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What are we thinking putting all those liquid fuels in our cars? By Peter Bell May 2007

Could developments in energy storage enable the electric motor to overtake the internal combustion engine as being the primary energy conversion technology or are we smoking ****?

Why Electric Drive

Half the cars in the U.S. are driven approximately 25 miles a day which means that a plug-in vehicle with as little as a 20-mile range could reduce US petroleum fuel consumption by over 50%. This 50% reduction is equivalent of 8 million barrels of oil per day and would come close to eliminating the need for the US to import crude oil.

If it is so obvious to use electric cars, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" by filmmaker Chris Paine asks the question why it has taken so long for the Electric Car to dominate the US private transportation market.

The reality is that current electrical energy storage technologies like batteries and capacitors have not had an energy density performance that is anywhere close to that of liquid fuels.

The Pace of Development

This situation is changing rapidly with developments in battery, capacitor and electric motors evolving at such a pace that the electric drive performance is on track for parity with that of the internal combustion engine and liquid fuels.   

Once these electrical technologies start to approach the conversion efficiencies of combustion engines, then the advantages of electric drives are so compelling when compared to liquid fueled drives, that customer adoption will be very rapid. Once performance parity is achieved, it is not hard to envision electric drives overtaking the internal combustion engine as being the primary energy conversion mechanism. 

The advantages of high density electricity storage when compared to the energy storage capability of liquid fuels are dramatic. Once more electricity can be economically stored per kilogram than can be stored in a kilogram of liquid fuel, this technology breakthrough will enable us to start to abandon the internal combustion engine in favor of electric drive.

If we continue at the current pace of innovation, it would not be out of the question to envision a situation where the majority of new cars, boats, scooters etc. were powered by electric motors by the year 2015. 

Even such dreamed of devices as the flying car can actually become a reality. If you take the Moller flying car design as an example, the complexities of using liquid fuel conversion technologies to make the design fly are staggering. The cool thing is that the Moller car does actually fly in a limited form, so with the addition of electric drive, the flying car becomes a distinct possibility.

Rapid Market Adoption of the Electric Vehicle is Possible

The EV (Electric Vehicle) can be adopted very quickly in the US market as there is no infrastructure barrier to its use as every household has access to grid electricity. Every year, approximately 16 million passenger vehicles are sold in the US market, which means that if every new vehicle sold in the US starting in 2008 was electrically powered, by 2018 half of the 280 million cars in America would be electrically powered.

Emerging markets like China and India might even skip the gasoline vehicle technology and go straight to electric vehicles in a similar way that wired telephone network was skipped in favor of wireless phone system.   

Phased Technology Adoption

The adoption of electric drive is likely to go through a series of phases and it is likely that we will see the passenger vehicle market evolve through 3 distinct phases:    

1. Hybrid or Hybrid Retrofit

The pace of roll out of Hybrid Cars has been picking up dramatically over the last 2 years. All the major manufactures have some kind of Hybrid out or coming out. Most of these systems use batteries, but BMW might be giving us an indication of what is possible with Ultra Capacitors when they launch their X5 Hybrid in late 2007. 

Can't wait for the Hybrid version of your favorite vehicle, how about fitting your existing vehicle with a mild Hybrid Kit for Sigma Automotive.

2. Plug in Hybrids

Plug in hybrids represent a first step to liquid fuel independence for the private car owning public. The Toyota Prius came with an "All Electric Button" so the vehicle could be run in an electric only mode and this gave the vehicle an all electric capability, although the range was limited.

Some organizations like CalCars are retro fitting these vehicles with bigger batteries, giving these vehicles have an all electric range of 25 miles before a recharge is required. A number of other hybrid vehicles have been converted with Plug in Hybrid technology following the success of the Prius conversions. These Plug in Hybrid's give a tantalizing glimpse of how close the all electric vehicle is   

3. Electric Vehicles

Tesla Motors and ZAP are due to manufacture electric cars that can out perform their gasoline counter parts. This is just the tip of the ice berg for electric drive, but these vehicles hint at how superior performance is with all electric drive.

In wheel electric drive enables 4 wheel drive at each wheel, traction control, regenerative braking, all from a motor with one moving part. Oil changes and tune ups will be a thing of the past and it will be interesting to watch what happens to the 200,000 gas station in America.

Lithium-Ion Batteries

Tesla Motors have tested their EV (Electric Vehicle) and can get stunning 0-60mph performance and a 200 mile range using a 2.1ah Lithium-Ion battery cell. These results hold out the possibility that we are close to seeing electrical energy storage performance of batteries compare with that of liquid fossil fuels.

Where is the Energy Density Cross Over Point

Lithium-Ion battery technology has lead the way in the portable electronics market with 2.1ah cells in mass production, 2.9ah in production and 3.9ah cells just coming onto the market.

Denso have introduced a Power Control Unit that allows battery voltage to reach 650V and produces the same output as conventional Hybrid Power packs, but at 60% the volume of existing PCU's and will be used in the Lexus LS600h and the Lexus LS600hL.

Maybe we have already crossed the energy density point...

Is a Future Free of Liquid Fuel on the Horizon? 

All this development holds out the tantalizing prospect of a future that is fossil fuel free is coming over the horizon and into view. This prospect offers the potential that we might look back in 20 years and say "what where we thinking putting all those liquid fuels in our cars, were we suicidal?"  

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