Electric or Hydrogen? The Future of Personal Transportation

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From the oil embargo of the 1970s to the price spike in 2008 and now again in 2012, interest in alternatives to petroleum for powering automobiles has surged and waned with perfect correlation to the price at the pump.

When fuel is costly, suddenly the public becomes high minded and forward looking with regards to alternative powertrain technologies, but when fuel prices drop they lose all interest and buy SUVs as if they have the collective memory span of a goldfish.

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That by itself constitutes a significant barrier to alt transport acceptance, but as if in fear of a mass disillusionment with the wild fluctuation of petrol prices there have emerged in recent years industrially funded political think tanks like the Heartland Institute and other Koch Brothers ventures in America publishing bogus studies intended to bias the conservative mind in particular against any alternative to the technologies now in use, and not coincidentally the technologies representing the major investments of modern day industrialists.

This has included claims to the effect that climate change is a Communist plot, electric cars are dirtier than gas cars because they are powered by coal plants, the grid cannot handle plug in vehicles, and that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles represent the true future of personal motoring as they are superior in all ways to EVs. I’ll address each of these in turn and also attempt to explain how we got into this mess and how we may yet climb out of it.

Relatively recently a manufactroversy known as ‘climategate’ rocked US conservative news outlets, primarily Fox News. It was dubbed climategate well before the leaked emails had been read by anyone with the intention of making it sound like a scandal by use of the suffix “-gate”.

No actual fabrications were found, although sentences were taken out of context in order to suggest that the opposite was true. A recent independent investigation of the emails cleared the climate scientists involved of any wrongdoing.

In fact, leaked emails from climate denier conservative thinktank “The Heartland Institute” revealed a program to push additions to US public school textbooks downplaying or omitting the empirical support for climate change, in line with similar creationist efforts to push textbook alterations undermining evolution.

Perhaps frustrated by this, the US based Koch brothers, notorious and wealthy industrialists commonly listed as donors for all major climate denial organizations, commissioned a new study by prominent ‘climate skeptic’ scientist Richard Muller which repeated all of the original temperature readings and related experiments on which the original climate change conclusions were based.

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The hope, presumably, was either to find that there had been some error or exaggeration, or that Muller would fabricate his results to suggest there had been whether or not it was true. To his credit Muller turned out to be more scientist than denialist, and carried out the study honestly.

His results perfectly replicated those of the scientists responsible for the originals and confirmed their conclusion. Muller has since ‘switched sides’ and has admonished his former denialist followers for maintaining their views in spite of the new findings. Needless to say the Koch brothers have since withdrawn Muller’s funding.

It’s a contentious issue, but that owes mainly to misunderstandings. False versions of what climate change theory actually entails have been propagated by conservative organizations (again, a tactic used by creationists in the US and Britain to undermine evolution by propagating a false and absurd misunderstanding of the theory) and Evangelical groups have produced videos like this one which attempt to turn believers away from the scientific findings concerning our climate by painting it as a Satanic conspiracy.

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We are in a natural warming cycle. That is true. Industrial pollution is exacerbating it beyond what natural forces working alone would predict based on historical data. That is also true. It was never the position of any climate scientist that climate change is 100% man made and despite claims to the contrary, yes, climate scientists are aware of the sun and the influence it has on warming cycles.

That some would do just barely enough research into climatology to discover solar influence, and decide based on it that they know something climate scientists who have studied the matter their entire lives somehow overlooked is an example of the Dunning Kruger effect at full force. The climate is changing, it is mostly natural but exacerbated by industrial and vehicular greenhouse gas emissions, and we’re being asked to reduce industrial emissions because that’s the only contributor to climate change that we have any control over.

The fact that there are hucksters and charlatans looking to make a buck off of the ‘green’ fad means only that throughout history the same charlatans have always tried to make a buck off of every phenomenon, both real and imagined. With political bias stripped away and considering the matter from a purely scientific standpoint climate change is real, pollution is making it worse, and something must be done.

It comes as a surprise to many that the first cars were electric. Dating back to the 19th century and peaking in 1914, for a time electric cars dominated, greatly outnumbering gas and steam competitors. Cities were fully equipped with curbside charging stations (albeit simpler and less safe than modern versions) and businesses relying on trucks for delivery had in place battery swapping cradles that would lift their trucks, slide out the tray of lead acid or nickel iron batteries for charging, and slide in a tray of freshly charged cells. Faster than refueling and at a fraction of the operating cost even then.

