Fuller and his videographer brother Kirk, driving coast-to-coast in an electric car with internal-combustion backup, was something of a leap of faith. They faced swathes of America in which there exist no power stations to plug in their Volt and recharge the juice in the vehicle’s 288-cell, 16-kilowatt hour battery pack. Right now, 48 of 50 states, according to Car and Driver, have fewer than ten such stations each. This left Brian and Kirk using the Volt’s cute backup 83-hp internal combustion engine a lot more than they might have preferred. Indeed, after the switch from battery (range 35 miles) to gasoline power (an additional 300-odd miles), the Volt averages around 30 miles per gallon. This isn’t bad but, compared to, say, a 1972 Honda Civic, it’s embarrassing.
When I heard about Brian’s “Drive for Innovation” experiment, I found myself focusing not on the current Chevy Volt’s limitations but on the surprising speed of its development. When I first read about Volt prototypes less than two years ago, I understood that an operating, affordable consumer Volt was still far, far away. It wouldn’t hit the market, in any substantial volume, within the decade.
That prediction was over-cautious. Today, there are enough Volts on the road —along with competitors like Nissan’s Leaf, various hybrids and an electric Ford Focus due out in limited production next year — that it might be safe to suggest that the electric car is here to stay.
Advancing the cause is the federal government’s commitment to R&D in power storage technology, batteries in particular. It started with a $69-billion clean-energy package and the revival of General Motors (creator of the Volt). There’s a $7,500 tax credit to purchasers of electric cars, and the Obama administration has invested in battery development throughout America’s 20 National Laboratories. In the current issue of Washington Monthly, Eric D. Isaacs, director of the Argonne National Laboratory, notes that his team pioneered the technology in the 2011 Volt battery, which was licensed for manufacture by Korean chemical giant LG Chem.
Perhaps the most encouraging facet of the Volt and its overly large, short-range, too-expensive ($10,000) lithium-ion battery pack is Isaacs’ lament that researchers have until now failed miserably in producing an air-cathode battery. If this technology could be conquered, it would multiply tenfold the storage capacity of long-life batteries — from Volt’s 35-mile range to 350 miles.
Isaacs limns the R&D problem: “But first, we have to discover a way to make a battery that ‘breathes in’ oxygen from the air to discharge electricity, then ‘breathes out’ again to recharge. Then we have to convert those discoveries into battery systems that can be affordably mass produced, we have to put these technologies into cars that consumers want to buy, and we have to do it all before our international competitors catch up.”
This tall order shrinks in the light of one glowing, indisputable reality. The United States, over the years, has proven better at accomplishing this sort of grand technological leap than anyone else on earth. For a century, we have been the world’s engineers.
Articles like this will show up from time to time and they always leave me wanting: can we do anything anymore without the "blessings" of governement? (That's sarcasm if you couldn't detect it.) Ahh, but then I am heartened when I see the propaganda getting cut to pieces by some of the responders. Shame on the editors for printing it in the first place, though.
This article talks about "the moment when the price of the current generation of batteries slips below the price of oil" -- which makes no sense. To state the obvious, purchasing a battery is a one-time event, like purchasing a gas tank is... gasoline, on the other hand, is purchased on a regular basis when you have to refill your tank, like electricity is purchased on a regular basis when you have to recharge your battery. The two are not comparable quantities, and the author seems confused about this. (The appropriate comparison would be between the cost of electricity and the cost of gasoline).
Isaac Asimov proposed a nuclear battery decades ago - an interesting idea to pursue that's been used in space.
Also, whatever materials the batteries will use, will create a new material wealthy and material poor, since humanity keeps using ground surface area ownership.
Using batteries for power regulation has some interest, but is also highly problematic.
The energy charge/discharge efficiency you would get from a battery is pretty bad - probably less than pump storage etc. - and a huge improvement would be needed to make that viable.
As you correctly state, most nuke stations like to run big base loads and don't like to be turned on and off.
Fast load changes is one of the claimed benefits of LFTR reactors - amongst all the other benefits (much improved safety, much cheaper fuel, better fuel usage, significantly reduced waste, etc etc).
What I really don't understand is why the industry doesn't get more involved with LFTR. If only half the promises pan out it is a way better technology than Uranium.
Burning CNG directly in cars is quite feasible and happens in many countries.
Your workmate's example is interesting but just cannot be replicated in suffieint quantity to make any real difference. Making PV with current technology needs too much power which is a severe limit to PV production.
As Bert alluded to, while bigger / better batteries will have some benefits - they would do very little to directly reduce fossil fuel usage. The USA power grid averages are 48% COAL powered, 18% Natural Gas. In other words - 2/3 of USA electric power today is still coming from fossil fuels (just different ones than oil). Furthermore, the conversion efficiency from these fuels to electricity is only about the same as today's more efficient cars. FACT: EV's do NOT save net energy or significantly reduce fossil fuel usage, nor reduce CO2 emissions much! In the future, power plants will get more efficient and cleaner...but the core issue remains that we need to get both the power grid AND vehicles off of fossil fuels ASAP.
