Science

Charging Ahead

To speed along the success of the electric car, improvements in battery chemistry will matter as much as the price of oil.

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Batteries are now "part of the clean-tech boom, with all the dewy and righteous credibility of thin-film solar and offshore windmills," Seth Fletcher asserts in Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy. Righteous? Surely. Credible? Maybe.

As Mr. Fletcher tells it, the history of batteries over the past 100 years is basically a series of failed efforts to power automobiles, with a recent fruitful detour into electronic gear. For a century we have been trying, with a mix of countless metals and chemicals, to achieve the perfect recipe for converting stored chemical energy into electrical energy. Mr. Fletcher starts with Thomas Edison and ends with the launch of the Chevrolet Volt hybrid and Nissan Leaf all-electric. Mr. Fletcher, a senior editor at Popular Science magazine, observes that Edison launched a car-powering battery in 1903 "with a level of hype and overpromising that would do today's most egregious vaporware vendors proud."

Electric cars in Edison's day cost up to $5,000, which is about $130,000 in today's dollars. That price is not far from the current base price of the all-electric Tesla Motors Roadster at $109,000. In any case, gasoline engines packed a lot more driving punch, and electric cars died out.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo and the "energy crisis" revived interest in electric cars. Congress even tried to spur development by passing—over President Ford's veto—the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act in 1976. It is startling to be reminded by Mr. Fletcher that, in the 1970s, Exxon commercialized the first rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which can store more energy for their size and weight—and hold a charge longer—than other rechargeables. The company's plan: use the batteries to power electric cars for a market that appeared ready to take off. But then oil prices collapsed, major petroleum reserves were discovered, and Exxon sold off its battery division.

While another electric-car "revolution" quietly died, the personal-electronics revolution took off, and new gadgets like the Sony Walkman needed power. Using American technology, Sony radically improved rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and put them into wide use.

As Mr. Fletcher notes, the next electric-car misfire was GM's EV1, developed in the 1990s in response to California's stringent air-pollution regulations. The EV1, powered by massive lead-acid and nickel-hydride batteries, could go as far as 140 miles on a charge. GM built 800 of the cars, leasing them for $349 a month. But the batteries simply did not store enough energy and cost $40,000 to $50,000. GM lost a billion dollars before canceling the program. The company was excoriated for its decision in the tendentious documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" But that's an easy one: The batteries did it.

As the EV1 was being junked, Toyota launched its Prius hybrid in the U.S. in 2000, a car with a gasoline engine assisted by a nickel-metal-hydride battery. By 2011, Toyota had sold more than a million Priuses in the U.S. In 2003, Silicon Valley mogul Martin Eberhard founded Tesla Motors. His aim: build an all-electric car powered by lithium-ion batteries. Despite the advantages of lithium-ion batteries, Mr. Fletcher observes, car companies had shied away from them because of their tendency to ignite. By 2006, the first Tesla was on the road—without incident. Once lithium-ion batteries had been proved in automobiles, GM launched its own concept car, the Volt.

American drivers suffer from range anxiety—the fear that electric cars will run out of juice and leave them stranded. The Volt was designed to address that concern. It is a hybrid driven by an electric motor, but the batteries can be supplied with electricity from a supplementary gasoline engine. The Volt's all-electric range is about 40 miles, though up to 400 miles using its gasoline engine.

President Barack Obama has set a goal of having a million plug-in hybrids like the Volt on American roads by 2015 and is offering hefty tax credits to buyers. Even more generously, the 2009 stimulus package included $2.4 billion in government subsidies to a plethora of start-up battery companies. We've been here before. Almost every president since Richard Nixon, who launched a program to produce (as he declared) "an unconventionally powered, virtually pollution-free automobile within five years," has tried and failed to spur the development of an alternative-energy car. Will Mr. Obama's push work any better?

Mr. Fletcher does a good job surveying this old-yet-nascent industry in the U.S. But he wonders whether, even with all the federal largess, it will be able to compete with Asian battery giants like Panasonic in Japan, BYD in China, and LG Chem in South Korea. Even GM's Volt is powered with batteries built by an LG Chem subsidiary. Some commentators worry that we're going to replace our dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on foreign batteries—and foreign lithium. Bottled Lightning alleviates at least one worry: By taking us to the salt flats of the "Lithium Triangle" in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, Mr. Fletcher shows us the abundance of the metal and puts to rest any fears of "peak lithium."

Mr. Fletcher is in love with the Volt. After a test drive, he gushes: "The car, in short, is fantastic." And it is technically sweet. But at $41,000 per copy, will it interest American drivers? As of this month—with the price of gasoline hovering at $4 a gallon—GM has sold only about 2,000 Volts. Still, most other car makers have jumped on the electric bandwagon. The fate of their gamble depends on improvements in battery chemistry and the price of oil. Most of the clean-tech boom—in solar panels, windmills and other projects—has been fueled by government mandates and billions in subsidies. The boom will no doubt go bust when the taxpayer dollars dry up. But Mr. Fletcher makes a good case that the electric-car trend may soon be able to shed its dubious reputation as a public-private hybrid and roll under its own power.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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  1. Well, that’s the thing isn’t it. Electric cars are a great idea, but they don’t actually work.

