The Age of the Electric Car
By Tom Whipple
It is time for some good news. In recent weeks there has been a spate of announcements about plans to develop electric cars and much better batteries to power them. Although few new models will be ready for sale in a couple of years, by the end of 2007 there should be many technology-proving prototypes driving around. This in turn should give us better insight into how soon electric vehicle technologies might become available and whether there will be limitations such as prohibitively high cost, inadequate performance, or shortages of specialized raw materials that might prevent their widespread adoption.
The current round of announcements started out with General Motors presenting its prototype "Volt" on January 7 at the Detroit auto show. The concept car is interesting in that it’s not only a plug-in electric with a 40 mile electricity-only range, but that it also carries along a small gas generator to recharge the battery after the initial "plug-in" charge is used up.
The motor-generator would someday come in versions capable of running on different liquid fossil fuels — gasoline, diesel, ethanol— and GM is talking about the car achieving 50 miles per gallon while running in the gasoline powered battery-recharge mode. Such a car would use zero gasoline at typical commuter and around town ranges and would be capable of 60-70 mpg or more for longer commutes.
The Ford "Airstream" that starts the day as a "Volt"-like a plug-in electric car soon joined the GM prototype. The Ford then shifts to a fuel cell to recharge the batteries for longer trips. This has the advantage of never needing fossil fuel, but has a downside of needing to find a source of hard-to-handle hydrogen. Ford spokesmen conceded that the fuel cell could be replaced by some sort to efficient motor-generator set should the cost of fuel cells and the availability of hydrogen be a show-stopper.
We now get to the critical part of the new technologies, which is the battery. Needless to say, the prototype "Volt" as yet does not have a battery that will perform to advertised specifications, but all is not lost. The white-hot technology in Detroit at the minute is the advanced car battery. These devices will be capable of storing enough electricity to give the coming generation of plug-in cars sufficient range and power to make them acceptable as substitutes for internal combustion cars while consuming little or no gasoline.
As part of its unveiling of the "Volt," GM announced that it is satisfied that the technology to power plug-in cars already exists at the individual cell level and working prototypes of car-powering scale batteries should be available before the end of the year.
There have been so many dramatic announcements recently in the formerly mundane world of batteries that it is hard to know where to begin. So far the new developments seem to fall in into three general categories: advanced lithium-ion batteries, of which at least a dozen different types are under development; a carbon foam battery that still uses traditional lead-acid chemical reactions, but is made from light-weight foam and promises major improvements in performance; and finally, the holy grail of electricity storage, an ultra-capacitor, that would be capable of holding large quantities of electricity in the form of a massive static charge— no time-consuming chemical reactions needed.
Of the three, the lithium ion battery is the furthest along. GM has already let contracts with a pair of consortiums to develop existing lithium-ion cells into battery packs suitable for powering cars. Numerous Japanese, European, and probably Chinese manufactures are working on similar projects with some saying they will have electric automobiles ready for sale in two or three years.
There is nothing wrong with an electric powered car. They should easily be able to provide satisfactory performance for a post peak oil world. Except for brakes and tires, maintenance should be non-existent for the life of the car, a phenomenon that does not excite manufacturers and their network of dealers.
Until recently, the main drawback to the electric car is the six or more hours it would take to recharge traditional batteries in order to go another 40 miles or so. However, at least one US, and several Japanese companies, say they have developed lithium-ion batteries that are capable of being recharged to 80 or 90 percent of capacity in 10 minutes or so. If this indeed turns out to be the case "plug-ins" combined with lots of recharging stations just might someday get along without fossil fuel boosts.
Currently, the advanced lithium-ion battery is basking in the manufacturers' hype. However, some are already questioning whether there is enough inexpensively obtained lithium in the world to make batteries for hundreds of millions of cars. Should this be the case, then perhaps the carbon foam battery, while not quite up to advanced lithium-ion batteries in performance, may end up as the inexpensive battery technology of choice.
Finally we have the ultra capacitor, which a secretive little company down in Texas claims to have developed and will soon release to the world. Capacitors are not batteries in the common sense, but are devices that are capable of holding static electric charges. They have been around for a century in all forms of electronic equipment, but were only capable of holding tiny amounts of electricity by car-powering or house-running standards.
If the little company in Texas is to be believed, all this is about to change, for they claim to have invented a way to store large amounts of high voltage electricity, initially 17 kilowatt hours, in a compact device. Although this technology has yet to be subjected to independent verification, the company says its device will have a specific energy of about 280 watt hours per kilogram, compared with around 120 watt hours per kilogram for lithium-ion and 32 watt hours per kilogram for lead-acid gel batteries.
If all this turns out to be true, we will have a technology that will be right up there with the electric light bulb and the transistor. Such a device would be invaluable for storing intermittent wind, wave, and photovoltaic produced energy. It would open up a whole new era.
Because of the silver-bullet potential of the device and the company's refusal to divulge details of its ongoing development, many specialists in capacitors simply refuse to believe. At any rate, the company is talking of delivering a product to the world later this year. Standby!
Be it a Ford, a Chevy, or an Asian econobox, 2007 just might turn out to be the birth year for practical electric cars.