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Fisker at CES: A $130,000 electric sedan and a radical new battery technology

Fisker at CES: A $130,000 electric sedan and a radical new battery technology
Henrik Fisker's latest creation, the EMotion, will go on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas starting Tuesday. (Fisker)

Henrik Fisker, the Los Angeles car designer and automobile entrepreneur, is best known for his long, flowing, smoothly muscular creations, from the BMW Z8 to the Aston-Martin V8 Vantage to the Fisker Karma.

His own companies have achieved less success than he'd like. His previous electric-car company, Fisker Automotive, went bust in 2013.

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Now he's trying again, under the name Fisker Inc., with a sexy new car to go on sale in in 2019 and an advanced battery technology he claims will accelerate displacement of the internal combustion engine with all-electric cars.

"We're very close to maxing out what is possible" with existing electric-car battery technology, Fisker told The Times.

A prototype of his all-electric EMotion supercar goes on display Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Gawkers will immediately be attracted to the $130,000 sport-sculpted sedan with doors that rise like butterfly wings.

Anyone who cares about the future of electric cars, though, will turn their gaze to something else at the Fisker display: a tiny working prototype of Fisker's new "solid-state" battery — which, if it works at scale, could deliver dramatic increases in range and performance.

For more than 25 years, batteries that power laptops, smartphones and electric cars and trucks have been based on lithium-ion technology. Those batteries contain liquid chemicals that connect positive and negative electrodes. Like gasoline, the liquids are prone to overheating, explosion and fire if not properly contained.

Solid-state batteries replace the volatile liquid with thin, solid material that won't catch fire. That would allow denser packaging, and far more power and range. The technology works in theory. But scaling it up for industrial use and making it affordable to manufacture are the roadblocks.

Fisker said he expects the new battery in five years. Meantime, the EMotion and its successors, if there are any, will run on the same kind of lithium ion batteries that power almost every late-model electric car in the world.

The timetable for switching to the new technology sounds aggressive to some experts.

"People always say, it's going to be ready in five years," said Steve LeVine, an Atlantic Council fellow at Georgetown University and author of "Powerhouse," a book on lithium-ion batteries. "The floor is littered with people claiming things in the battery space."

It's not just start-ups that are pursuing advanced batteries. In December, Toyota said it will have solid-state car batteries ready before 2023. BMW, 2026. Honda, Nissan and Volkswagen are working on solid-state batteries, and most point to the mid 2020s for their debut.

"They're all working on it," said Gerbrand Ceder, professor of materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley. He said he's more positive about solid state than any other approach to improved batteries, he said. "Solid-state batteries will happen."

But, he said, "it's not going to happen as fast as people think."

The biggest issue will be manufacturing costs, Ceder said. Solid-state batteries will hit the auto industry after they're taken up in smartphones and other consumer electronics, because they can be built in smaller sizes for that industry, which enjoys high profit margins.

Unexpected breakthroughs are always possible. LeVine may be skeptical, but he's not giving Fisker a total brush-off. That's because of the scientist heading up Fisker's battery program, Fabio Albano.

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Battery research is a small world where major players are familiar with one another's work. "Albano is a credible figure. He's a real player," LeVine said. "He's levelheaded. He's not a hypster."

Most researchers use a thin, 2-D film to separate the positive and negative electrodes. Fisker is taking a 3-D approach, stacking thin layers, creating more surface area for even tighter density and concentrated power.

The EMotion will drive up to 400 miles with current battery technology. With the denser and safer 3-D solid-state battery, that range could be extended beyond 500 miles, at a lower cost, the company claims.

"We're looking at half the price of" current batteries, Fisker said. "Actually, much less than half."

Fisker Automotive, an earlier Fisker company and maker of the serial hybrid Fisker Karma, crashed in 2013 because the advanced-technology batteries in the car were failing. The battery supplier, A123, went bankrupt, and only about 2,000 Karmas were produced before Fisker Automotive's assets, along with A123, were rolled up and sold to auto parts conglomerate Wanxiang Group. That Chinese company now is making the Karma Revero out of a factory in Moreno Valley.

Fisker isn't talking about his financial sources, or the new company's cash requirements. He is being only slightly less secretive about its technology. In November the company filed patents under a "non-publication request." Patents filed by Albano before he joined Fisker offer some hints at his approach.

"People claim a lot of stuff with batteries," said Ceder, of UC Berkeley. "They make these claims and raise money, and history proves (the tactic) works."

The EMotion is one of several independent high-end electric car projects created in the wake of Tesla's success with the Model S in 2012.

Martin Eberhard, Tesla's original founder, is chief scientist at SF Motors in Santa Clara. The company, a subsidiary of China's Chongqing Sokon Industry Group, says it is developing a "new generation of smart, clean, connected electric vehicles."

Lucid Motors, based in Newark, Calif., not far from Tesla's Fremont assembly plant, plans to put the Lucid Air on the market in early 2020. Financed by Silicon Valley venture capital and money from Chinese investors, Lucid is seeking a new round of funding. The company is widely rumored to be seeking a buyer, perhaps a major automaker.

Faraday Future, with headquarters in Gardena, is struggling to build its technology-laden electric car. Its primary financier, Chinese entrepreneur Jia Yueting, is in financial trouble.

Believed to be living in or around Los Angeles, he's thus far refused orders from Chinese securities officials to return home and settle debts held weighing down the internet conglomerate he founded, Leshi Internet Information & Technology. He claimed last month to have found an additional $1 billion to inject into the company, but offered no detail and has been silent since.

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Meanwhile, more established players move forward. Tesla has begun shipping its new Model 3, albeit in small numbers. Jaguar plans to introduce a compact all-electric SUV by the middle of the year. And Porsche said its all-electric sports car, the Mission E, is set for launch in early 2019.

Twitter: @russ1mitchell

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