    Of course, the enviro crowd doesn’t want to discuss the travesty against God that is the industrial pollution required to actually make a battery either.

    1. I’ve brought this up [nickel smelting] at family gatherings of my leftie in-laws that own electric cars. Their eyes glaze over. Priceless.

      Also, I recall reading that the batteries eventually wear out and have to be replaced – at about the mid-point of the average life expentancy of an internal combustion engine. Back to the nickel mines!

      1. Also, I recall reading that the batteries eventually wear out and have to be replaced – at about the mid-point of the average life expentancy of an internal combustion engine. Back to the nickel mines!

        Prius owning taxi drivers have found differently.

        1. I didn’t realize that a Prius was an electric car. Learn something new every day!

          1. Tman,

            What’dya think that “hybrid” thing was all about?

            I am sure the batteries in Hybrids last a bit longer than in full electrics…but the “about half” the life of a internal combustion thing is a red-herring.

            1. Neu,

              Perhaps you should remember that before inserting a snarky comment.

              Electric car =/= Hybrid car. There is a substantial difference in terms of battery wear in an electric car as opposed to a Hybrid.

              1. Electric car =/= Hybrid car.

                Okay. If you say so.

                There is a substantial difference in terms of battery wear in an electric car as opposed to a Hybrid.

                Substantial, sure. Important, not so sure. In terms of operating costs, the electric car will be cheaper than the internal combustion engine even when replacing the battery pack is included.

                1. So how many cab drivers are driving all electric cars right now Neu?

                  Or are you going to make another douchey unrelated comment to try and sound smart?

                  1. All-electrics don’t have the range to make good cabs.

                    Why are you so sensitive?

                    1. If all-electrics don’t have the range for cabs then why did you bring up the Prius in the context of these comments?

                      Oh, I forgot. Because you’re a douche.

                    2. why did you bring up the Prius in the context of these comments

                      They have been around longer and it is easier to estimate the life of their battery. Most of the estimates prior to actual use on the road underestimated battery life by a factor of 3 or 4. Same will probably be true for the newer all-electrics. But who knows, might work the other way around. (see ponchy’s argument below, for instance).

                    3. All-electrics don’t have the range to make good cabs fit most of the ways we use cars.

                      FTFY. Sure, you can probably use one for the only-goes-on-the-commute second car in the family.

                      It’s been the problem from the get-go.

                      Well, that and re-charge time.

                2. Capital cost is the most important cost of owning a car, not operating cost.

                  1. Capital cost is the most important cost of owning a car, not operating cost.

                    Most important? That’s vague. How is it the most important? In what sense?

                    1. Simply because differences in operating cost pale in comparison to the capital cost. For example, assume you drive a conventional car for 100,000 miles, at .33 cent a mile in operating costs, that would be a total operating cost of $33,000. Now let’s say the operating cost for the Chevy Volt is .23, again 100,000 miles, it’s operating costs would be $23,000, for a difference of $10,000. Which means if you’re paying over $10,000 difference between a Corolla and a Volt, which you clearly are, the math doesn’t work out and you’re clearly paying extra just to replace smog pollution with smug pollution. Now I’ve totally pulled the .23 cent a mile operating cost out of my ass, so if you can find an actual figure by all means please show us your own numbers.

                    2. for a difference of $10,000. Which means if you’re paying over $10,000 difference between a Corolla and a Volt, which you clearly are, the math doesn’t work out and you’re clearly paying extra just to replace smog pollution with smug pollution.

                      But, of course, the difference in operating cost is larger than that and the cars will both probably last more than 100000 miles…at some point the operating costs have the potential to make up the difference in capital costs. The devil, of course, is always in the details. So when someone says “capital costs are the MOST important” they seem to be ignoring quite a bit of information.

                  2. yo sparky…can you say total cost of ownership?

                  3. That is highly dependent on lots of things. Ferrari, definitely…very expensive not many miles (not much gas).

                    Kia Rio? Fifteen miles each way to work each day? Add that up (plus maintenance, tires, insurance, etc.) and your operating costs will be over your $300-a-month Kia bill, especially with $4 gas.

                    And on the larger battery issue regarding lifetime, again its only partly true. Batteries diminish in capacity over time/temperature with lithium and over charge-cycles/temperature with heavy-metals.

                    The battery you have might last longer than what is specified, but at ever lower capacity. Over time, a Prius becomes a gas-powered car more and more from its first day off the lot on.

                3. “Okay. If you say so”

                  Hybrids have an onboard motor that kicks in frequently and keeps the battery near capacity most all the time. Pure electrics will be cycling the batteries much deeper. A rechargeable battery that’s allowed to cycle below 50% usually has something like a quarter the lifespan of one that’s kept close to fully charged, and if it’s frequently cycled even deeper, life goes down further still.

                  Electric vehicle drivers really should be scared of running out of “gas”. Every time they do, the useful life of their car will be shortening.

