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India on the cusp of a battery-powered revolution
Sunday August 11, 2013 8:18 PM, Prasanto K. Roy, IANS

This week, the usually staid TIME magazine got poetic with this headline: "EV Market Gets Another Jolt, $5k Price Cut on Chevy Volt". It was just another bit of excitement in a stream of stories from the global electric car market, a stream that totally passed India by.

Chevrolet's Volt hybrid had been stagnating. But the new model's $35,000 base price, down $5,000, should change that - and shake up the US car market a bit more. With tax credits, the Volt sedan is down to $27,500, or about Rs.17,00,000.

This is not the story of an American car's pricetag. It's the story of the last frontier for mobility - from transportation, to mobile phones, tablets and laptops.

That frontier is, of course, the battery.

The battery is the reason we don't have more electric cars on the road. Or why we don't have any electric airplanes. Why our smartphones don't last a day on a charge. Why we don't all have James Bond style wristwatch phones. The battery isn't good enough, and it's not keeping pace with power demands of smartphones, or cars.

Things began to change in 2012, with power-packed lithium batteries.

Even before that, the iPad led the way with an eight-hour battery life, a big reason for its success. The 2013 MacBooks sport similar life on a charge - including the super-slim Air.

Back to electric cars. The big stories of 2013 owe their success to the lithium-ion battery. The Nissan Leaf all-electric hatch packs into a 275 kg battery more power (24 AH) and range than the 600 kg lead-acid battery did in GM's 1997 EV1, and the Leaf costs half of what the EV1 did, after adjusting for inflation.

Tesla's Model S, the "world's first premium electric sedan", is a full-size sports sedan whose electric motor pumps out 420 horsepower, and the battery pack gives it an impressive range of over 420 km. It hits 210 kph, going from 0 to 100 kph in 4.5 seconds.

In May this year, the Swiss "Solar Impulse" set a new record for an electric aeroplane, flying 1,500 km on solar power alone. With the wingspan of a 747, the carbon-fibre-body aircraft weighs little more than a sedan, and uses four 10 hp electric motors, driven by solar cells and lithium batteries.

Meanwhile, everyone complains about their smartphone batteries. I have to agree with them. In the past three months I've used half a dozen new phones, including the iPhone 5, the HTC One, and BlackBerry's three new BB10 models - and they all struggle to make it through a day of charge when running apps like FaceBook.

The bigger struggle is for phone designers: powering bigger displays, always-on data-hungry apps, rich media, in slimmer bodies and batteries.

But we're seeing a turning point, with lithium batteries gradually making practical cars, one aircraft, and all-day-charge tablets and laptops.

We're on the cusp of a battery-powered revolution. Even though India's totally missed the bus on electric vehicles and hybrid cars, 2014 will be exciting.

(Prasanto K. Roy (@prasanto on Twitter) is a technology writer)

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