Impressions from Plug-In 2011

July 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Plug-In 2011 was held in Raleigh, NC, the first time ever outside California.  The attendance was just short of last year’s at San Jose.  The Public Night drew 1,300 folks, on par with the San Jose event.  So, the experiment may be deemed a success.  Next year:  Texas.  They will have tough shoes to fill.

On balance, the programming was a good mix of depth and breadth.  The competitive spirit between Nissan and Chevy was something short of collegial.  This was disappointing for a forum such as this.  At this stage, with just two entrants, the task is to get the public enthused about the genre.  The Volt and the Leaf have dramatic differences that allow choice.  Leave it at that.

One speaker made the observation that young girls were particularly enthused about electric vehicles.  This is interesting because cars and trucks used to be the domain of little boys.  When the observation was made from the floor that soon girls would be playing with zinc die cast cars, Chelsea Sexton wryly raised her hand from the podium.  OK, so Chelsea, unmistakably of the female gender, was one such, but we all know that she is unique!  The trend, if verified, holds the promise of another breach in the science and mathematics wall that young women face in today’s society.

Batteries will be the difference:  A prediction was made by a speaker that battery costs could drop to $200 per kWh by 2018.  This is in keeping with our own view.  A scant two years ago this figure was believed to be around $950.  A recent report from the UK offers evidence for Nissan batteries costing about $375.  The report cites GM, Ford and Toyota, all being bearish about numbers below $500.  Admittedly several factors are in play for this seemingly steep drop to date.  Mass production inevitably dropped the cost.  Further, Nissan, in partnership with battery giant NEC since 2007, could well have made breakthroughs in manufacturing.  This is all to the good because battery cost and performance will be the key driver for electric vehicle uptake.

Cost aside, the key attributes of batteries in play are range, energy density (size for a particular range), speed of charging and discharge characteristics as linked to ultimate life.  Depending on how these play out, the choice between hybrids such as the Volt and all-electrics such as the Leaf will be impacted.  Take speed of charging.  If a 22 kWh top up could be accomplished in say 20 minutes, Range Anxiety gets a dose of Valium.  This is because 22 kWh will give you about a 100 miles and one could envision “refueling” stations in sufficient number to allow longer drives.  Lest this sound like wishful thinking, know that at least two outfits are working on improving the lithium iron phosphate cathode to accept a blindingly fast charge rate.  If this came to pass, the comfort of the gasoline backup in the Volt could be less of a factor.  In fact, the 40 mile electric-only feature begins to look puny in terms of low cost emission free range.

An improvement in energy density helps both types of vehicles, but likely more the all-electric.  Presently the all-electric is advantaged in weight because it loses a lot of heavy equipment such as the internal combustion engine, transmission, gear box and so forth.  But the larger battery adds significant weight.  Energy density improvements will help, although the temptation may be to give more range for the same weight and volume.

Motors could be the difference:  Not in the same way as batteries, advances in motors could nevertheless have a material impact.  Shown at the conference were in-wheel motors.  Fitting in any 18 inch wheel, these allow elimination of the differential and could provide very precise four wheel drive capability.

Most of the motors today use permanent magnets with the Rare Earth elements Neodymium and Dysprosium in it.  In fact, the Prius has up to 25 pounds of Rare Earth elements.  Neodymium in particular is a problem because the price has quadrupled in the last year.  Substitute elements are being sought for the magnets.  But an entirely different avenue is to eliminate the use through the use of induction motors.  Nicola Tesla invented this back in 1888.  For proper functioning, it requires precise computer aided controls.  Only recently has it been rendered truly functional and economical.  The Tesla Roadster has one such and several companies including BMW are planning on having one.  Aside from non-reliance on Rare Earth elements, no permanent magnet means no need to cool the unit (permanent magnets do not function well at higher temperatures). This type of motor may not need a gear box, as is the case in the Tesla.

Plug-In 2011 exuded optimism.  All data to date, including consumer feedback, appears to justify it.

Electric Car Drivers may need Training Wheels

May 4, 2009 § 1 Comment

Training wheels are a wonderful invention to aid the tot with two wheel transport anxiety.  More often than not the anxiety resides with the parents, but regardless of source, the wheels get installed.  Now, in purely engineering terms, the extra wheels are pedestrian in design.  Clearly intended for the short term, they are not of particularly robust construction, because not much use is anticipated.  The added cost is modest when compared with that of the bicycle.  Yet, the comfort to the psyche is enormous.  Now, all of this really only applies to the munchkins.  Were you to learn to ride a two wheeler at an advanced age, as was I at age 11, the training wheel option is essentially out.  Even if available, the derision of the cohort group would not be sustainable.  So, what does all of this have to do with electric cars?

Electric cars will come in two flavors:  all electric (EV’s) and hybrid electric (PHEV’s), both with the ability to conveniently plug into wall outlets and both utilizing the energy of braking to charge a battery.  Both will use electricity alone to drive the wheels, so there will be an essential simplicity to the mechanics: no transmission, no gear box, no cam shafts and minimal mechanical maintenance.  The essential difference between the two will be the auxiliary gasoline engine in the hybrid electric, that will charge the batteries if they run down.  The all electric will not have this back up feature.  So, it will rely solely on batteries for range.  The early entry vehicles will have an electric range of 40 miles for PHEV’s and 80 to 100 miles for EV’s, not counting boutique cars such as the Tesla.  One can reasonably expect the EV numbers to double within a few years, provided advances are made in battery technology to provide more capacity in the same volume.

