Toward an Electric Future: Natural Gas, PHEV's (Next-Generation Hybrids)
and Nanobattery Advances, © 2006 by John Smart
This article outlines a quiet revolution presently underway in our global electric grid, involving a mix of several innovative technologies, including liquified natural gas (LNG) storage and transportation, natural gas electric generation, the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV), and nanobatteries for electricity storage. Nanobatteries are the newest and most promising of these technologies. Among other things, they promise to enable the recharging of the battery pack in our hybrid gas-electric and all-electric cars to be almost as fast as filling our gas tank today. In addition to their increased environmental responsibility, efficiency, and decreasing consumer cost, tomorrow's electric transportation grids have the potential to be an order of magnitude more decentralized than today's gasoline-only filling stations. This strategic advantage will support the emergence of even greater city densities, while substantially decreasing air and noise pollution. Electric transportation systems will also enable a smooth transition to the underground automated highway system (UAHS) networks that are the most likely 40-year future for urban transportation. The natural gas sector, innovative electric utility companies, nanobattery companies, and leading hybrid auto companies (like Toyota) all look like great places for long term investment over the next few decades. Take a moment to skim this article and see if you agree. When you're done, visit CalCars.org, a great site about PHEV's in general, though they don't yet fully articulate the importance of recent trends in nanobattery performance to their paradigm.
Natural gas, which is already 20% of U.S. energy consumption, now looks like the best bridge strategy as we move beyond today's increasingly expensive and 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. Unlike oil, whose long-term reserves are uncertain, we anticipate that there are 200-300 years of reserves of this fossil fuel resource, even assuming global development continues at increasingly rapid rates. As a result, 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 there are also excellent smaller players. Natural gas turbines produce only a fraction (2/3, by some estimates) of the global warming CO2 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 scrubbed with CO2-sequestering 'synthetic tree' technology at the generation source. Unfortunately you simply can't do that at the tailpipes of gasoline-burning cars, which, as the Union of Concerned Scientists/ECO note, release a staggering 19 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere for every gallon of gasoline 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 (on the order of 15-20% over long distances), and our power transmission networks will only get more efficient in coming years.
Better electric energy storage systems also stand to greatly increase the efficiency of electricity use in coming years, and will greatly improve the efficiency of tomorrow's solar energy systems, allowing collection in the summer and tapping in the winter. One 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.
Enter the Nanobattery [permalink]
Recently a new storage technology, lithium-ion nanobatteries, shown performance advances that promise to disrupt the entire energy storage industry. We first wrote about these 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 eighty times faster than before. This allows their prototypes to 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 extensive use.
Researching battery micro and nanostructure is a whole new approach that is only just beginning to be explored. Ceder et. al. at MIT have developed lithium nickel manganese oxide batteries with an ordered crystalline microstructure between the lithium and the nickel-manganese layers that allows charging or discharging in only 10 minutes, 10 times faster than standard lithium batteries. Sadoway et. al. at MIT believe that eliminating all liquid from Li-Ion batteries, making them as multilayer thin-film laminates, might double or triple their capacity.
There are also a number of companies in this game. Perhaps the leading U.S. company is A123 Systems, an MIT spinoff that has a nanobattery they say is 80% lighter than existing HEV batteries, has 10X longer cycle life, 5X power gain, and "dramatically faster" charge time vs. conventional batteries. In Feb 2006 they received $30M from a number of A-level investors in a third round of private equity funding to help them commercialize their batteries for hybrid electric vehicles. They are already supplying them to Black & Decker for cordless tools. Another great U.S. company with a successful commercial product is Valence, which is in production on their Saphion Li-Ion battery with phosphate at the cathode, allowing it to be recharged in about an hour, and preventing the thermal runaway (spontaneous overheating) that can occur in existing Li-Ion batteries when you charge them too fast. The new Segways use the Valence battery. mPhase is another public company doing interesting nanobattery R&D, which they plan to license to manufacturers. A more dubious player is the publicly-traded Altair Nanotechnologies. Altair claims to have a nanobattery that recharges in only six minutes, and they have received NSF grants to support their work, but I would be very wary of investing in them as they have a history of overstatement.