                  1. “Substantial, sure. Important, not so sure. In terms of operating costs, the electric car will be cheaper than the internal combustion engine even when replacing the battery pack is included.”

                    except that for the reasons just stated, people will either be wearing out their batteries much quicker than their rated lifespans, or, if they want to keep them longer, recharging them with gasoline rather than coal.

                    1. How many low-income people are going to be able to fork over thousands of dollars to replace battery packs in their used electric or hybrid cars?

                  2. To make this more clear, there are a limited number of times that a battery can be deep-cycled (below a certain voltage) then be recharged (above that voltage). A hybrid self-recharges well above the deep-cycle level, but an all-electric may be run well into the red zone — and after the first time, the red zone will be reached at a shorter distance, until eventually it won’t have enough power on a “full” charge to get you safely to the store and back.

                    THEN not only will you have to pay thousands of dollars for batteries, you will have to pay to DISPOSE of the old ones.

    2. Battries do not have anywhere near the energy density to be practical for transportation.

    3. While I do have a 30 mile round trip commute- and this could technically work, why would I want a second vehicle that was boring? I currently ride to work on my motorcycle whenever possible (Over 40 degrees, less than 20pct chance of rain). I think the Brammo Empulse would be great- and it costs only a little more than my current motorcycle (and yes I’ll take anything that “reduces” my taxes if I’m buying it anyways).

      1. I didn’t say it was for everyone. I have a short commute and I like boring. It suits me. It’s who I am.

        1. just thought you were a douche, now it turns out your just vanilla…c’est dommage

  2. Jesus has nothin’ on those Duke boys. Look at ’em fly.

    1. YEEEEEE-HAAAAAAA!!!!!

  3. The big problem with electric cars (as I see it) is that people want them to be like a conventional car. I could see a big market for a cheap, short range, electric commuter vehicle. Something about half the size of a Smart car. Kind of a glorified golf cart with maybe a 60 mile range. Except I don’t think you could make one that was priced right and met all of the government’s criteria for road safety.

    1. Nissan Leaf?

      1. The Leaf’s retail price is $32,780 for a 73 milie range.

        Let that soak in a moment.

        1. I was reading this piece about the Leaf – http://www.thetruthaboutcars.c…..day-three/ – and I realized that I will never buy one of these until we have charging stations that are as numerous as gas stations.

          I have enough problems in my life to worry about. The author of said piece was able to ignore this for sake of writing the piece, but the amount of anxiety that goes in to worrying about how much juice you have left in your car seems to be a much bigger issue than how much gas you have left simply because you have such a limited range with the Leaf. Imagine being late for work and worrying about whether or not your car “charged up enough” to get you to work quickly?

          No thanks.

          1. And if you run out of juice and could (through some miracle) get an extension cord to it, your fillup takes 8 – 16 hours.

            1. I’m sure my boss will understand why I’m not coming to work today when I tell him that I’m lowering my carbon footprint!

          2. The previous day’s usage had left me in a pickle. With the 12 miles left and only nine-and-a-half hours charging time at 120V. Of course if I constantly had to remind myself, if I had a 240V charging station at home this would be a non-issue as the Leaf would have been completely full. However, my situation as it was, the Leaf was perhaps a hair over 40% charged when I left for work with the range indicator displaying 59 miles, hopefully enough for my 57 mile drive.

            Since I needed all the juice I could get to make it to Burlingame I decided to forgo the pre-heating and let the Leaf charge to the very last second. […] Unfortunately the temperatures and humidity conspired to fog the windscreen. Without sufficient power to make it to work and use the defogger, I chose to defog the old-fashioned way: windows open.

            […]

            Thankfully the climb up to the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains was gradual in comparison to the re-charging trip down the other side. Once back on flat land the car indicated a range of 52 miles and I only had 40 miles ahead of me. Right as I was patting myself on the back, US-101 ground to a total and complete halt.

            […]

            Since Nissan needed to pick the Leaf up, I ponce[sic] again connected my trans-sidewalk charging cable and checked the display for a charge time: 31 hours to full. Ouch. I find I need to keep reminding myself that had I access to a 240V charging station at home, the battery would be more than half full on my arrival. Since the press fleet doesn’t come with some funky dryer-plug hacked charger (sort of a shame really) the emergency trickle charge cable was our only option. And there is the problem I see with some of the TV news bites I have seen about the Leaf; which I am sure will be re-ignited once the rumored Top Gear episode featuring the Leaf hit the airwaves: The 31 hour charge time is not likely to be an issue for buyers as most people seem to buy the home charging station.

            Or, The Life and Times of an Electric Vehicle, a Comic Novel in twelve volumes where the vehicle isn’t even fully charged by the third volume.

          3. Right….how’s that heat and air conditioning work???

        2. Yes but according what Nissan senior VP told the Transportation secretary when he toured the Leaf plant, the buyers are “not making an economic statementas much as they’re making a personal statement”.

          So “feelings” per mile is much more important than any grubby economic cost/benefit calculation.

          The most outrageous part is the rest of us are on the hook to subidize their “feelings”

          1. The most outrageous part is the rest of us are on the hook to subidize their “feelings”

            According to the article I linked above, if you live in California your taxes are paying up to $12,000 ($7K federal + $5K state) of the purchase price for the Leaf.

