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While there are many hot topics in today’s evolving automotive industry, few seem more immediate than the move away from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs). Tesla has bet big on an EV approach (with most automakers following suit) and regulations around the world are mandating EVs in a relatively near timeframe. Is this the “happily ever after” end of the story? Hardly.
A small problem is about to get big
Gasoline-burning vehicles seemed like a quick fix in the twentieth century, but they also changed the world in all kinds of unexpected ways – from the geopolitics of oil to the repercussions of climate change. Similarly, EVs won’t magically solve the world’s problems.
EVs represent the first major step away from our reliance on fossil fuels and will do a lot of good by limiting our most urgent problem of global warming, particularly when combined with the decarbonization of electricity generation. However, they have their own problems such as the mining, processing, and disposing of lithium, cobalt, and other critical metals used in their batteries – especially when scaled to millions of vehicles globally. We could be replacing a complex problem with an equally complex solution.
ZEV: your future car
If you scratch below the surface, what’s happening in transportation isn’t just about EVs but a wholesale transition to zero emission vehicles (ZEVs); today’s EVs are just the forerunner. The workhorse Li-ion battery is undergoing revolutionary research even as it’s rolling off the assembly line, innovative new batteries with amazingly different properties are in the works, and a whole host of alternative power-storage and generation technologies are on the horizon.
Here’s a look at some of the up and coming zero-emission technology alternatives that hold the keys to the next generation of vehicles and maybe even your future car. Download the infographic.
Hydrogen fuel cells
Automakers like Toyota are working to find a solution through hydrogen fuel cells, electrochemical power generators that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity with water as a by-product. This has great potential for obvious reasons. One big drawback however is that the environmental impact and energy efficiency of hydrogen depends on how it is produced. Distribution and delivery are hugely problematic too. This may not come to fruition anytime soon.
Solar panel vehicle roofs are a relatively new phenomenon that use renewable energy to add charge to a vehicle’s battery. A few years ago, SolarReviews did the math on how many solar panels we’d need to charge an EV. Turns out the answer is 250 square feet of solar panels on a south-facing roof with an optimum tilt of 30 degrees. That has not deterred automakers including Karma, Hyundai, and Toyota, which offer hybrid vehicles with embedded solar cells that create some amount of electricity. Aptera Motors, a California start-up, is also defying the odds with a mass-produced solar-powered ZEV slated to roll off the assembly line this year. (It may look like the Batmobile but it also looks legit.) We certainly have a long way to go before solar-powered cars flood our streets but we’re obviously on the road to improving the technology so that it may soon be available more widely.
A team of researchers have created a supercapacitor film that could replace the need for a battery altogether within the next five years. This supercapacitor consists of two layers of graphene with an electrolyte layer in the middle. The film is strong, exceedingly thin, and has a charging time of just a few minutes, compared to several hours for a standard electric car battery. And while Li-ion batteries take up considerable room, this supercapacitor film is integrated into various areas of the vehicle – body panels, roof, doors, etc – giving the vehicle the energy it needs while making it much lighter. The one drawback is that so far, we’ve been unable to make it commercially, but many believe we’ll get there.
Living cells, such as bacteria, can process chemicals and generate energy. Can this energy be harnessed? It turns out, it can. Although efficiency is currently low (30-40% instead of 80% for chemical alternatives), the proof of concept shows that it can be done. Most advantages to microbial batteries are around the environmental benefits – they easily decompose, and the substance that they rely on to generate energy (acetate) also decomposes without hazardous by-products. Bacteria, if fed properly, also reproduce themselves, no mining necessary. The prototype system requires a long charge time before releasing its energy, which is a disadvantage, but makes it a good potential companion to store energy from solar panels. Still a lot of work is needed to pull this off in commercialized quantities needed for EV application.
Cobalt-free lithium batteries
Lithium isn’t the only metal in Li-ion batteries. They also contain a good amount of cobalt within the cathode, which is not only relatively rare and in demand in many other industries but generally comes from countries with a poor track record of human rights or requires intrusive mining operations. Removing cobalt from batteries has a triple benefit – it preserves Earth’s resources, helps reduce abusive worker conditions, and reduces the cost of the battery – and replacements being investigated include manganese, nickel, iron, and aluminum. One challenge faced however is thermal regulation. In other words, these new batteries can get hot, and nobody wants their EV starting a fire overnight in their garage. Tesla, Panasonic, and many others are hunting the cobalt-free battery, so expect these challenges to get solved relatively soon.
Remember when bytes had to be stored on spinning magnetized platters? When the computer industry converted computer storage to solid state flash chips, it not only reduced weight, but it made storage more stable and reliable, and dramatically increased capacity per volume. A similar set of benefits is expected by moving batteries from little liquid chemical bottles to chips. Solid state batteries can be more efficiently charged, more easily packaged, and will be incredibly safe. They exist in production for small applications now (like RFID tags, pacemakers, and wearables) and could be a game changer for EVs as they would remove huge amounts of weight from the vehicle, improving range. Just as important, charging time would be significantly cut so there’s less time waiting at the electric “pump”. Although solid state batteries are currently expensive, a number of startups are researching how to best adapt the technology for EVs, some like QuantumScape and Solid Power saying they’re only a couple years from production, and Toyota is betting big with major investments and doing prototype road trials. Expect them to be here soon.
What’s the end game?
EVs provide a host of benefits as we switch away from petroleum-based transportation. But smaller, more powerful, more environmentally friendly batteries and alternative mobile power generation technologies may be the ones that rewrite and reimagine our entire society. With so much of our lives dependent on cheap, plentiful, and mobile power, the real arms race is in developing the next generation.
Keep your eyes open because ZEVs are coming to a street near you.Download