Escalating fuel prices and concern over greenhouse gas emissions are pushing auto manufacturers to usher in a new generation of alternative fuel vehicles, either electricity or hydrogen.

The latest endeavor—to design the first mass-produced electric car with lithium-ion batteries—may have green cars on the road sooner than expected.

“If you want zero-emission cars, it’s the only way to go, said Louis Diemert, computer technician for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s College of Liberal Arts, of the electric car, which has been on hiatus since the General Motors EV1 of the late 1990s.

The EV1, manufactured from 1996-1999 and available only for lease, was taken off the streets by GM in 2002, citing lack of consumer interest. But GM is again trying its hand at the electric car with the Chevrolet Volt, set for availability in dealerships in 2010. With a projected price running up to $40,000, the car will run on a lithium-ion battery, with a small gasoline engine to charge the battery once it’s exhausted its 40-mile charge range.

Other companies have also joined the race, with the San Diego-based company Coda Automotive pledging to release its electric sedan by 2010, while Silicon Valley’s Tesla Motors plans to produce its own electric sedan, the Model S, by 2011.

Tesla motors has already released the Roadster, an all-electric sports car that’s been available since summer 2009. The price, however, runs more than $100,000 thus making it still financially inaccessible to the average American.

Is the electric car the vehicle of the future? Theodore Kozman, Ph.D., of UL Lafayette’s Engineering and Technology Management Program, voiced uncertainty about the electric car and the price of repairing its expensive machinery.

“I worry not on the battery so much, but on the reliability,” said Kozman, who worked several years in Detroit before entering academia. “A significant amount of weight in these vehicles is battery storage. What happens when you have to replace 1,000 pounds worth of batteries? How much is that going to cost?”

“The automobile industry has a long way to go,” agreed Daniel Amire, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. “If their goal is to better the environment and produce a reliable car, then they have a lot of improvements to make.”

With more than 200 lithium-ion cells in one 400-pound battery, lithium-ion batteries are some of the most energetic, rechargeable batteries on the market, and it seemingly makes sense for the automobile industry to further develop them. However, they have drawbacks that would hold them back if they were introduced on the market at this time, including the high price and the charging time.

“The Real problem with these batteries is the charging time,” said Diemert. “And the question that needs to be answered is how to make batteries charge fast enough. While lithium ion holds more charge, it still takes a while to recharge the battery. The ‘breakthrough’ battery will be the one that can be recharged in minutes as opposed to hours.”

As for the price tag: “As they make more lithium-ion batteries, hopefully we will see the price go down,” said Kozman. “The occurrence of that idea is probably one of the only ways this option could be affordable to average consumers.”

Diemert, however, added another cost-related factor to consider.

“The demand for raw materials, such as lithium, could keep the price up,” he said. “Since this material is used in so many batteries already today, you could actually see the cost of the batteries rise, perhaps to the point that it may no longer be cost-efficient.”

Another potential problem is the reliability of obtaining the necessary lithium, according to Robert Buckman, Ph.D., associate professor of mass communication and author of a reference book on Latin America.

“A lot of people don’t realize that just over half the world’s reserves of lithium are in Bolivia,” he explained. “Bolivia is one of the most unstable countries in the hemisphere. President Evo Morales is a close ally of (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chávez, and is not exactly friendly to the United States. He expelled the U.S. ambassador last fall, in fact. If he decides to, he could embargo lithium exports to the U.S. It’s the same old problem of relying on hostile or unstable foreign sources for our energy.”

Still another alternative fuel vehicle engineers are looking to is the hydrogen vehicle, but it doesn’t yet hold a place in the immediate future.

In May, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu called for eliminating the $100 million in his budget devoted to hydrogen technology, asserting that hydrogen vehicles are still years from practicality.

Diemert noted a downside with a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle as well.

“You’ll have a fuel cell that makes hydrogen and oxygen, which makes water, and in the process, creates energy,” he said. “But now you’ve got a problem, because now you’ve got water, and water vapor’s a greenhouse gas. You can’t just release it into the air.”

Amire agreed that despite all the drawbacks, lithium-ion batteries are still preferable to hydrogen.

“In my opinion, it’s at least a better opinion than hydrogen-powered cars,” he said. “It’s hard to tell what can happen when you have hydrogen under pressure in a moving object.”

“I personally don’t know if we’ll ever do what needs to be done with batteries along, but looking at more options will always lead to discoveries along the way,” predicted Kozman.

Thus, the pressure remains on automakers to create a cost-efficient, low-emissions vehicle to please budgeting families and environmentalists alike, and though a majority of the brainstorming is happening in Detroit and California, a new American car company is bringing Louisiana into the game as well.

Gov. Bobby Jindal announced in June that San Diego-based V-Vehicle Co. has chosen Monroe as the first site for its new manufacturing facility, which will produce a “high-quality, environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient car for the U.S. market,” according to a news release by Louisiana Economic Development.

No specific details about the vehicle’s design have been released, but Tom Matano, the esteemed creator of the Mazda Miata, will spearhead the design team. Production hiring is scheduled to begin in summer 2010.

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