            Almost HALF of the purchase price is subsidized. That’s just insanity. It makes ethanol mandates look positively modest.

            1. If those stats are true, that is fucking ridiculous. What an absolute scam.

              1. It’s like an iPad on wheels. Except that the iPad isn’t subsidized.

                1. The iPad also takes less time to charge and lasts longer.

                  1. You can do fun things with it too. And chicks don’t laugh at you when they see with one.

              2. From the article, and I have no reason to believe it isn’t true-

                Our SL tester was a pre-production model so it did not itemize the CHAdeMO port on the Monroney sticker; as a result the price as tested was $33,720 before rebates. As I live in California, after the $7,500 federal and $5,000 state rebates, the Leaf drops to a commuter car appropriate sticker of $21,220.

            2. Almost HALF of the purchase price is subsidized.

              Math is hard.

              1. Jesus Neu, I said ALMOST.

                Are you seriously defending the idea that it’s ok to have the government cover $12,000 of the purchase price of an automobile?

                Or are you just trying to act like a hair-splitting ass since you have no real argument?

                1. It’s 37%, I believe. I don’t think the 13% shortfall changes the argument. That’s an insane subsidy.

                  1. If the government subsidizes $1 of the purchase price, it’s a criminal act.

                  2. That’s why we need a mileage tax. We’ve got to pay for these worthy programs.

                2. Are you seriously defending the idea that it’s ok to have the government cover $12,000 of the purchase price of an automobile?

                  No. Just calling you on your hyperbole.

                  1. Almost half = 37%.

                    What hyperbole?

                    1. What hyperbole?

                      $4400 dollars shy of half doesn’t seem “almost” to me when you are talking about a $12000 subsidy.

                    2. $4400 dollars shy of half doesn’t seem “almost” to me when you are talking about a $12000 subsidy.

                      That’s because you’re a pedantic douche and prefer to change the subject to how far away 37% is from 50% instead of the fact that HOLY SHIT THEY ARE GIVING PEOPLE $12,000 TO BUY A FUCKING CAR whilst ignoring the insanity of said subsidy.

                      But carry on, this is fun!

                    3. whilst ignoring the insanity of said subsidy.

                      Who is ignoring it? If you want to make a credible complaint about the subsidy, why do you turn “more than a third of the price” into “almost half”? It doesn’t change the argument, but degrades your credibility. You seem awfully sensitive about someone pointing that out.

                    4. Who is ignoring it?

                      You are. You’re changing the subject from an insane government subsidy in to a critique of my math skills. You didn’t say “I agree the subsidies are insane, but hey “more than a third of the price” into “almost half”? c’mon man, that’s crazy talk”. You want to change the subject because it’s the only argument you have.

                      Unless you AGREE with me that a $12000 subsidy is insane thus you are just helpfully correcting me, right?

                      (oh, I’m sorry I mean a $12,500 subsidy!)

                    5. You want to change the subject because it’s the only argument you have.

                      Get outta my head!!!!! (~_^)
                      Kidding. You are the one that has decided to take an off-hand comment giving you shit for your hyperbole into a discussion. I was just giving you shit for your hyperbole. Here’s the analogy.

                      “How’d you get that black eye?”
                      “I got in a fight with this really big guy…he was ALMOST 9 feet tall.”
                      “Almost 9 feet? How tall was he?”
                      “6 foot 1.”

                    6. “More than a third” is pretty much “almost half”.

                    7. “More than a third” is pretty much “almost half”.

                      Is $12k almost $16k? I am impressed with the energy everyone has put into defending the hyperbole. Really.

                    8. You must be the only guy in the country who would pay full price for a car.

                      However, $12K is a whole lot more like $16K than it is like the $0 which the taxpayer should be forced to pay for your activism.

                    9. Just reading through this Battle Royale of semantics is tiring, hours after everyone else bailed.

                    10. “But carry on, this is fun!”

                      for whom ??

              2. Math is hard.

                But clearly being a douche is easy.

                1. But clearly being a douche is easy.

                  Yep.

          2. That’s always the way it is with do-gooders.

    2. Gee ya think. You have described a shit box.

    3. “something about half the size of a Smart Car”

      I don’t think I would fit on my kid’s bike.

  4. Actually the Volt is a regular hybrid, when electricity is up the gasoline engine takes over propulsion of the car. Original marketing suggested that the engine would only be used to charge the batteries but the reality of situation is to get the thing out of development they scraped that idea.

    1. False. The engine powers a generator that recharges the battery.

    2. http://gm-volt.com/forum/showt…..-operation

      Looks like that isn’t true. It’s still a series hybrid, unlike the Prius.

      1. What difference does it make….they are shit boxes.

  5. It is a hybrid driven by an electric motor, but the batteries can be supplied with electricity from a supplementary gasoline engine.

    This always cracks me up about hybrid technolog. Hey, I know, how about running the car off the gas engine you put in there at 0% loss?