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So what happened? Highways and electric starters. The former created the need for cars that could travel at high speeds for very long distances, and the latter removed the most frustrating and inconvenient aspect of owning a gas automobile.

Before cars had been used only within cities where the 25mph speed at which early EVs operated most efficiently and their relatively short range of around 50 miles was entirely adequate. The advent of highways and the addition of an electric starting motor and battery to gas vehicles caused a surge in their adoption.

With the resulting wealth of companies responsible for manufacturing these beasts came the political influence necessary to rip out all of those charging posts and replace them with gas stations. This was the beginning of our downward spiral into pollution, urban sprawl and oil dependence.

However, we stand now at the dawn of a new era. Electric vehicles now boast a range adequate for 95% of drivers’ day to day needs. They offer speeds easily capable of negotiating highways. Perhaps most importantly their price has come down to the point where even without subsidies they cost the same as and sometimes considerably less than a new car in the same class, depending on the model.

Not all is sunshine and lollipops however; Sensing the imminent end of dependence on oil and worse yet the end of personal autos that can only run on oil products, the usual suspects have come out of the woodwork to sow misinformation on the viability and environmental credentials of EVs.

First and most common, the claim (sourced to US conservative radio programs such as the Rush Limbaugh show and industry shills like Bjorn Lomborg) that electric vehicles are dirtier than gas vehicles because they are charged from coal powerplants.

This is patently false. Electric motors are 85% efficient at turning stored energy into forward motion versus only 15% efficiency for internal combustion engines which throw away most of the energy in petrol as waste heat and transmission friction. Lithium batteries have a 99% charging and discharging efficiency, up significantly from the efficiencies of lead based batteries used in historical EVs.

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The cherry on top is that the power is generated locally and sent over power lines with an average 7% loss compared to the tremendously lossy process of drilling for oil at sea, shipping it to shore in bunker oil burning tankers, refining it on shore and then trucking it to gas stations.

Every stage of that process which requires an internal combustion engine represents the enormous energy loss described earlier. When EV opponents joke that EV supporters naively think that electricity comes from power outlets and we’re not aware that it comes in part from polluting sources I want to take them on a guided tour of the extensive, wasteful and dirty infrastructure necessary to get oil out of the ocean floor and to their local BP station.

Because of the fact that electric vehicles use vastly less energy per mile driven, they logically incur less pollution. A recent MIT study demonstrates that this is the case even when charging from dirty sources, although on a hypothetical all-coal mixture, hybrids come out slightly ahead[8].

If those repeating the lie that EVs are dirtier had given it a moment’s thought they would realize that a vehicle that runs on grid electricity is getting most but not all of its power from fossil fuels, while a petrol powered car gets 100% of its power from fossil fuels.

Additionally, large centralized power generation by efficient, modern combined cycle coal plants (60% efficient specifically) is vastly less polluting than running millions of smaller internal combustion engines at 15% efficiency each to power our cars.

The myth that EVs are dirtier is mostly down to the well known oil industry funded publications of Bjorn Lomborg, and a study to the effect that the Prius was dirtier in terms of its entire life cycle than a comparable petrol car. The study reads “Prius dirtier to build than Corolla, but greener than a Hummer”. When this news made its way to the Rush Limbaugh program it was reported as “Prius dirtier to build and operate than a Hummer”.

Dismissing for now the deceit in that reporting, the reason the first generation Prius was unusually dirty to build owed to the Nickel Metal Hydride battery pack, which along with lead acid is made from toxic heavy metals which require emissions heavy smelting to manufacture or recycle. Lithium is a soft, sticky metal and in some chemistries such as LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphate) it is entirely nontoxic save for the materials used to house the battery itself.

It’s worth reflecting on the fact that Lithium carbonate mineral salts are ingested for medical purposes; the base components of lithium batteries really are that much cleaner than any alternative which is why there’s been a renewed push for EVs now that lithium battery prices make a relatively affordable EV with a clean battery possible.

The other most common canard is that the grid is unable to handle everyone switching to an electric vehicle. This seems sensible if one doesn’t think any further on the topic but would 100% of the population really switch to EVs all at once? Won’t it instead be a gradual process that coincides with the upgrade of our power grid?

