More Power to Electric Vehicles

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*

In some ways, the car of the future is a blast from the past.

The electric car was invented more than 100 years ago, but was overtaken in the 1930s by petrol-powered autos.

A brief history of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) are getting a second wind as a more sustainable alternative to cars. EVs produce no tailpipe emissions—an important quality because global carbon dioxide emissions from passenger cars and freight transport are forecast to double by 2050 according to the International Transport Forum, with cars accounting for the lion’s share.

While the electricity powering EVs may be generated by fossil fuels, it still pollutes about 40% less than regular cars. And that could be cut by shifting toward renewable energy for the electricity EVs use to charge up.

About 180,000 EVs are on the road today, a drop in the ocean compared with the global fleet of over a billion petrol -powered cars, a number expected to grow to three billion by 2050. The Electric Vehicles Initiative, a forum of 16 countries, hopes to get 20 million EVs on the road by 2020, which would represent 2% of total passenger cars.

Electric car in charging

In other words, we’re still a long way from the future.

Why are EVs such a hard sell? The advantage of petrol-powered cars is unlimited range, something that has become inseparable from the essence of “automobile”—this thing that lets you go anywhere, at any time. EV ranges run from 70 to 100 miles (112 to 160 kilometers) on a single charge. Statistics show that 95% of vehicle trips in the U.S. are less than 30 miles and that only 1% of trips are more than 70 miles, so current EV range is plenty for most trips.

People cite worries about having to look for a charging station, or that charging will take longer than topping off the gas tank does. However , EVs have advantages.

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Drivers are accustomed to a routine of filling their gas tanks weekly, even though it’s smelly and, in bad weather, unpleasant. “One of the conveniences of electric vehicles is you plug it in overnight and don’t have to go to the charging station,” says Don Anair, research director of the clean vehicles program of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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A range of innovations aims to address some of the technical problems.

  • Better batteries. Consumer electronics such as smartphones have helped drive advances in battery technology, particularly in improving battery life while reducing size. Auto-makers are shifting to lithium-ion batteries, from nickel-metal hydride batteries. However, researchers continue to chase new technologies, such as lithium-air, silicon alloy anodes, lithium metal graphene-anode and other battery combinations. Already, the cost of batteries for plug-in EVs has dropped by half in the past four years, and the size and weight have shrunk 60%.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells. A technology at an early stage of commercialization is EVs powered by hydrogen fuel cells. “It’s a good option for consumers looking for an EV, but who don’t have a place to plug in to charge,” Mr. Anair says.
  • Old mixed with new. The hybrid uses both electricity and petrol fuel, with a growing range of choice. At the mostly-petrol-with-a-little-electricity end of the spectrum, conventional hybrids switch to electric in high-consumption situations like traffic jams, with batteries charged by regenerative braking and the gasoline engine. Plug-in hybrids run on the battery and switch to the internal combustion engine when the battery is out of juice. At the mostly-electric end of the spectrum, an EV with a range extender keeps powering the wheels from the battery while a small gas motor charges the battery enough to run the car farther. A range extender allows for a lighter-weight battery, which helps improve efficiency.

The first battery-powered vehicles with range extenders are on the market. BMW’s electric vehicle, the i3, now has an optional range extender that adds up to 75 miles of driving on a charge. General Motors has added a range extender to the Chevrolet Volt and Opel Ampera.

In the future, consumers will have more choices of low-carbon vehicles to drive,” Mr. Anair says.

  • Lighter vehicles. Reducing weight, whether for EVs or conventional vehicles, improves efficiency. The internal combustion engine burns fuel to make power, but only 25% to 30% of the energy in a gallon of gasoline turns the car’s wheels, while the rest is lost as heat, explains Lawrence Burns, professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan. If the driver weighs 150 pounds (68 kilograms) and the car weighs 3,000 pounds, then only about 1% of the energy is being used to move the driver. “We have to get vehicles more in line with our body weight,” he says.

Lighter materials such as aluminum, carbon fiber, magnesium, composites and steel alloys are gaining favor already, as a way to meet fuel efficiency requirements. Ford’s new F-150 pickup truck , for example, now has an aluminum body, reducing the weight by 700 pounds.


With nanotechnology, we are able to create new types of materials with new products,” Dr. Burns says.

One reason why consumers shy from lightweight or small vehicles is how they withstand crashes. In the future, connected and driverless vehicles will improve traffic flow and reduce accidents. “We can have cars that don’t crash, so we can get mass out of the car,” Dr. Burns explains.

Connectivity and big data could help in another way: by improving systems for people to share vehicles and to deliver goods more efficiently. A global shift away from cars could save $100 trillion, cut 40% of urban passenger transport emissions and avoid 1.4 million early deaths by 2050, according to a new study.

We not only need to improve the vehicles or fuels, but also to think of the whole transport system and how you can improve services in passenger transport and logistics, making use of information and communications technology,” says Nils-Olof Nylund, research professor at VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, which has launched a program to make Finland a model country for sustainable transport by 2020.