A bit further out, a number of universities are pursuing the possibilities of carbon nanotube batteries and capacitors. Schindall and colleagues at MIT (see this nice June 2006 Boston Globe article) are building carbon nanotube capacitors, which have many times greater surface area than the carbon-soot capacitors currently in use. If they can increase their power density enough they'll be able to use nanocapacitors instead of chemical batteries in all the standard applications. Capacitors are much more efficient, can supply peak power much faster, and can be charged and discharged hundreds of thousands of times, instead of hundreds of times, before wearing out. Pan and colleagues at UC Davis have made carbon nanotube capacitors with a power density of 30 kilowatts/kg, seven times greater than today's best commercial capacitors. Amaratunga at Cambridge (supported by Samsung) has also made nanotube capacitors and anticipates their commercialization in "six to eight years."
Get ready for many more players in the nanobattery space, it may be several years away from consolidation.
When they arrive, nanobatteries will further the development of our wearable electronics culture. We might even see high-amperage for-pay quick-charging outlets appear in fast food restaurants and your local Starbucks (e.g., $1.00 to recharge your laptop or other electronic device in 60 seconds with 30 cents worth of electricity, deducted from your Starbucks card). But the rest of this article will focus on their potential to accelerate adoption of Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), which are the next great transportation advance that will move us into a cleaner, cheaper, and more oil-independent future.
Last May, Toshiba announced that the first customers for their nanobatteries will be hybrid car makers (and the military), possibly as early as 2007. If this actually happens as early as stated, it 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 their batteries, which are currently expected to last an estimated 10 years. A nanobattery that outlasts the car will greatly improve the economics of hybrids versus. traditional cars. Just how economical can tomorrows hybrids become?
Take a look at EnergyCS, a small engineering company in Monrovia, CA. Over the last year their EDrive group (see their PHEV faq) has been making unauthorized aftermarket modifications to Toyota's Prius, which is currently the most advanced hybrid car on the market. These modifications are designed to make the Prius as gas-independent as possible.
They begin by removing the small, low-performance NiMH batteries in the Prius and replacing them with larger, higher-density Li-Ions. To make room for this they remove the spare tire and add an extra 180 pounds of battery to the car, which is equivalent to carrying one extra passenger. Next, they access a hidden setting on the Prius software so that it runs the car on electric mode as much as possible, shutting off the gas engine whenever it can.
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. What's more, they can deliver the first 35 miles exclusively on electric, if the driver stays below 34 miles an hour. Fortunately most people drive only 50 miles each day, much of it at about 40 miles an hour or slower, so this system is already very close to all-electric use, with the gas tank and gas engine as a backup. Then when you get home (or at work where possible) you plug your car in (stringing an extension cord if necessary) and recharge the batteries. Electric energy costs the consumer an equivalent of 60 cents to $1 a gallon (depending on your local utility), which is three to six times cheaper than gasoline. No wonder the oil companies and car companies have done their best to fight the advent of electric cars!
Don't believe me? Go see the preview and click around the great website for Who Killed the Electric Car?, 2006. Then go out and see this documentary movie itself when it hits your area. You will never look at big oil, big auto, and the politicians who depend on them in the same way again.
They make some interesting claims about Hydrogen Cars as well. They say the oil companies are behind them as way to confuse the issue, to slow down the transition to electric vehicles by holding up a straw option, one that is nowhere near ready the way electric vehilces are. The producers of Who Killed the Electric Car? argue they are doing to make sure they get that $100 trillion of oil business that's left in the ground before people skip right past oil to more efficient energy technologies, like natural gas and nuclear-powered electric.
As Joseph Romm noted in his great 2004 book, The Hype About Hydrogen, hydrogen transportation technology is many, many decades away from being possible and would require the slow and expensive buildout of a huge hydrogen distribution infrastructure--an oilman's dream come true. This brief ILEA article, Carrying the Energy Future, is another good summary of the Hydrogen vs. Electricity comparison at present. One of many dirty secrets of hydrogen fuel cells is that their life cycle is presently far shorter than that of conventional Li-Ions, something on the order of six years, and the performance curves decay much faster as well. Meanwhile we already know Toshiba's nanobatteries will outlast the 14-17 year average car lifespan.