Even so, the grid as it stands today can handle more than 70% of the population switching to an electric vehicle right now, provided most charge at night when generators are idling. They would consume this excess power which is normally wasted, not add to the load during peak daylight hours.

The “Hydrogen economy” was bandied about in the media from about 1990 to 2005, although since then it has largely dropped off of the radar. This owes mainly to almost all funding having been cut from leading hydrogen fuel cell research programs and diverted to battery research for EVs. Why did this happen? Surely the longer range and faster fillup time of a Hydrogen vehicle makes it superior to EVs, with their long recharging times and relatively short ranges.

However at the peak of fuel cell promotion, certain facts about the technology were carefully omitted. First, fuel cells wear out and die just like batteries. They are structurally almost identical to batteries with the addition of a catalyst and proton exchange membrane.

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While the typical lithium ion battery takes seven to ten years to wear down to round 75% of its original range, a fuel cell will last only six years assuming two hours of driving each day. Worse yet, because of the precious metals fuel cells require as catalyst materials, they cost enormously more to manufacture than lithium batteries, with existing fuel cell vehicle prototypes priced at over a million dollars and the rosiest estimate of what they might cost at market being $50,000 or so.

But isn’t the superior range and fast fillup time reason enough to hold out for fuel cells and abandon batteries? Not at all. That superior range tops out around 250–300 miles due to the fact that hydrogen has a lower energy density than petrol and must be highly compressed in a thick steel pressure chamber onboard the vehicle in order to carry enough to achieve that range.

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Fuel cell vehicles cannot yet be purchased outright, and already there are electric vehicles such as the Tesla Model S which offer a 300 mile range (optional, $75,000) suggesting that by the time fuel cell cars are available for purchase an electric car with the same or better range will be available for the same price or less.

Ultimately Hydrogen fuel cell cars aren’t a step forward in the right ways; In terms of energy efficiency, while quoted at 50% efficient, they rarely top 30% in practice and they still require liquid hydrocarbons to operate. Hydrogen is not actually produced by solar hydrolysis despite futuristic depictions of such arrangements.

In reality that process would be too wasteful, as hydrolysis is rarely more than 10% efficient and at best under lab conditions 50% efficient. Paired with the current inefficiency of solar photovoltaic panels it makes for a tremendously inefficient and slow method of producing what is not actually a fuel (as it isn’t produced by natural processes and then harvested, but rather synthesized at a huge energy loss) but rather an energy storage medium, like a battery, but which requires additional electrochemical conversion steps to be turned back into electricity to power the car’s motor.

Today, in practice, hydrogen is a byproduct of petroleum refinement, typically split out during the production of natural gas. This is why it was heavily promoted in the US under the Bush administration and why it was the darling of the auto industry until the facts became known to right-minded persons in positions of power.

The range and fill up time of electric cars are problems that not only can be solved but are being solved as we speak, though not all solutions have proven equal. The original method businesses used to avoid long periods of inactivity during charging was attempted some years back; Better Place corporation dotted Israel with battery swap stations compatible with current EVs made by Renault and future models by Tesla and Nissan.

The swap stations resembled car washes and removed a depleted battery from the vehicle’s underside, inserting in its place a fully charged one. The issue of receiving a dud battery wasn’t a concern as the driver wouldn’t own the battery but rather paid for its use on a per mile basis.

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Outside of Israel, swap stations appeared in Hawaii, San Francisco and Tokyo, mainly to serve fleets of electric taxis, but with electric charging posts already spreading like wildfire (including 30 minute fast chargers along major highways) but this second stage of EV support infrastructure has fallen by the wayside as high voltage charging times steadily decrease, rendering the added cost and legal complexity of swappable batteries obsolete out of the gate.

Battery swapping really did have the potential to solve the range issue assuming widespread deployment, but prototype electric cars using state of the art experimental batteries have already traveled 1,000 miles on a charge, albeit at an average speed of less than 30mph.

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These feats are possible because the maximum theoretical energy density of lithium batteries is very close to that of petrol, but electric motors make use of 85% of that energy, so it is not only possible but inevitable that electric cars will one day greatly exceed the range of any petrol powered vehicle with vastly superior efficiency and much lower operational costs.

As Lithium battery development pushes them closer and closer to petrol equivalency in terms of energy density their range will only improve with time, and battery leasing programs will ensure that early adopters can affordably upgrade to longer range battery packs as they become available without breaking the bank.

The time for debate is over: the future is electric.


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