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Changing the game of electric vehicles

2009.03.23 — Business | Cars | Energy | by Derek Jensen

Tesla charge port

Tesla Roadster charging port. [source]

There is a revolution afoot for electric vehicles. Check that. There is a revolution afoot for passenger vehicles. If the technology plays out as it promises to over the next few years, there will be a paradigm shift in the automotive world not seen since the invention of the electric starter motor. How fitting, actually.

Thruout this article, I use the Tesla Roadster as a yardstick. Here are the specs on its battery pack: 6,831 lithium-ion cells store about 50 kWh of energy, weighs 990 pounds (450 kg).

Better energy storage

The first link in this chain is improvements in energy storage technology. The lithium-ion laptop batteries that power the Tesla Roadster electric sports car (and soon-to-be sedan) give it a 200-mile range but take five hours to recharge, even with the special fast-charger device (your house wiring isn't robust enough to deliver the power all that fast). That's much better than traditional lead-acid batteries that power the Prius and electric wheelchairs but still a far cry from the 500-mile, 3-minute refuel ability of a gasoline-powered car.

The new Coleman FlashCell cordless screwdriver uses an ultracapacitor that recharges completely in less than 90 seconds. While the energy storage density isn't as good as a lithium-ion battery, this fast recharge time (compared to around 4 hours for conventional cordless batteries) is a spectacular improvement. Plus, the ultracapacitor doesn't wear out like a battery does. Honda is working on a car-sized ultracapacitor as a supplement to its FCX fuel cell stack and Maxwell has shipped 720 large ultracapacitors to a Chinese diesel-electric hybrid bus manufacturer, so the concept clearly scales up.

But recent developments in capacitors suggest that their shortcomings can be overcome. In 2007, startup EEStor announced a new type of capacitor that can hold far more energy than existing capacitors. Those claims have yet to be fully demonstrated in a prototype, but if it's for real, it's lightning in a jar. It would mean getting 400 miles on a charge and recharging in 10 minutes from a special high-voltage charger.

Nearly as good—and perhaps more certain—new research into lithium-based batteries has produced what is apparently a breakthru there: a reconfiguration of the battery's structure that makes it much faster at charging and discharging. That would give the Tesla a range of 200 miles and a recharge time of 18 minutes with a high-voltage charger.

UDATE 4/15/2009: Toshiba says it's producing lithium-titanate batteries that store 50% more energy per pound and can charge in minutes.

Also promising is a lithium nanowire battery claimed by a Stanford University researcher to hold ten times the amount of energy held in a standard lithium-ion battery. That would give the Tesla a range of 2000 miles (or a smaller battery with smaller size, weight, and cost)—albeit with a charging time of 40(!) hours with a high-voltage charger. With huge-range batteries, the pack could be modular, so you could remove most of it to reduce weight and improve performance (the Tesla's pack weighs nearly 1000 pounds) for your short daily commute, then reinstall it just for that long holiday trip.

If any of these technologies pan out, it will be a game changer.

Even if the fuel cells are expensive (a part of why the Tesla Roadster costs $100 grand), as long as they are recyclable (as lithium-ion batteries are today) or—better still—can simply be reused in the repairs market, then the extra cost will be retained in the value of the car at trade-in time. That $500 clunker of today would be instead be worth $5500 just because the battery has plenty of life left in it.

And even if the battery/capacitor technologies don't fully live up to their promise, a mixed solution might combine a 500-mile battery that recharges overnight with a capacitor that gets you 40 miles and recharges in five minutes. But it's also possible that these technologies will be compatible, and a combination could produce a genuinely cheap electric car that still gets 500 miles on a 5-minute charge, just like your gas-powered car.

Recharging stations

Up to now, even tho electricity is ubiquitous in Western society, electric vehicles have been been in a state of "water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink." You always had to wait to recharge until you got back home, so long trips were out of the question.

A few people have promoted the notion that refueling stations could be created that would swap batteries for you, so a fully-charged one is always waiting. But this is an impossible dream. It would require refueling stations to keep numerous standardized batteries on-hand to handle the many, many cars that go in an out every few hours. If it takes 4 hours to recharge a battery, and 100 cars come and go from a station every 4 hours, every single station would need to have 100 batteries and 100 chargers constantly working. It's ridiculous.

But with cars that recharge in a few minutes, all that changes. Not only do you not need a refueling station to keep dozens of fresh batteries on hand, you don't even need a refueling station. Gas stations are the way they are because they need to have giant hazardous-material-filled tanks buried in the ground under them. But electricity is everywhere.