    No we have to put a gas engine inside of it, convert the rotational force of the gas engine into electrical power which we’ll store in a battery, then…

    1. The thought isn’t so crazy – that’s the same idea behind disel/electric locomotives/marine power plants…

      I guess the only small difference is one of scale.

      1. The reason it’s one of scale is the important factor. A locomotive which is pulling thousands of tons (hundreds of thousands) uses the electric power, not out of efficiency, but out of simplicity. Creating a direct-drive clutching mechanism on something like a train would be monumentally difficult. It becomes much simpler when you have a massive set of diesel engine powering a clutchless electric motor which can be decoupled from the physical engine.

        Only electrical motors can apply full torque at 0RPM. Think about that. A diesel engine can’t do that.

    2. Actually, not 0% loss. You still need a mechanical transmission to connect the engine to the wheels and there is significant loss in the transmission. The generator-motor pair is just an electrical transmission.

      Additionally, since internal combustion engines like to run in a narrow RPM range while electric motors-generators can run efficiently over a large RPM range, you can optimize the engine for a specific RPM and always run it at that RPM.

      1. Converting your mechanical engergy into electrical energy and then back to mechanical energy is way less efficient than mechanical energy -> mechanical energy.

        If the former were more efficient, we would have been doing this for the last fifty years.

        1. We didn’t do this 50 years ago because we didn’t have microprocessor controlled power distribution and motor drivers.

          It takes a fair bit of computing power to to efficiently shuttle electric power between motors, generators, and batteries while making the whole thing behave like an automatic mechanical transmission from the driver’s point of view.

          About 15 years ago (when the first Priuses came out in Japan) this became feasible.

          During normal operation, the Prius converts a large portion of the power generated by the engine to electric power (with one motor-generator) and back to mechanical (with its other motor-generator), and it gets excellent gas milage.

        2. Exactly!

      2. In theory. The first iteration of the Tesla had a two-speed transmission, but this was later welded in place with a single gear. Not sure why they needed it, as one of the big draws for electric motors is constant torque across RPMs, but that may be more of an assumed property than one observed empirically.

        1. Noise comes to mind. Even an electric motor is noisier at higher rpms.

  6. Japanese water-powered car! Hai, so desu!

    1. Hai, so desu!

      You so crazy!

    2. japanese water logged nuclear plant?

  7. How about improvements in REALLY long extension cords technology?

  8. Nice article. It was a nice article a week or so ago when I read it for the FIRST freakin’ time here. Hey, we’re just recycling.

  9. The American electric cars will most likely be crap compared to the European and Asian equivalents. So the US government should stop bothering and wasting money on them.

    1. Is Tesla any good? It’s tempting to assume it will be a good car manufacturer, what with the success of SpaceX, but I’m not sure that’s true.

      1. The government’s going to create it’s own version of the Tesla, called “The Edison”.

        1. I sense a feud brewing.

        2. Good one. I am sure nobody else will catch it.

        3. And it’ll squeeze out the Tesla by brute force and gov’t contracts despite being a lesser car.
          Still can’t believe Edison is held up on a pedestal in this country and Tesla is virtually unknown.

        4. Actually, it’s going to be called the “Edselson”

      2. Check out Top Gear’s test of the Tesla:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSFehyN8X7w

      3. Tesla is phenomenally good at making subsidized toys for rich people.

        And losing lots and lots of money.

        1. So the Tesla and Edison names have done a role reversal

      4. Pro Libertate|5.23.11 @ 5:40PM|#
        “Is Tesla any good?”

        For what?
        “He starts with the Roadster’s range, claiming the show never refuted the company’s advertised range of 211 miles, but instead boasted a short 55-mile range based on hard track use.”
        http://rumors.automobilemag.co…..38167.html
        I drive to LA to avoid TSA and the two hours wasted standing in line. If I drove one of these, I could waste a day each way in San Luis Obispo…

    2. JD Powers & Associates says you’re full of it.

  10. It’s all about the energy density.

    CNG vehicles will still have it all over electric vehicles — yes, there’s a hit to range, but with fracking technology available, there’s a lot more natural gas available than declining worldwide oil stocks.

    1. … a hit to range with respect to gasoline/diesel-fueled vehicles …

    2. People don’t appreciate the energy density that’s in a gallon of gas.

      The fact is that even at the poor gas mileage my current vehicle gets, I can push 4200lbs over 20 miles on a single gallon of gas is impressive.

      1. You are absolutley right. This is what people without a science background do not understand. The author of this article is a classic example!

      2. I’m waiting for the day when some environmentalist suggests an all electric launch vehicle. It’s a staggering ammount of fuel we have to burn to get to orbit.

        1. Not only has it been suggested, but it is well within the current level of technology.

          Of course, the wire only goes to a powerful laser which stays on the ground, but it’s still electric SSTO.

  11. This article is right on the mark. I had a hand in due diligence for battery investments and the creation of some research programs. People don’t realize that increases in energy density are hard-won in the battery industry. About a 1% increase in a year is solid work. A 10% increase is a miracle, assuming it isn’t also overly toxic, explosive, or delicate.