In looking at mobility as a service, the goal is to reduce the need for cars and instead increase public transport, walking and biking, he says. Key to public transport are frequency and communication—people don’t like to wait for public transport, especially in bad weather. Knowing exactly when the bus will arrive, thanks to a smartphone app, can eliminate that barrier.

In addition, buses, which run along fixed routes on fixed schedules, are ideal for electrification—charging stations can be located on the routes, Dr. Nylund says.

What I see coming is not one thing but a combination of connected, shared, driverless, tailored vehicles, combined with business models focused on selling miles, trips and experiences, not just cars, gasoline and insurance,” Dr. Burns says. “Technologically, I don’t think there’s anything that stops us from having a dramatically more sustainable transportation system than in the past.”


*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Energy planning for a world turned on its head

By Catherine

By Catherine Bolgar*

Data centers guzzle it. The coming Internet of Things, with the gadgets and appliances in our homes and workplaces interconnected, depends on it. A shift in our automobiles away from petroleum fuels will vastly multiply our need for it.

Solar Power Panels

Our future is powered by electricity. Demand for electricity by 2050 will increase 127% from 2011 levels, the International Energy Agency predicts, with demand in developing countries booming fourfold.

We love electricity because it’s so nonpolluting at the point of consumption. We don’t have nasty fumes coming from our refrigerators or our computers. But electricity isn’t carbon-free. Emissions from electricity generation rose 75% between 1990 and 2011, the IEA says. Increasing electricity generation to meet future demand requires a 90% cut in emissions in order to limit the rise in global temperature to two degrees Celsius.

That means not only relying more on renewables but also rethinking the entire electricity industry, from generation to distribution.

There is a big revolution occurring in the power industry,” says Martin Green, professor at the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “The whole business model has collapsed in a few years.”

Peak prices for electricity, whether in Europe or Australia, used to occur during summer afternoons. In Europe, where nuclear energy is widely used, plants had to trim output just as demand was peaking, because they weren’t allowed to dump the hot water they create into rivers, Dr. Green explains. That exaggerated the gap between supply and demand, and created even higher prices.

In Australia, many utilities were able to make their profits for the whole year thanks to summer peaks, he says, adding, “Everyone was bidding up their prices.”

However, the huge surge in solar panel installations—cumulative installed global capacity rose about 44-fold from 2010 to 2011 , the IEA says—has changed that equation, by producing the most electricity exactly at the times of peak demand: summer afternoons.

Utilities need to find a way to make money from solar. For the unadventurous ones, solar is really bad news. It’s taking away from demand for electricity,” Dr. Green says.

Renewables pose two big challenges for the power industry: They are intermittent and thus require storage or a backup, and they require a different kind of grid.

To ensure that when the wind is calm or the sky is cloudy there’s still enough electricity for peak demand, the system needs extra capacity. Average power demand in Germany, for example, is 80,000 megawatts, and peak demand is 130,000 megawatts, says Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Germany. If 80% of the energy mix is renewables, as Germany intends by 2050, such a system would need 200,000 megawatts of wind power and 200,000 megawatts of solar power—overcapacity is necessary to compensate for the times when it’s calm or dark.

So at off-peak times and on sunny, windy days, Germany would have far more electricity than it needs. “The future will be characterized by times where we have excess electricity,” he says.

One way to take advantage of the surplus is storage. Better storage, in the form of batteries or other means, is advancing. For example, electric cars that charge while parked during the day would be one way to store some solar power. Another way is to use the solar energy to split apart water molecules, releasing the oxygen and keeping the hydrogen for use as fuel.

As for backup power, “natural gas is the absolute complement for renewables,” says Oliver Inderwildi, senior policy fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford University in the U.K. “Gas can be shut off or turned on quickly and can operate at various levels. If it gets cloudy, you can fire up a couple of turbines to make up the shortfall from solar. You can’t do that for coal or nuclear.”

The boom in cheap shale gas in the U.S. is crowding coal out of the energy mix there, he says. Building a gas-fired plant is much faster and cheaper than for coal or nuclear as well. A gas-fired plant can be built in 18 to 36 months, versus about six years for a coal plant.

In much of the world, however, gas is more expensive than coal. India and China are building coal plants to meet electricity needs, but they are locking themselves into a high-carbon infrastructure over the long term, Dr. Inderwildi says. The catch, he adds, is “CO2 is a global problem. It doesn’t matter where it’s emitted.”

The other challenge with renewable energy is distribution. The dispersed nature of renewable sources, such as rooftop solar panels, makes planning difficult.

The grid network is moving away from centralized plants to more distributed generation: wind, solar, biomass and other options,” says Dr. Green. “Some costs and benefits arise from that. You don’t have to have power lines carrying the same density of power. You used to have electricity flowing out from power plants in one direction. Now a lot of electricity is flowing the other way. The grid needs upgrading.”

