14 November 2012

Powering Tomorrow’s Electric Vehicles

Better battery technology and widespread proliferation of recharging infrastructure are needed for EVs to finally take off

The changes opposing widespread adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) are immense. These range from pricing – with EVs costing as much as a conventional vehicles to both buy and run – to safety concerns, and the fact that most EVs are significantly smaller in size than their fossil-fueled counterparts. However, at the heart of today’s glut in EV interest is their limited driving range and a shortage of recharging infrastructure.

Present-day EVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which limit their range to approximately 100 miles. In order for this to be extended ­the size of a battery must too increase significantly, which in turn increases the vehicle’s weight. As a result of their limited range, EVs are simply viewed as impractical for today’s commuter.

Likewise, recharging infrastructure is problematic for EV manufactures, utility companies, city planners and EV owners. Many years ago it was assumed that EVs will be charged over night by their owners using electricity from their homes.

In the US and in Europe, this concept remains viable. Yet, in other parts of the world many car owners do not use or own a driveway, nor do they have an allocated parking place where they can leave their vehicles over night. Hence, facilitation of this concept is somewhat limited worldwide. Furthermore, in the event that drivers wish to charge their vehicles at work or at a public parking lot, questions remain as to who pays for this and how such systems are implemented.

Utility companies are also faced with the dilemma of from where the extra electricity will come from in order to charge these vehicles during the day, when demand is high and the risks of blackouts are greater.

Both battery longevity and underdeveloped infrastructure thus remain large concerns for those wanting to see widespread use of EVs.

Lithium-air battery technology

Scientists in California may have discovered the perfect solution to the lack of mileage currently experienced by lithium-ion batteries.

Launched in 2009 by IBM, and featuring technology developed by Japan’s Asahi Kasei and Central Glass, scientists have been working on the Battery 500 Project.

The aim of this project is to develop a battery capable of powering a family-sized EV for distances of around 500 miles on a single charge.The proposed technology uses lithium, an energy-dense highly flammable metal, and forces it to react with oxygen that is supplied from air. The result of this is an energy density that is 10-times that of lithium-ion batteries.

The scientists also claim this technology to be on par with the energy resulting from oil-based fuel combustion, although many from the scientific community remain skeptical.

“It remains to be seen whether the lithium-air battery can actually work,” claimed Gao Xinwen, a researcher from China’s Institute of Automation in an exclusive interview with Asia Resources Magazine.

“The EV market has witnessed lots of theories in recent years – in both Asia and in the US – but, to date, very few have been market movers,” said Gao.

“Even if they [the US scientists] were able to make this technology work, EV manufacturers and urban planners then need to construct the necessary infrastructure needed to fully supports this. Yet, many of today’s planners argue this sequence of events should happen the other way around. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario,” claims Gao.

Infrastructure

The introduction of widespread charging stations, in a similar fashion to those of petrol forecourts, is one such viable to facilitating EV charging.

However, to build these, particularly in counties as sparse as China, India and Indonesia will take several decades to complete. And, they will require significant upfront investment from utility companies.

“It is going to cost utility providers and governments billions of dollars to construct, as many of the former in Asia are state-owned-enterprises,” claims Gao.

He continued, “Some countries are already preparing the way for the switch from conventionally powered vehicles to EVs. Singapore is one of them and will have over 60 charging stations by the end of 2013. China will house as many by then, but they will only be situated in the nation’s major cities.”

“A further problem for nations such as China is from where the extra energy required to power EVs will originate. Utility providers are developing alternative and extra sources of energy – such as from solar or wind energy – but the ability to store this extra energy is lacking and there aren’t many proven solutions that accommodate this,” said Gao.

“Just how do power companies plan to cope with this increase in demand during the day? No one really knows, which is why EV integration has become the hottest topics among utility companies, globally,” claims Gao.

Allan Schurr, IBM’s Vice President of Strategy and Development for Energy and Utilities, agrees. “In the last six months, e-mobility [EV infrastructure] has become one of the most common topics when we meet with power companies,” said Schurr.

“Every time we have a meeting with a utility client, they want to talk about this topic, even if it wasn’t on the agenda,” claims Schurr.

Schurr believes a multi-stakeholder collaborative approach to EV integration, which involves public amenities and places or work, will be critical to its success.

“[EV integration] will require synchronisation of different parties, including parking lot operators, train station companies, local governments, universities, hotels, hospitals, employers. I can go down the list where people park their cars for many hours at a time. Those are the places that also need to provide EV charging.”

Government action is probably the only means by which a robust EV infrastructure can be facilitated – a view put forth by many, including Gao.

“Ultimately, it will be Asia’s governments that enable EV infrastructure. They can supply the necessary funding, pool together all stakeholders and make sure that all parties play their part in its development,” claimed Gao.

“Without 100% government backing and robust long-term planning – and, bearing in mind that this could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars over time – any such plans will prove futile. Asian governments must take the lead,” said Gao.

For the average Asian citizen, EVs remain a vehicle of the future, rather than a plausible solution to today’s pollution, climate change and traffic congestion issues. Therefore, interest in EVs remains low.

Not only does the EV market require the likes of IBM, Asahi Kasei and Central Glass to make models more competitive in terms of mileage, EV manufacturers also need to make their products cheaper, safer and larger in order to mitigate public skepticism.

A robust charging infrastructure must also be developed region-wide. However, this must be supplied by governments, as oppose to the region’s energy utility players.

Governments, therefore, are the enablers of EVs. And, in being so, they must educate their citizens as to the many benefits EVs bring in order to achieve public buy-in.

Copyright © 2012 Resources Magazine

Technology, Thought leadership