  12. The fate of their gamble depends on improvements in battery chemistry

    Then that fate relies on divine intervention: God needs to change the laws of physics, so that lithium is no longer the lightest possible metal.

    Otherwise, no technological ingenuity whatsoever is going to get past these stark thermodynamic facts:

    * energy density of gasoline: 45 MJ/kg.

    * energy density of Li-ion battery: less than 1 MJ/kg.

    Yep, that’s a factor of forty-five, folks. Raise your hand if you think fiddling with the design is going to compensate for that. And everyone with his hand up — we’ve got a really really great real estate deal for you. Or possibly a Ronco slicer-dicer, or fuel additive that will get you 200 MPG and some natural male enhancement besides. This kind of credulous thinking is like thinking by fiddling with the design you can somehow build an airplane out of bricks.

    And then let’s not forget the essential number of the refueling problem: when you put 10 gallons of gasoline in your tank in about 2 minutes at the pump, you’ve just transferred energy at the rate of 10 megawatts.

    Now imagine the 10 megawatt electrical connection that can be operated safely by a goofball 16-year-old high-school sophomore and maintained by Jose the 19-year-old minimum wage slave. Do we go with the 500 volts of the battery pack, then figure a way to connect a 20,000 ampere conduit thick around as your wrist? Or crank up the voltage to what you have on those 100-foot transmission towers that buzz in the rain and freak people out thinking they cause brain cancer, 140 kV or so, so we can reduce the current to a mere 70 amps? Either way, one tiny mistake that connects hot to ground and the flash would probably be visible for a clear mile or so, while the luckless operator would have to be identified by charred DNA scraped from pieces of concrete thrown fifty feet from the accident.

    It’s all so delusional. I feel quite comfortable saying that plain thermodynamics tells us electrochemical cells will never be the way we generally store energy for use in vehicles. (The fuel cell is a different story, actually moderately practical — but of course you’d still be stornig energy in those eeeeeeevil liquid hydrocarbons.)

    But…but…serious people, Presidents and CEOs and so forth, are calling for research and tax breaks and serious national policy…!

    Ah yes. One of the safest possible careers used to be trying to turn lead into gold, back when it was just considered a matter of “improving the chemistry” in the retort. Not only do you need not fear your patron’s losing the wish for you to succeed — you need not worry about putting yourself out of business by actually succeeding. Always one more thing to try! Just sign the check, pleez…

    1. If chemical storage is limited, what about kinetic storage options, like flywheels?

      1. A flywheel is a battery. It’s just a really big mechanical battery that you have to still have to charge up.

      2. In one of my physics classes we had to design a flywheel car. The mechanics, materials, everything. Lots of fun.

      3. Flywheels lose energy over time due to friction. They explode, imagine what happens if you get into an accident and the flywheel comes loose. Going up hill or downhill will feel weird due to the enormous forces generated by the flywheel…you would have to find a way to allow the flywheel to freely rotate.

        1. Yes, they have their problems.

        2. There are carbon-fiber flywheels that mostly turn into fluff when they self-destruct, but concerns about gyroscopic effects would seem relevant for a moving vehicle.

      4. I like the idea of having a giant water tower on top of every car to store potential energy.

        1. Or a giant pendulum or weight (mass) drop.

    2. The delta in energy density isn’t quite as bad if you look at the problem by volume. Lithium-ion batteries have an energy density of 2 MJ/l, while gasoline is 35 MJ/l. But you’re still an order of magnitude away from each other. Now, some of this can be fixed by observing that electric motors are around 80% efficient, where internal combustion engines are only 20% efficient; but even then, you need four times the volume in batteries to make up the same energy storage capacity as a tank of gasoline. (And that tank of gas weighs less over time as it empties while driving, where the battery is a constant.)

      1. (And that tank of gas weighs less over time as it empties while driving, where the battery is a constant.)

        I’m applying for a government grant to help me design an electric car that dumps its batteries out the back of the car as they become depleted.

        I have to run the batteries in series though, not parallel.

        The other problem is the expense. What I’m hoping is that I can get a bill into congress that will subsidize the cost of the batteries for the first 27 years of the vehicle’s life.

        The last problem is that the EPA frowned on my plan to allow the dumping of batteries on our nation’s highways. They said they’d get back to me.

        1. Or is it parallel, not series? Need more research dollars from that stingy Congress!

        2. “I’m applying for a government grant to help me design an electric car that dumps its batteries out the back of the car as they become depleted.”

          The earlier version of this technology was call a “horse.”

        3. And that tank of gas weighs less over time as it empties while driving, where the battery is a constant.

          This isn’t really that much of an advantage for the gas-driven vehicles. The gas in a 16gal tank weighs all of 95lb. I rarely let the tank get below 1/2 full. So I may save 50lb in a vehicle that weighs 4000lb. That’s all of 1.25% of the total vehicle weight. That’s camping gear. Or 1/4 of one of my friends. Not all that impressive…

          1. And let’s not forget that the electric vehicle will save some weight based on it’s lack of mechanical components. No ICE. No six-speed transmission (direct-to-wheel or single gear suffices). No exhaust system.

