If there’s one major failing in electric cars, it’s their batteries. They recharge in hours, and who, really, wants that? The standard battery used is not the normal lead acid battery used in automobiles, but the more rechargeable lithium-ion battery as is typically used in laptops, cellphones, etc. But let’s face it, even though the lithium-ion battery is fine for your portable electronics, it’s too slow to recharge for automotive use. Because of this, researchers are looking at some new options:
Option 1 – Hydrogen Fuel Cells:
The hydrogen fuel cell is in a lot of ways like a battery. The essential purpose is to get out electricity. However, where as batteries essentially trap electricity in a complex chemical balance that always leaves the battery physically full of the same amount of chemicals, a fuel cell basically breaks down its chemicals as fuel, growing more and more physically empty as it produces electricity. Typically the chemicals / fuel used in a fuel cell is hydrogen, although theoretically other fuels could be used to produce electricity as well. And as the hydrogen depletes and turns into electricity, it also creates a waste product: water. While creating water is by no means harmful, and might work just fine in a car, it’s a little harder to imagine this being a useful concept in laptops or cellphones.
The distinct advantage of the hydrogen fuel cell in automobiles is one simple thing: rechargeability. Where the typical battery takes hours to recharge, to “recharge” a fuel cell takes mere seconds. All that you do to recharge a fuel cell is literally just top off its fuel. Fill the hydrogen fuel cell with more hydrogen, and it’s good to go another couple hundred miles, just like topping a regular car off with gas. It’s a concept that automobile drivers know and understand quite well. So it’s no wonder that this is a much preferred method to plugging in a car and waiting for hours.
But hydrogen comes at a cost. That cost is, you have to produce it. The “cleanest” method of producing hydrogen is from water, using electricity to break water into its components: hydrogen and oxygen. Okay, so as long as your electricity comes from something nice and clean like solar, hydroelectric, or geothermal you’re clean. But if that electricity comes from something less than stellar, like coal, it can in fact make your nice “green” hydrogen so very not green.
Then there’s the other method of hydrogen production that green-lovers don’t like to mention: from hydrocarbons. Instead of using electrolysis to create hydrogen from water, you generate it from natural gas, releasing the dreaded CO2 – carbon dioxide – in the process. With about an 80% efficiency.
There’s also a theoretical third method to produce hydrogen which has yet to be proven effective in large quantities, which is using algae to produce hydrogen. By depriving certain algae of sulfur, it changes their normal photosynthesis process from producing oxygen into producing hydrogen. While nifty and about as green as you can get, it unfortunately is a very tricky process to do in anything larger than a test tube. So, as of yet, isn’t really an option.
And if the means of producing hydrogen weren’t questionable enough as a means of fighting the evils of pollution and CO2 greenhouse gasses, there’s also the question of how to get it to the “gas station”. Like any fuel, to transport it is to reduce its efficiency because you have to burn fuel to get the fuel to the consumer. So transporting hydrogen makes it less green. The other option is to eliminate transport overhead by producing the hydrogen on-site … which would typically require a significant boost to any fueling station’s electrical backbone to handle the electrolysis of converting water into hydrogen. It’s quite possible to do, and economically feasible if the world all one day drives hydrogen vehicles, but is financially costly while hydrogen vehicles are rarely used. And, the bigger question would be, if we can expand the electrical systems of gas stations everywhere with higher amperage to produce hydrogen on-site, then why can’t we just expand the electrical systems the exact same way to recharge cars in minutes instead of hours, thereby completely negating the whole purpose of hydrogen fuel cells as battery replacements in the first place?
Option 2 – Enhance Lithium-Ion Batteries With Lithium-Phosphate Glass:
Lithium-ion batteries are highly rechargeable batteries used in almost anything that doesn’t use the standard AAA, AA, C, D, 9V replaceable batteries. They’re handy, but slow to recharge, taking hours. But wait… What’s this? It’s big news! Just recently MIT’s Byoungwoo Kang and Gerbrand Ceder have found a way to rapidly increase the energy transfer of the lithium ion battery by using lithium-phosphate glass. What took hours might now be down to seconds.
At least in a lab.
Though while there seems to be a lot of excitement over the concept, there are also some who are more reserved, noting that so far all they’ve really proved is that they can discharge a lithium-ion battery quicky. Whether or not it can recharge quickly remains to be seen. So far it’s all a lot of excited hypothetical and theoretical green-geek mosh-pitting. When (or even if) it will be commercially available remains to be seen. But, if at all possible, it could easily revolutionize the entire battery world by making lithium-ion batters rechargeable in a tiny fraction of the time that it used to take, completely negating any need for fuel cell technologies.
Option 3 – Enhance Lithium-Ion Batteries With Lithium-Tritanate Anodes:
Lithium-ion batteries typically use graphite anodes. Altair Nanotechnology found that by using lithium-tritanate anodes instead gives you a battery that recharges in minutes instead of hours, and that has operating temperatures much better suited to automobiles. They trademarked this battery technology NanoSafe. And so far, there has been very little actual excitement about these batteries. Perhaps it is because these batteries could negate the whole purpose of the hydrogen fuel cell by being a battery that can recharge in about the same time that it takes to refuel a fuel cell? Or maybe I’m just being pessimistic. But whichever the case, here we have a proven battery technology, marketed today, that could very well make the electric car quite usable by the majority of the world. All with a minimal change to any gas-station infrastructure. And did I mention, these batteries are available, right now?
While it remains to be seen whether or not the electric car’s superbattery will be a hydrogen fuel cell or enhancements to lithium-ion batteries, one thing is for certain: The race is on! With the right funding to establish the necessary support, the use of petrolium-based gasoline, or even the need for greener biofuels, could be completely eliminated by simply using electricity. And so long as the electricity comes from the greenest sources, it could severely reduce or even completely negate the production of carbon dioxide to move people and cargo from Point A to Point B … at least on the ground. On the air and in the sea are still matters best left for the future.