Solar panels in front of wind turbines and mountains

And since the cost of maintaining and upgrading the grid’s assets is typically bundled into the cost of electricity consumption, people who generate renewable energy – through rooftop solar, say – are using the grid infrastructure for storing their extra solar energy without paying for the grid, which is an unsustainable utility model.

Smart grids use technology to communicate between energy suppliers and users to make the system far more efficient, for example, by allowing consumers to choose to reduce energy use at peak times.

“Smart grids are definitely happening,” he says. “It won’t be overnight, but they are incrementally being implemented.”

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

The future is still plastics; maybe more than ever

By Catherine

In the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” the title character got this career advice: just one word…plastics.

It was so long ago, yet a futuristic remake would give the same advice. Plastic keeps evolving, gaining new properties and new uses.

The era of ‘The Graduate’ was a miracle age for plastic,” says Steven Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council. “Where we are in material sciences is another age in breakthroughs.”

Those high-tech composite materials you hear about are plastic reinforced with carbon fiber to combine the benefits of plastics—light weight—with dramatically increased strength.

Count on finding more plastic in vehicles. “Materials that used to be only for race car drivers are going to show up in everybody’s garage,” Mr. Russell says.

Plastics will be a major contributor toward meeting higher fuel economy standards and thus reducing pollution by making cars lighter. Plastics already make up about half of a car’s volume but account for only 10% of its weight.

Imagine if, a few hours after a fender bender, your car has healed itself. Scott R. White, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently published research on the first demonstration of a synthetic, nonliving material—plastic—that is able to regrow and regenerate in response to damage.

Damaged bumper

In the future, plastics would never age because in response to either small-scale or large-scale damage, they would regenerate themselves,” he says. The process doesn’t work if the plastic has exploded or broken to bits.

Regenerating plastic has a vascular system in which about eight different chemical compounds circulate in two isolated networks, similar to blood circulating through the body—in fact, the idea was based on mimicking the body’s healing process.

When damage occurs, those veins break, allowing the two fluid streams to mingle and triggering chemical reactions that lead to regeneration. One reaction creates a gel, so the fluids no longer flow. A slower reaction is hardening, which turns the gel material into a structural plastic, Dr. White says.

The system isn’t expensive, he adds, and the chemicals are not more expensive than plastic itself.

Plastic has advantages over metal including being lighter and resistant to corrosion. The downside of plastic has been that it weakens over its lifetime, and may eventually fail. Ultraviolet rays, for example, can dramatically weaken plastic over time, making it become brittle and flake, Dr. White says. That’s something metals don’t suffer.

With regeneration, “plastic could be immortal as long as you maintain the mechanism by which it regenerates,” he says. The breakthrough would make plastic greener, because “every time you can make something last longer, it means you aren’t throwing it away or replacing it.”

Plastic already has been getting greener, says Mr. Russell of the American Chemistry Council. It’s now possible to recycle more kinds of plastics that weren’t recyclable in the past, from yogurt containers to flexible film like shopping bags.

Plastic also offers green applications in many industries. If all building construction materials now used were plastic—vinyl instead of glass windows, plastic instead of metal pipes, foam insulation—it would save enough energy to power 4.6 million U.S. homes, he says. Plastic is being used in energy-efficient LED light bulbs, which may help bring down their cost.

plastic polymer granules

Stanford University is working on ways to use plastic to improve the ability of solar cells to absorb energy. Bayer MaterialScience, a unit of Germany’s Bayer AG, and Belgium’s Solvay Group are making plastic materials for the Solar Impulse 2 ultralight plane, which aims to fly around the world powered only by solar energy next year. The lithium polymer batteries—made partly of plastic—store enough energy that the plane has been able to fly part of the night in test flights.

If we think about sustainability, lot of people don’t think about plastics,” Mr. Russell says. “But if we think about how a material impacts how we use water or energy or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, plastics help.”

Packaging is a major application for plastics, and one in which the material can make products greener. A little bit of plastic can prevent a lot of food contamination and waste. With active packaging, the wrapper itself helps prevent spoilage. Some are impregnated with antimicrobials, while others prevent loss of bacteria that’s beneficial to our microbiome. Still others include strips that absorb ethylene—which is given off by ripening fruit and vegetables—to keep food fresh longer.

Intelligent packaging may one day communicate information about the food in their refrigerators to consumers, to say which foods are in danger of not being fresh any longer, so those can be eaten first.

Plastic is showing up in some other unusual places. The Bank of England announced last December that the next £5 and £10 banknotes will be printed on a plastic film, rather than the traditional cotton paper. The switch, which will begin in 2016, will make banknotes cleaner, more durable and more difficult to counterfeit.

Plastic is a key component in the explosion in 3-D printing, which promises to change many industries. While 3-D printing has been around for three decades, it has only recently taken off, with applications from medicine to spare and custom parts to molds, patterns and models.

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