Global automakers have two battery choices for their electric vehicles – lithium-ion or nickel metal hydride

  As the auto industry race twists and turns over which metal to use in electric cars, the first lithium-powered sports car has hit the streets of Europe.

Start-up Tesla Motors opened a London showroom late last month to coincide with the European launch of its lithium-ion powered sports car – a first of its kind.

The Tesla electric roadster uses lithium-ion batteries from Japanese suppliers but is mainly built in the east of Britain.

“Governments in the United States, UK and European Union are supporting the electric initiative heavily,” said London store co-ordinator Audra Oliver. “Tesla has just received $465 million in low interest loans from the U.S. Department of Energy to accelerate the production of affordable all electric vehicles.”

On Monday Nissan said it will invest more than $328.6 million in a new UK plant to build lithium-ion batteries for electric cars.

Demand for lithium-ion batteries, used in mobile phones, digital cameras and laptop PCs, is set to rise but as global automakers explore plans for mass-electric car production.

But lithium’s road to glory could be far from easy.

Nissan’s investment came less than a week after Toyota said it will produce its first European-built hybrid car in Britain from 2010.

Toyota, the world’s biggest car maker, began using and securing supplies for its nickel metal hydride vehicles over a decade ago.

“Nickel hybrids are just more common at the moment but they don’t have the same power density as lithium batteries,” said Carl Firman, analyst at Virtual Metals. “Nickel technology has been around longer … lithium has its own issues with over-heating.”

“Ultimately, lithium is probably the future of the battery industry,” he added.

The amount of lithium used in vehicles varies depending on the technology, but a plug-in electric hybrid may contain 15-20 kg of lithium and typical eight-cell laptop battery is made out of about 5 grams of lithium.

And despite doubts about lithium costs and reliability, the auto industry sees potential in such a light, energy-efficient metal, with demand predicted to compete with other battery metals such as lead, nickel and cobalt.

“Hydrogen alternatives are proving to not really come to fruition and the U.S. government has decided to cut funding,” said Tesla’s Oliver.

Tesla declined to comment over how much lithium is used in each car.

The Tesla roadster costs $4.93-$6.57 to fully charge, which takes over three hours, and has a range of 200 miles.

Owners can charge the vehicle, available for some time in the U.S., at home or at specific recharging points in any city.

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