Jan 18, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This article comes to us from the Acceleration Studies Foundation http://accelerating.org It appeared in the foundation's newsletter, Accelerating Times: Strategic Insights in Accelerating Technological Change http://accelerating.org/newsletter/2006/03jan06.html.
Just a parenthetical note: CalCars tends to de-emphasize technologies that are still in development, since we make the case that PHEVs are very practical with existing shipping components. At the same time, we are delighted to have been approached by companies with technologies in late stages of development who hope to use PHEV conversions as platforms to test and promote their products. As soon as we have the resources to put more engineers and business people to work, we can make some of these projects happen.
http://accelerating.org/articles/phevfuture.html Driving Toward an Electric Future: Natural Gas, Nanobatteries, and PHEV's (Next-Generation Hybrids), © 2006 by John Smart
Overview The purpose of this article is to try and convince you that a quiet revolution is underway in the electric grid, and that the trojan horse involves a mix of several innovative technologies, including liquified natural gas (LNG) storage and transportation, natural gas electric generation, nanobattery storage systems, and the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV). The new nanobatteries promise to make electric car recharging as fast as gas tank filling at home, recharge station, or destination, and tomorrow's transportation power grids will be much more decentralized than today's gasoline stations, supporting even greater city densities. Natural gas, the electric industry, battery companies, and the hybrid auto industry all look like great places to invest over the next several decades. Take a moment to skim this article and see if you agree. When you're done, take a look at CalCars.org, a great site about PHEV's in general, though they don't yet discuss the significance of nanobatteries to their paradigm.
Article Natural gas, already 20% of U.S. energy consumption, now looks like the ideal bridge strategy as we move beyond today's cheap but environmentally-problematic oil. Natural gas is projected to be the fastest growing component of world primary energy consumption in the International Energy Outlook 2005. It is cheap and plentifully available from non-Middle East sources (Russia, USA, China, Norway), so its use increases global energy pluralism. Foresighted energy companies like Shell got into this energy sector early in the 1980's, and as a result have created a robust second-generation LNG (liquified natural gas) global distribution technology. We are likely to use natural gas increasingly over perhaps the next forty years to supply our electricity needs, until centralized and decentralized solar advance enough to become the dominant inputs to the electric grid.
Many in the electric industry see natural gas turbines as the future of electric power production in the U.S. GE Energy has created a series of very efficient natural gas turbine generators for electric power plants, and I'm sure there are also excellent smaller players. Natural gas turbines produce a fraction (2/3, by some estimates) of the global warming C02 of our currently dominant coal-burning electricity production, and old coal-burning plants are being upgraded with them everywhere these days. In the future, the plant's output can be readily scrubbed with CO2-sequestering 'synthetic tree' technology at the generation source. Unfortunately you can't do that with gas-burning cars, which, as the Union of Concerned Scientists/ECO note, produce a staggering 20 pounds of C02 for every gallon of gas burned (because two heavy oxygens from the atmosphere combine with every atom of carbon combusted). Electric power can be transported for hundreds of kilometers with acceptable losses (15-20%), and transportation will only get more efficient as we get better theories of collective electrodynamics and superconductivity.
Better centralized and decentralized electric energy storage systems also stand to increase electricity efficiency and use, and could powerfully affect the global solar equation (collect in summer, tap in winter) in coming years. A long-known research frontier for storage technology is vacuum flywheels, which can be made with effectively no friction and used to store and tap large amounts of electric energy (converting it into kinetic energy in the flywheel, which spins in a vacuum on magnetic levitation bearings). A small public company called Beacon Power is already selling production flywheels as uninterruptible power supplies to the telco industry.
Recently a new storage technology, lithium-ion nanobatteries, has promised to disrupt the entire energy storage industry. We first wrote about these in this brief in the May 2005 Accelerating Times. To recap, Toshiba announced in March 2005 that they had a new Li-Ion battery with a nanostructured lattice at the cathode and anode that allowed the battery to recharge sixty times faster than before. Their prototypes recharge to 80% capacity in only sixty seconds. These batteries also work at extreme temperature ranges (minus 40, plus 113 degrees) where conventional Li-Ion batteries do not. Perhaps most important is that the nanobatteries have a vastly better duty profile: after 1,000 charge/discharge cycles they still deliver 99% of their capacity, where typical Li-Ions will only give 50 to 70% of their capacity after such long-term use.
What's more, this isn't intellectual property that Toshiba can lock up, but a whole new approach to battery micro and nanostructure that is just beginning to be explored. A few minutes on Lexis-Nexis turned up a number of U.S. companies also in the game. One is publicly-traded Altair Nanotechnologies. They claim to have a nanobattery that recharges in only six minutes, and have received $450K of our money, through an NSF grant, to make this claim (but be very wary of investing in them as they have a history of overstatement). mPhase is another public company doing interesting nanobattery work, but they don't do production. One standout is Valence, which is already in production on their Saphion Li-Ion battery with phosphate at the cathode, allowing it to be safely recharged in about an hour (the new Segways are using them). Get ready for more players in this space, I'm sure.