The car buying public will face a choice.  Since the EV, when mass produced, could be expected to be cheaper to make, despite the bigger battery, the list price will be lower than that of a PHEV, with one manufacturer expected to offer it at a price comparable to the gasoline counterpart.  The PHEV on the other hand, while more expensive, will have the much greater range afforded by the gasoline back up.  The “fuel” costs will be comparable when run on electricity.  The key difference will be a new term that has entered the transport lexicon: Range Anxiety.  We can roughly define this as the fear of running out of juice without a convenient fill up station.  The PHEV Chevy Volt’s electric range of 40 miles is based on studies indicating this as serving commute needs of 75% of Americans.  A full tank of gasoline extends that range another 600 miles.  The initial entry EV’s will have ranges of 80 to 100 miles and charging times of less than half an hour to six hours for a full charge, depending on the sophistication of the charging equipment.  Home charging, at least initially, will be at the higher ends on time.  Early deployment will be in cities that will install some measure of distributed charging infrastructure.  Battery swap business models are in play, wherein charging stations plan to exchange a fully charged battery for a depleted one.

In the end, the buying public will have some fraction afflicted with Range Anxiety.  This is where PHEV’s play the role of training wheels.  With such a vehicle consumers have the luxury of sorting out their driving habits, their discipline in charging every night, and all other manner of behavior impinging upon their ability to live with the range of an EV, at all times secure in the notion that the gasoline engine can bail them out.  There will also be a segment of the population eschewing this aid to behavior modification, in effect wobbling on to the bike, as your truly did some decades ago.  A skirmish with a thorny bush sticks, as it were, in the memory.  Thorny situations will undoubtedly lie in wait for the first time EV-ers.  And then again, perhaps PHEV’s will always have a place.  Choice is a good thing, in cars, colas and presidential elections.

Can North Carolina be a domestic source for lithium for electric vehicle batteries?

February 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Making transport fuel fungible with electricity offers options to net importers of oil such as the US.  As a state, North Carolina is in the unenviable position of importing all of its fuel from other states.  While biofuel will undoubtedly play a role in reducing this import, electrifying the fleet offers another avenue.  The primary mission of electric vehicles(EV’s) would be the reduction or elimination of tail pipe emissions, the notoriously most difficult site for carbon dioxide capture, although a secondary one may be to act as a storage medium for the grid.  The FRDM program, led by NC State University, targets creating all elements of a Smart Grid, which would be a key vehicle in grid optimization.  So, North Carolina is already well placed to take a lead in electrifying the passenger vehicle fleet.

EV’s such as GM’s Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV), the Volt, scheduled to be marketed in 2010, are intended to be charged in conventional electrical outlets, with a gasoline engine for charging the batteries if needed to go beyond the nominal range, 40 miles in the case of the Volt.  Pure EV’s, running solely on electricity, such as one scheduled by Nissan for limited entry in 2010, are also likely to be part of the equation.  If such vehicles are to become a substantial portion of the passenger vehicle fleet, several economic hurdles will have to be crossed, some possibly needing subsidies.  The principal of these is the expected higher cost of the vehicle (pure EV’s, because of their simplicity of design, will be somewhat lower in cost than PHEV’s), driven largely by the cost of the battery.  Research to reduce cost and increase range is ongoing in this and other countries, and the current administration has announced the intent to significantly fund this endeavor as part of the Stimulus Package.

Batteries: The Lithium Ion battery is the clear leader in this field and many believe it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  Other manner of sophistication, such as augmentation with super capacitors for short  bursts of power, is expected to reduce the load on the batteries.  However, the current unit costs are high, although high volume throughput has not yet been in place.  One can expect the costs to come down over time.  A point of note is that while the technology is domestic in many cases, all battery manufacture is currently in other low labor cost countries.  However, as in the case of foreign designed cars, domestic manufacture may become feasible.  Location of such capability in North Carolina would go hand in hand with any decision to make North Carolina a primary launch state for electric vehicles.

Lithium: A more pernicious issue is the sourcing of the critical commodity, Lithium.  World reserves are considerable, but the majority of these are in Latin America, including some countries such as Bolivia who are not in close alignment with the US.  There is the risk of trading foreign dependency of one commodity for another.  Unlike the battery manufacturing situation, a mineral is uniquely situated, as in the case oil.  North America does have sizeable reserves of lithium ore, in the form of spodumene, an oxide, but with current technology the processing costs are high when compared to the cost of processing the brine based deposits in other countries.  The vast majority of spodumene reserves in this country are in North Carolina, in an area northwest of Charlotte.

Call for Action: The technology for spodumene processing deemed non economic is at least half a century old.  Hints exist in the literature for more innovative methods.  In the national interest a research program should be instituted to investigate the possibility of economic recovery of Lithium from oxide ore.  RTEC has commenced a scoping exercise in this area, currently involving a literature search, but a fully fledged investigation will require State or Federal funding.

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