DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- General Motors Co., maker of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid that is the subject of a federal safety probe, is moving to a less volatile battery chemistry for its Chevy Spark electric car going on sale in 2013.
GM is using phosphate-based lithium ion batteries from Waltham, Mass.-based A123 Systems Inc. that are less likely to burn than other lithium chemistry, including that used in the Volt model that went on sale last year, according to the companies. The shift in less than two years highlights how quickly the technology is changing for electric and hybrid cars.
GM and other companies are engineering future models with lithium phosphate technology partly because the batteries can be safer and they last longer, said James Hall, principal of consulting firm 2953 Analytics Inc. in suburban Detroit.
Battery makers weren't ready to mass-produce them in volume until recently.
"Lithium phosphate chemistry looks like it could be more friendly in terms of heat management," Hall said. "But it stores less energy. There is a tremendous amount of new discovery. This is new territory for lithium batteries."
The Volt, which uses different technology, is being investigated by regulators after three batteries caught fire since May following government-run crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's investigation isn't centered on battery cell chemistry, said Randy Fox, a GM spokesman.
The probe is focused on pack design and any fix would likely involve the pack, he said in a telephone interview. He said he didn't know why GM changed chemistry for the Spark.
The automaker announced the deal with A123 in October, four months after the first Volt battery caught fire. Companies like A123 are now able to produce lithium phosphate batteries for cars and bring some of their benefits to market, said Jay Whitacre, assistant professor in materials science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
When GM and Nissan Motor Co. were taking bids for batteries for the Volt and Leaf several years ago, battery makers didn't have proven production for lithium phosphate technology. GM, Nissan and California-based electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc. all chose batteries that use a lithium metal oxide technology.
A123 placed a bid for the Volt's batteries and lost to South Korea's LG Chem Ltd. partly because it didn't have proven manufacturing, said Andy Chu, vice president of marketing for A123. Now the company is ready, and carmakers are moving to lithium phosphate technology, Whitacre said.
In addition to the Spark, Fisker Automotive Inc. will use lithium phosphate batteries for its Karma sports car. BMW is buying lithium phosphate batteries from A123 for its ActiveHybrid 5 and ActiveHybrid 3 models, the first of which goes on sale in March, Chu said.
"Safety isn't the first reason carmakers are selecting it," Whitacre said. "The batteries have a longer life. A123's battery will outlast LG Chem's battery."