It's clear that nanobatteries will improve the adoption and portability of our consumer electronics. In addition to better performance and longer duty cycles for all the batteries in our gadgets (finally!), we might even see quick charger outlets appear in fast food restaurants and the local Starbucks. That's great, but there will be even bigger impacts in other areas. The purpose of this article is to try and convince you that a quiet revolution is underfoot in the automotive transportation industry, and that the trojan horse will be the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV).
Last May, Toshiba announced that the first customers for their nanobatteries will be military and hybrid car makers, beginning in 2006. That should help greatly with hybrid car adoption, since a big part of the total cost of ownership in current hybrid cars is having to replace the batteries, currently expected to last about 10 years (estimated). Significantly longer duty cycles and much better lifetime performance curves should greatly improve hybrid attractiveness vs. traditional cars.
Take a look at EnergyCS, a small engineering company in Monrovia, CA. Over the last year their EDrive group (see their excellent PHEV faq) has been making unauthorized aftermarket mods to Toyota's Prius, currently the most advanced hybrid car on the market. They are trying to make the Prius as gas-independent as possible. They begin by taking out the NiMH batteries (between the back seat and the trunk of the car) and replacing them with higher-density Li-Ions (in the same location and also under the rear cargo carpet). In the process they add an extra 180 pounds of battery, equivalent to carrying one extra passenger in the car. Next, they trick the Prius software into running the car on electric mode as much as possible, shutting off the gas engine wherever they can. Then when they get home they plug the car in every night (and if you can't park in your garage, you run a long extension cord out to your car, right?).
Using this simple technology (see CalCars.org for a great article on PHEV history) these cars are getting between 100 and 180 miles to the gallon over the first 50 miles of driving. Fortunately most people only drive 50 miles or less each day, so they anticipate that if they can get the Prius electric system to handle the first fifty miles exclusively, the typical PHEV driver will be carrying around gas in their tank but very rarely using it. Today they can deliver the first 35 miles exclusively on electric, and only if you stay below about 34 miles an hour. Through a local partnership, EnergyCS plans to begin selling these upgrades as conversions for $12,000 in 2006 to a few early adopters. They estimate that if/when they are able to get Toyota interested in doing PHEVs, it would add only $3,000 to the cost of the car. All of this is great, except we are still talking about using today's substandard Li-Ion technology for the batteries, and expensively replacing them every 10 years. Do this with nanobatteries however, and suddenly you've got a revolution. Every other form of transportation will seem primitive by comparison (What? Your car only gets 80mpg? What a shame!).
What about fuel cells and hydrogen for our electric cars? Look closely at that technology and you see it's simply not competitive for the forseeable future. This brief ILEA article, Carrying the Energy Future, is a good summary of the Hydrogen vs. Electricity comparison at present. One of many dirty little secrets of fuel cells is that their life cycle is presenty much shorter than that of conventional Li-Ions. That doesn't mean we won't one day see a nanostructured fuel cell, but I would bet instead on conventional nanobatteries, which will already take us far beyond the present 10 year lifespan presently in production. In fact, with the average car's lifetime being only 14-17 years, nanobatteries may already be as long-lived as they need to be.
Now imagine a world, perhaps fifteen to twenty years from now, with 50% hybrid car penetration in many locations, where you can bring your PHEV to a gas station, and after filling your tank at one island you go to another (separate for safety reasons, most likely) and recharge your nanobatteries with an array of safe, medium-amperage chargers. With a well designed system I bet you could fill your batteries faster than your gas tank. That would make electric a real option for all of us, no matter how far you are driving. Even standard low-amperage charging from our existing power grid, as long as it was available at home and by meter at many of your destinations (curbside, parking garage, etc.) would allow you to use your battery, not your gas tank, more than 90% of the time. Suddenly every developed nation has an easy, gradual way to eliminate about half the oil they presently use (dropping from 3 to perhaps 1.5 gallons/day/capita), while still preserving and building on all their existing infrastructure. Sounds like the future to me.
There are other transportation infrastructure changes we can imagine as well. We might see the expansion of overhead electric grids for public transportation within the city, like those used by some city buses. With good civic planning we'd also expect cars to be able to tap into the public power grid, for a fee, both at the curb and in the parking garages. That would certainly be one way to keep scaling up our city transportation density without adding any more costly, space-using gas stations. Consider all the fuel we burn just transporting gasoline to all those storage tanks today! Better to transport electrons instead. As our clean and ever smarter electric cars begin communicating with each other, platooning, and eventually driving themselves, both on the surface and in the coming underground automated highway systems of the mid-21st century, this would be another win-win future we can foresee.
OK engineers, I'm ready for a 200+ mpg car. Let's bring nanobattery-equipped PHEV's to market sooner rather than later!