      2. In fairness, some of the better diesel engines are closer to 40% efficient, but your point is still taken.

    3. Great comments, Carl.

    4. “Presidents and CEOs and so forth, are calling for research and tax breaks and serious national policy…!”

      I think all the rest of us are due some tax breaks and subsidies.

      If the welfare wagon buyers can get a $12 K subsidy, then I want a check for $12 K to hire a limo to chauffeur me around.

      My miles per gallon cost will be zero! – for as long as the $12 K lasts.

      1. Can I just convert my $12k into a nice used car and keep the rest?

    5. ..”one tiny mistake that connects hot to ground and the flash would probably be visible for a clear mile or so, while the luckless operator would have to be identified by charred DNA scraped from pieces of concrete thrown fifty feet from the accident.”

      That’s an image that’ll stay with you for a while.

      1. yeah, ecthed into your retina

        1. It’s also an image that’s not even that true. If you want to deliver power through conductive coupling (ie “plugging in”), then condcutor issues/user error becomes a problem. There are other well-established ways of charging. Inductive coupling immediately comes to mind. 98% efficient and requires no physical electrical connections. And people have developed standardized high voltage, high current inductive coupling systems. You basically insert a big closed rectangle into a rectangular slot and push go.

  13. A substantial portion of my retirement is parked in a garage, under wraps, humidifer nearby. 1965 Shelby Cobra. It has a battery although the cables are off. It will give you a charge, with or without the battery. When I start it, bi monthly, I think about liberals, and get hard.

  14. Isn’t the electricity grid already maxed out from air conditioning? How can we expect a significant percentage of vehicle owners to plug in?

    1. Isn’t the electricity grid already maxed out from air conditioning? How can we expect a significant percentage of vehicle owners to plug in?

      For the most part, charging would not happen during peak hours.

      1. This theory runs smack against EV’s poor range. Forgot to charge your car last night? Need a full charge to get home from work/wherever? Sorry, you’re hosed — you have to wait until off-peak times. Not only do you have to charge more often, there’s less forgiveness for failing to do so.

        That’s just not going to fly, not with the way people actually drive and expect to use their cars.

        I have to praise Bailey for this article, because it’s the first one on this subject that invokes energy density as being the major key, something forgotten by almost every single EV enthusiast out there. What’s even scarier — if you think the future of personal transport is electric — is Elon Musk’s belief that ultracapacitors are the future of EV energy storage. Musk is the CEO of Tesla Motors, and as such, ought to have a very good idea of the state and progress of battery technology. And yet, here he declared the battery a dead end — while no ultracapacitor has anywhere near the energy density of even current lithium-ion batteries, and no road map to improving this at a rate greater than battery improvements.

        It is hard not to view this as a massive vote of no-confidence in electric cars.

        1. This theory runs smack against EV’s poor range. Forgot to charge your car last night? Need a full charge to get home from work/wherever? Sorry, you’re hosed — you have to wait until off-peak times. Not only do you have to charge more often, there’s less forgiveness for failing to do so.

          Estimates of off-peak capacity without upgrading give our grid capacity to charge 160 million cars. It will be a long time before the number charging during peak hours are a problem. Utility companies will have a long time to upgrade the system. Most will give a discount for off-peak hour charging, I am sure. So, “hosed” seems like hyperbole. More like…have to pay a couple cents more.

          1. Also, the charging need not necessarily fall on the consumer. Multiple companies have proposed leasing battery packs to consumers. The drivers would then just change battery packs at each station, leaving charging/maintenance issues to these companies. In addition, this would obviate some of the costs associated with these vehicles, in that owners would only be leasing batteries, not buying them.

            Of course, this raises issues associated with actually swapping out the batteries. Presumably GM will design the system in order to make the batteries and difficult to change as possible. But good engineering could help quite a bit here.

      2. I wonder what happens to “peak” when all these electric cart owners are recharging?

        Also, it’s been maintained repeatedly that these same people would recharge their carts while at their 9-5 job, too.

        1. That is indeed how people will probably behave. Read an interesting article about this awhile back. It seems the charging software on these cars can be set up so that the grid can actually borrow from the batteries of all those cars when it needs. Demand fluctuates enough even during peak hours that by the end of the day, the car would still be charged. Or that was the claim.

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  20. Bailey, I am sure you have put your vast scientific knowledge into this article.

  21. Senator Reid said he would introduce legislation to change the laws of thermodynamics to support American working families.

    1. E=MC2 will now be E=M+Hope*C+change(squared)

  22. The need for safe and high density energy storage is one problem, as is the conversion and transfer of that energy into motive torque.

    One way to ensure we don’t get these new technologies is to ban the current technologies due to an ideological and hallucinatory meltdown.

    Since current energy products enable all other commerce, banning/overregulating them would cause the economy to sink, and therefore would destroy any prospect of private funding of promising technological vectors.

    The scientists at DOE or NSF on direct government pay cannot begin choose these vectors because not only are the tech vecotrs too complex a web for central planners to understand, these people are made up of the dregs of science graduates, the ones who could not get a private sector job…they are the scientific equivalent of USPS or DMV workers.

