Science, News & Critical Thinking.

Cars are changing. Looking for the next big energy.

Green Car

The automobile is without a doubt one of the single biggest advances in human history. It’s changed the way we socialize, work, travel. It has allowed us to build a world unimaginable 200 years ago. This way of life has all been due to the once abundant supply of oil.

So it is without a doubt a scary scenario when the expansive ( albeit short ) period of modern civilization hits not only a road bump in energy consumption but also a wake-up call to the continuous pollutants being released into our air by that same energy.

To fix this, auto manufacturers and really most of the world are trying to come up with the next great energy that will at least equal that of oil. Arguments to hydrogen, solar and battery technologies have been made. In this article I’ll look at the overall state of the current battery technology powering our cars and what it may hold for the future.

Battery technology seems to be a major push by automakers. A number of makers are investing big money in coming out with replacements. GM’s battery only Volt series is expected to be released in 2010 to much fanfare.

The main car on the road today however are hybrids. In general these cars run on the principal of using both gasoline and electricity to power the car. It’s a car with the best of both worlds. Should you need short city driving, the rows of batteries in your car will kick in. Should you need to go faster (freeways) or long distances, the cars gas supply will kick in.  The other benefit the car has is battery recharging while driving in the city. While braking, the wheels, turned by the car’s momentum, power the electric motor and generate electricity, which helps to recharge the batteries. This is known as regenerative braking and is essential for long use before recharging.

So what’s the state of battery technology? Can or will it be able to take us longer distance than just the corner store. Unfortunately not yet. The following is a couple of the battery examples and the benefits :

Lead Acid – These are the grand daddies of batteries and still exist in most cars. Unfortunately this technology is way too big and is mostly used for starting gas-guzzlers and powering your radio and
lights.  Not the answer.

Nickel Metal Hydride ( NiMH) – These are what’s in most of the Hybrid cars out there today. Memory effect ( the ability for a battery to retain charge ) is decent  although can be finicky in the recharging and discharging cycle. Still it’s a good solution for most hybrids.

Lithium ion – Great memory effect, jump in energy efficiency and density from nickel based batteries. Some probability for explosion ( only a few per million…nothing serious ).

Lithium iron phosphate – This is a spin on Li-ion of course. The advantages to this technology  is it’s less likely to explode (always a good thing) and can discharge and recharge quickly. The drawback to it is it’s very expensive to make.

So if these solutions take up so much room and weigh so much, why are they worth it? And if we’re still dependent on gasoline have we really solved the solution? To be honest, we’ve never faced a crisis like
this before. The world is coming to the end of Mr. Hubbert’s peak oil observations.  So perhaps the answer is yes, it is worth it. Were we to wait until the last second we would truly be in a pickle.

Although I mentioned that there are constant emerging technologies for powering our vehicles, we are already looking at ways to accommodate the current alternative energy. Infrastructure will be the key to
keeping these systems alive.  As it stands now there are 14,000 gas stations in Canada. These stations came to be because of a need for gasoline transportation. We need to look at alternative stations to meet the various needs of tomorrow. In the case of recharging car batteries there are some challenges that need to be met. Gasoline vehicles can be refueled and on their way in the matter of minutes while in stark contrast to that most electric vehicles need in the vicinity of 8-10 hours.

Progress is being made on charging cars faster. A Dutch startup company by the name of Epyon uses circuitry design, smart software and an energy storage medium and supercapacitors to produce a 10 minute charge. It has been described as an intelligent system that analyzes each battery cell (instead of the entire battery) and determines how much charge each cell needs.

Another solution that has been mentioned is the exchange station. In this situation a car would pull into a station and have the custom removable battery exchanged with a fresh pack within minutes. It has
been suggested it could run on the same rental system as a cell phone in that you would rent the battery and be charged depending on the amount you drive.

These are 2 of the many possibilities to come. For all we know cars could be run on much more efficient forms of solar power and all this technology could be moot. But the point is we are trying to change.
Let’s hope we do before it’s too late.