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Lead, the Unpopular Metal, Finds a Friend in Electric Car

AMONG the biggest cheerleaders for high-tech electric cars are some of the most low-tech companies.

Take lead. The industry harbors fond hopes that the electric car will use lead acid batteries - lots of them. The average American car carries one battery containing 18 to 24 pounds of lead. An electric car might carry a couple dozen.

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``The electric car is one [market] that has high immediate potential,'' says Jerome Smith, executive director of the Lead Industries Association in New York. ``We believe it's coming.''

The success of electric-powered transportation would boost lead sales somewhat. More importantly, it might buff the image of a metal that has become unpopular.

``Lead is a terribly unfashionable metal these days,'' says Stephen Briggs, a senior analyst of Metals and Minerals Research Services, a consulting firm based in Bath, England. ``People just don't want lead. They don't want to be associated with it.''

Since the 1970s, the United States has banned the metal from most paints. Oil refiners have phased it out as a gasoline additive. Even mining companies are avoiding zinc mines that include lead deposits, Mr. Briggs says, because they are worried about the associated environmental problems.

Hence, the lead industry is eager to embrace a clean, cutting-edge technology such as electric cars. When members of Congress this year tried to enact a lead tax to pay for the removal of lead-based paint in older housing, it was the lead acid battery companies that stepped forward to oppose it.

``Why should the battery industry pay for what the paint industry did?'' asks Sanjay Deshpande, general manager of the new business unit of GNB Battery Technologies in Lombard, Ill. ``[Electric vehicles] can create a lot of new jobs.''

Interest in electric cars is high because California has set tough zero emission regulations that will take effect in 1998. The state will require that 2 percent of major automakers' sales there be essentially pollution-free. The only technology capable of doing that is the electric car. And the only low-cost technology capable of powering these cars is the lead acid battery.

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Although heavy, these batteries have many advantages over newer, lighter power storage technologies emerging from laboratories. Lead acid batteries are available in commercial quantities. Auto designers have decades of experience with them. (A French physicist, Gaston Plante, devised the first lead acid battery in 1859.) And they are cheap.

GNB, for example, sells a specialized electric-vehicle battery for $125 per kilowatt hour. Nickel-metal-hydride batteries, a leading contender to replace lead acid batteries in electric vehicles, are already commercially available for notebook computers. But they cost roughly $4,700 for the equivalent of 1 kilowatt hour, Dr. Deshpande calculates.

Since an electric car requires 25 to 30 kilowatt hours of power, it could cost up to $140,000 to equip an electric car with nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Even if prices fell 90 percent, they would still be nearly four times as high as their lead acid equivalents.

Thus, several electric-car and battery officials believe lead acid technology will still be the preferred power source for electric vehicles when the California regulations take effect in 1998.

But it's not clear whether electric-car sales will give the lead industry a major boost. Even if half the states adopt California's mandate, and new car sales reach 12 million, the extra lead needed for batteries in 1998 will be no more than 34,000 tons - or about 2 percent of annual US consumption, Briggs says.

By 2003, when California requires a higher percentage of zero emission cars, other technologies are expected to eclipse lead acid batteries.

Though optimistic about the near-term lead market, Briggs says even a jump in use won't bring prices near what they were 20 years ago when adjusted for inflation. ``Nobody wants the stuff,'' he adds.

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