Like it or not, some type of nuclear power is probably the ONLY technology currently ready to be deployed at the scale needed. Solar and Wind power is great - but to deploy these to a fraction of greater than, say, 25% of the grid (~3% today) it will require huge energy storage for levelling and 365/24/7 power availability. THIS is the main need for large batteries...not cars.
IMO, the best solution for vehicles is to create a renewable fuel to burn, which can utilize existing infastructure (gas stations, etc.) and run in today's cars, without EV's difficult trade-offs. Biofuels or solar synthesized fuels would fill the bill long-term. In the SHORT-term, we could take the first step away from oil by running cars on CNG and Coal-derived synfuels.
A workmate of mine has a Volt and charges it via solar panels. The output of the panels approx. equals his commute requirements. Pretty Green! However, economically it doesn't make sense - $30K would buy a lot of gas! His PV investment will break-even in ~20+ years from the fuel savings. Bigger car batteries would not change this picture.
I'm not sure it's valid to say we have enough power now, especially during peak demand hours. Extrapolate today's handful of EVs to tens of millions of EVs nationwide, and explain how rolling blackouts would never occur even if a large percentage of those EVs were being charged simultaneously. Additional electric generation facilities will be needed before EVs ever supersede petroleum-powered vehicles.
That additional generation capacity could come from LFTRs, but that is going to be a difficult sell to the public, who will still regard these new LFTRs as a nuclear power plant -- which in fact they are -- and it's quite a PR nightmare to explain how going green with EVs also means going nuclear (but this is a GOOD nuclear!) with the new capacity additions to our power grid.
Although the Lithium-Air battery is regarded by most as the holy grail of battery technology, I have not read anywhere that researchers are close to making this work.
There are other chemistries that are almost as promising. Near term a 3x performance gain is likely by Planar Energy and several researchers have developed anodes with silicon, graphene or algae that are 10x more energy dense, but to make these work one needs a corresponding breakthrough in the cathode. Only high energy cathode I know of is Dr. Nazar's lithium-sulfur design, but this is incompatible with the above.
Even a 3x improvement will be a big deal.
Charging infrastructure is not a big deal, there is plenty of power distributed almost everywhere and installing the required charging stations is relatively trivial.
Power source is however a major concern as coal is extremely polluting and current nuclear has a radio-active waste problem. Solar is just too expensive. There is a solution available, the LFTR. Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors run on cheap, plentiful thorium, have no long term radio-active waste problem, and are inherently safe. See flibe-energy.com
We have enough power now, but a large part of it comes from ancient coal plants that are due for retirement. We need to replace these with LFTRs, not new coal or natural gas generating stations.
Enthusiasm aside, the new batteries will have a large impact. We are seeing them work in power tools. At some point, they will make power tools and other machines "cordless." A battery powered table saw is potentially more powerful than a corded one. The battery provides high peak power, and the saw operates at a low duty cycle in terms of cutting time.
The Volt has two effects. One is it lowers transportation cost. My car costs $0.13/mile. If it was a plug-in hybrid, it would be $0.04/mile on electricity. Even at a 40 mile range (my one-way distance to work), I could cut my weekly fuel bill in half.
The same economics can eventually apply even for the big semi trucks - just bigger batteries. The batteries can convert the truck into the equivalent of an electric train.
Second, the Volt and the Leaf will drive battery costs down and availability up by creating a volume market for big, cheap, light batteries. Whether the US leads this effort is moot: the high performance market is developing nicely, and the products will be used.
The comments about how we still have to burn oil/gas, etc to charge the batteries is also a matter of degree. An automobile gas engine has ~20% thermodynamic efficiency. A diesel has ~35%. New, natural gas fired power plants have efficiencies of 50-60$. Electric power has the possibility of requiring less oil/gas to do the same work, even after taking into account transmission losses and battery efficiencies.
The current Li-Ion batteries are ~5X lead-acid and ~2X NiCad in kW hours/lb. Lab work indicates a potential improvement of another 2X+ in power density. So there is room for on-going improvement in theory and economic practice.
Even without fearless forecasting, the future is looking pretty good for portable power.
It would help if EET, a magazine about electrical and electronic engineering, could at least do basic technological proof-reading. The author pines for an advanced fuel-cell technology we do not have yet (not at a practical price and power density), but this is not a "battery," except to the extent that its chemical stoichiometry are broadly defined by half-cell equations; the bulk equations for any chemical system which produces electricity simply because charge and atoms are conserved.
The physics of these systems should be of relevant concern to readers who are engineers; we should understand something about the real problems and constraints, rather than just engaging in "America can invent anything" techno-jingoism.
The major problems of both batteries and fuel-cells are remarkably similar though: critical problems of catalysis (at the electrodes), and long-term stability of these catalysts; problem of mass transport which affect power density. For costs to be reasonable catalysts must be found which don't depend on platinum-group metals, and yet can have useful lifetimes before "poisoning" side reactions disable them. There is no reason to assume that such catalysts exist ... although there's good reason to hope that they do, good reason to invest the research and trial and error to try to find them.
Join our online Radio Show on Friday 11th July starting at 2:00pm Eastern, when EETimes editor of all things fun and interesting, Max Maxfield, and embedded systems expert, Jack Ganssle, will debate as to just what is, and is not, and embedded system.