October 21, 2010

Cornell Alumna Helps G.M. Develop Electric Car

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Cornell alumna Nancy Laubenthal ’85, M.S. ’87 is running the battery production plant for General Motors’ new electric car, the Chevy Volt.

GM calls the Volt an “electric vehicle with extended range capability,” and touts it as a huge innovation for electric automobiles.

Since August 2009, Laubenthal has worked to get the plant up and running. She started with an empty warehouse and proceeded to build the operation from scratch.

Laubenthal had to hire a team for this project, and installed required equipment and facilitated the production planning herself. The equipment was set up between September and October, and on Jan. 7, the first battery came off of the line.

Laubenthal has been driving a Volt for three weeks and said she loves it.

“It just feels like a very high tech car,” she said. The dashboard is a digital screen and can be tailored to tell drivers how efficiently they are driving.

Laubenthal attributed her career success to her time at Cornell. “The quality of the education is outstanding,” she said.

Laubenthal said the discipline in learning and in critical thinking she learned at Cornell stayed with her and benefited her in her career and personal life.

After graduating in 1985 with a degree in chemical engineering, Laubenthal joined a predecessor of Cornell’s current co-op program, known as the Manufacturing, Engineering and Productivity Program. As part of this program, Laubenthal interned at GM while still at Cornell. She later incorporated her master’s thesis into her work at GM on paint manufacturing and production.

The principal goal of battery engineers is to increase the battery’s efficiency and decrease its mass. The lithium ion batteries can run 25 to 50 miles on a single charge. According to a GM study, 80 percent of drivers drive less than 40 miles a day, but for those who driver farther, the Volt has a gas-powered electric generator for the “extended range,” adding up to a total of 300 miles.

The first electric car batteries were formidable objects, up to 8 feet long and 1,200 pounds. The Volt’s battery is T-shaped, 5 feet long, 400 pounds and 33 inches wide at the “T” — significantly smaller than previous batteries.

GM is marketing the Chevy Volt as a mass-market global vehicle; the company hopes its success will spread to other countries. Full-scale production is slated to begin by the end of 2010.

“We have a strong commitment to the electrofication of the automobile,” Laubenthal said.

As the manager of the battery plant, she reports to the Board of Directors for the Chevy Volt project. After batteries are produced at the Brownstown Battery Assembly Plant, they are sent 20 miles north to the Hamtramck plant in Detroit, where the batteries are installed in new Volts.

Laubenthal said she was likely chosen to lead this operation because of her management skills, but also due to her technical background. Before being called to run the sole battery-manufacturing plant for the Volt, she managed GM’s paint plants in Europe.

Original Author: Hank Bao