in the U.S. is chemical grade. Most of the lithium comes from China, Chile and Argentina. The big question is how many electric cars we can make with the limited supply of lithium.”

Ron Krupitzer, vice president of automotive applications for the Washington, D.C.-based American Iron and Steel Institute, says the steel industry is trying to stay ahead of the curve on any new engine technology. The association’s Future Steels program is studying the variety of hybrid technologies with an eye toward where steel best fits. “We’re trying to evaluate the best use of steels in these configurations,” Krupitzer says. “Many times, even the current vehicles are adapting existing platforms originally designed for internal combustion engines. We want to take a clean sheet of paper and design the best package of steel for these particular power trains.”


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