Instead, all you need is an unmanned kiosk like a pop machine or an ATM. Spend $10 grand on a refueling kiosk and put it in your parking lot, connected to a high-voltage electrical line (and a phone line to validate credit cards) and charge $8 for a refill. At 200 miles per charge, that's less than half the cost of gasoline and about $3 of it profit. The customer can sit inside the car, out of the weather, so it doesn't even need a roof to cover it.

Suddenly, every McDonald's, 7-11, and Wal-Mart becomes a fuel station. As long as you've got a few minutes to wait, why not get a Big Mac or a Big Gulp or a big-screen TV? Unlike refueling with gasoline, you don't need to stand there staring dumbly at the pump, and you don't need an attendant to work all night. The recharger is available 24-7, with only occasional attention from a service technician.

With today's Tesla Roadster, you'll want to buy the fast charger (for thousands of dollars) for your garage to save yourself time. But with super-fast charging and recharging stations everywhere, you probably wouldn't bother with the trouble and expense. Just have the 220-volt current from your laundry room and kitchen piped to your garage and slow-charge your car overnight. Then, if you need a full charge fast, stop off at a charging kiosk on your way. And most people being able to top off overnight at home means we would need far fewer public chargers than gas stations, making the infrastructure costs rather cheap indeed.

Power grid give back

President Obama, who is enthusiastic about alternative energy and electric cars, mentioned on The Tonight Show the idea of using electric vehicles as a kind of giant electricity storage network for wind and solar power. When power is made during periods when demand is low, it can be stored in cars that happen to be plugged in (via smart charger devices). Then when usage spikes in the middle of the day, some of that power can be taken back by the grid from whatever cars are plugged in then. This evens out the hills and troughs of supply and demand to make power generation and power consumption nice and steady.

With fuel cells that charge and discharge in minutes instead of hours, this idea suddenly becomes an obvious winner. Even if you hopped in your car and found that the grid management system had just used a portion of its charge to supply energy to the grid, you could press a button to indicate that you intend to use the car soon, and it would top off fully in a few minutes (since it's probably only down to about 90% charge), and you'd be good to go.

Death of the gasoline engine

All this would serve to make the electric car, with its cleaner, quieter, more reliable drive train, the obvious choice of new car buyers. And the gasoline engine would no longer be necessary at all. Cars that use it would linger only in private collections and would quickly seem quaintly overcomplicated, dirty, and noisy.

And since your car no longer needs that bulky gasoline engine and gas tank, its shape can change. A powerful electric motor is only about the size of a watermelon. It could be hidden under the dashboard, where the transmission used to be. The battery or capacitor powering it will probably be bigger than the gas tank it replaced, but also more flexible in its shape. It could be built flat and wide and be hidden between the floor pan and the interior floor. Suddenly, your car could have two big storage spaces in the crumple zones at the front and back of the vehicle.

Other games

These changes would affect other vehicles and devices too: big trucks would become diesel-electric hybrids; golf carts and scooters would run for many hours and recharge in a minute. Imagine cell phones, laptops, cordless power tools, and even full-size vacuum cleaners with long work life and that only have to be set on a charger for a few seconds or minutes to be ready to go again.

Devices yet undreamed of will become practical because batteries will be able to sustain them long enough to be useful. How about a cordless lamp with an LED bulb that burns for days before needing a couple of minutes to recharge? A cordless, portable, high-definition television with wireless connection to a hi-def media server? A cordless electric lawn mower or chainsaw or mini-refrigerator?

That's the world that will come to be in the next few years.

And if you think, as the hosts of Top Gear do, that hydrogen-powered electric vehicles like the FCX Clarity will be the next step, keep in mind that hydrogen has to be made and delivered to fuel stations just like gasoline and is most cheaply made from natural gas. Implementing that infrastructure would be enormously expensive: every gas station would have to have another giant tank of hazardous liquid buried underground and frequently refilled. The same argument can be made against ethanol, methanol, and such.

Compressed natural gas (CNG) would be cheaper at the pump and easier to implement the infrastructure for because it's already piped from the American South thruout the Midwest. But we would still be burning a fossil fuel and a pricey one, albeit a cleaner one than gasoline.

Electricity, altho currently made mostly from coal, can be made more and more cleanly with clean coal, hydroelectric, wind, solar, and tide power. It's cheaper than gasoline per mile and only going to get cleaner and more renewable, and the infrastructure is already here; all that's lacking are the roadside "pumps." So if fast-charging batteries become real, pure electric vehicles blow away the other alternatives as easily as they blow away gasoline.

 

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