We must not forget how threatening it is to the oil companies that by converting to electric vehicles and PHEVs, people can begin plugging in and saving loads of money right now. That's a real potential for disruption. Through a local partnership, EnergyCS plans to begin selling their Li-Ion PHEV conversion for the Prius for $12,000 this year to a few early adopters. They'd rather Toyota did it for their hybrids (Prius, Camry, etc.), and they estimate it would add only $3,000 to the cost of the car if the PHEV option were available from the manufacturer. That, in combination with the nanobatteries, would truly be disruptive, but should you expect it in 2007? That is an open question.
Consider how Toyota would be reluctant to be so aggressive in their development, because it would deeply offend the Big American Petrodollar Lobby. They might see it as a lot safer politically to play ball and roll it out slowly, as long as no other auto company is in a position to come out with a decent PHEV anytime soon, which they aren't. Meanwhile the global consumer gets stuck in with today's inferior technology, unless you take matters in your own hands, like EnergyCS has, and do it yourself.
As soon as the nanobatteries arrive, I'd be interested in doing just that. It is for this reason that I'm optimistic that Big Oil's, Big Auto's, and the Petro-Politician's days of stalling are numbered. Already we hear that Big Auto is interested in PHEV development, but I'll believe it when I see them at the dealership, available for a reasonable price. They might be able to keep the stalling going for another decade yet, but but increasingly people will see through it, and independent outfits like EnergyCS will get more business and press in the meantime.
There's another promising technology we haven't covered yet (because manufacturing cost is still an unknown), and that's carbon fiber. The Rocky Mountain Institute's (Amory Lovins et. al.) Hypercar initiative has demonstrated that in theory, we could cut the weight of our cars at least in half without sacrificing safety. Combined with the new nanobatteries, aerodynamic carbon fiber EVs should deliver a range of 250 miles or more on a single charge. Perhaps the most sensible option will be moderately lightweighted carbon fiber PHEVs, which might easily deliver a range of 150 miles or more in electric mode only, allowing us to plug in every few days, with the option to use expensive gasoline whenever we mess up or get lazy.
Now imagine a world, perhaps fifteen to twenty years from now, with 50% PHEV 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 island nearby (separate for safety reasons, most likely) and recharge your nanobatteries with an array of safe, medium-amperage chargers, like AeroVironment's PosiCharge system, already in use for corporate electric fleets. With a well designed system I bet you could fill your batteries almost as fast as your gas tank (10 minutes or less would be the consumer sweet spot). We aren't even depending on nanocapacitors, either, which clearly will have this ability. Just plain old Li-Ion nanobatteries, an already demonstrated (though not yet commercialized) technology.
That would make all-electric transportation a real option for all of us, no matter how far we 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 our destinations (curbside, parking garage, etc.) would allow us to use our batteries, not our gas tank, more than 90% of the time. Suddenly the citizens of every developed nation have an easy, gradual way to eliminate at least half the oil we presently use, dropping us from 3 gallons to perhaps 1.5 gallons/day/capita), in a way that preserves and builds on all our existing fossil fuel delivery infrastructure. That sure sounds like the future to me.
Some relevant statistics:
What other transportation infrastructure changes might we see in an increasingly electric future? Perhaps the expansion of overhead electric grids for public transportation within the city, like those used by some city buses. With good civic planning we might 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! Much more efficient to transport electrons instead.
Now go about twenty to thirty years out and picture our increasingly intelligent and computerized electric cars 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, saving us oodles of driving time and vastly reducing the 40,000 annual automobile fatalities we live with in the U.S. (120,000 in Europe, and a staggering 1.2 million worldwide on 1998). That is another win-win future that seems developmentally inevitable to me.
OK engineers, I'm ready for my 200+ mpg car. Let's bring nanobattery-equipped PHEV's to market sooner rather than later!