    The fastest innovation rate will come from open market technological competition, enabled by minimum regulation of energy, only enough to prevent dominance by local monopolies.

    1. These people are made up of the dregs of science graduates, the ones who could not get a private sector job…

      I don’t think you understand how science works at all. In most of the hard sciences (physics, chem, etc), the most coveted, difficult jobs to get are professorships. And the most illustrious positions are those professorships associated with national labs. For instance, while I was a PhD student at Berkeley, only those professors doing the most promising research where associated with Berkeley National Lab.

      Like it or not, the best science PhDs are still most interested in pursuing professorships because of the academic freedom they entail. While I disagree with the sentiment, the scientific community generally looks up industrial positions as belonging to those who couldn’t get an academic one. It’s a bad, unsustainable system, but it is the system. And your assertion that scientists associated with DOE or NSF are the scientific equivalent of USPS or DMV workers is laughable.

      1. I should note that the above is not true for engineers. Most of the best engineers go into industrial positions. But my own experience leads me to believe that engineers are not particularly adept at doing anything outside of the range of their very narrow training. The governing scientific phenomena are lost on them. For instance, I once taught a nanotech class at Berkeley which was mostly populated by third and fourth year ME students. They had trouble with concepts like entropy – pretty much a foundational part of thermodynamics, which they’re supposed to be experts in. And this is at the #1 ranked ME program in the world. Don’t expect big results to come from engineers.

        These characterizations are based on my own observations of engineers and the fact that, as a physicist, I’m trained to look down upon them. Sorry to any engineers on the board. 🙂

  23. There is a simple way of looking at battery powered cars. The best ( and very expensive lithium ) batteries hold the equivalent energy of one or two gallons of gas. You can not get across the rockies in a snowstorm with 2 gallons. What we need is lots more gasoline. It can be had if we go to work and develop both more wells and renuable technologies.

    1. I can’t even get across Houston and back on 2 gallons.

  24. “What we need is lots more gasoline. It can be had if we go to work and develop both more wells and renuable technologies.”

    And we can get more in a lot of different ways.

    Open up ALL off limits areas for exploration and production.

    Make synthetic gasoline from coal – which we have plenty of. The Germans were doing that back in WW2.

    Create oil from Algae that is identical to the oil that comes out of the ground and can therefore be refined and transported via the existing infrastructure – unlike ethanol.

    1. And develop new materials to use in the construction of automobiles.

      Less mass equals less energy.

  25. Until the price for electric cars drops below $20,000, sales are going to remain sluggish.

    If I’m paying $350 a month for an unleaded-powered car and gas runs me $180 a month, that’s still going to be a lot cheaper than paying $680-700 per month for a 5-year car note for a Volt. Sure, they’ve offered a $350/month lease, but you know there’s a lot of hidden crap in those lease terms.

    1. Also, add in the cost of the electricity that your car requires to charge.

      But, a $350/month lease might not be too bad. Just get a newer model at the end of the lease, and you won’t have to worry about buying a new battery. However, you will be stuck with a perpetual car payment.

  26. Pay cash for what you can afford.

  27. It is hard not to view this as a massive vote of no-confidence in electric cars.

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  29. “The boom will no doubt go bust when the taxpayer dollars dry up.”

    The taxpayer dollars have already dried up. Today’s subsidies are made with money borrowed (aka stolen) from our children.

  30. Working with battery companies pretty much convinced me that the state of the art isn’t where it needs to be yet for electric automobiles. The work on nanostructured materials will eventually make a difference in electrode development (though the problem of thermal runaway becomes even more “interesting”).

    After learning that, I did the next best thing and bought a diesel. Even though the modern ones are more finicky about fuel quality and you can’t run any old kitchen crap in them without processing (it’s easy to wreck a 25000 psi injection pump), in terms of fuel efficiency, they’re still the Right Thing.

  31. Rented a Prius in March on a trip to Seattle and loved it. Quite responsive for what’s essentially a four cylinder car. Went to purchase a used commuter car two weeks ago, looking for good MPG and relaibility. The Prius were above my price range, the Civic I test drove was a dog. I bough the used Jag instead. I’ll save gas money by telecommuting 1-2 days a week and I’ll have alot more fun driving too!

  32. The dark horse – and a real potential Holy Shit type breakthrough – is unanticipated innovation in superconductors.

    I am surprised the author makes no mention of even the remote possibilities of such given the article’s focus, and the other pie-in-sky schemes presented.

    1. I highly doubt superconductors will make a major difference anytime soon. Want to carry around a liquid helium dewar in your car? How big a pain in the ass would it be to refill the system? Ever heard of a superconductor quench? They happen even when highly trained technicians do the helium fills – try it with someone who has no scientific knowledge. Even if you get superconductors operating at liquid nitrogen temperatures, distribution and fills of the cryogens is a logistical nightmare.

      You’d need honest-to-goodness room temperature superconductors to make this remotely feasible. And an economical means of mass producing them. All “high temperature” superconductors in existence are exotic ceramics which are difficult to manufacture and process.

      So the breakthroughs would have to be gigantic indeed.

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