Most of us don’t know that e-vehicles were first invented in the early 1800s. Many were quick to adopt them over horse-drawn carriages. However, by the early 1900s, Ford, with its mass-produced Model-T, quickly took over the market with a gasoline-powered vehicle, which attracted customers with more mileage and horsepower. The prevalence of e-vehicles quickly dwindled, as technological innovations for them were yet to happen.
However, by the late 1900s, with the growing concern amongst environmentalists and policymakers for fossil fuels’ negative impact on the environment, and sufficient technological development in battery technology, it has come back once again as a worthy replacement to ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles.
In the last decade, e-vehicles have seen exponential growth in sales. Bloomberg predicts they might surpass the gasoline market by 2022 due to lower prices in vehicles dominating the vehicle market by 35% – a lift-off point for sales. But, does the future of e-vehicles take the climate into account? Let’s find out.
There are two metrics by which vehicle emissions are judged: direct and life cycle. Direct emissions include all the greenhouse gases that come out of the vehicle when under operation or fueling. E-vehicles produce none of these, so this metric can be discounted.
Life cycle emissions are those greenhouse gases emitted during the production, distribution, use, and recycling of a vehicle and all of its associated parts, including fuel. E-vehicles have lower life cycle emissions due to a higher well to wheel efficiency. This is because they do not have to endure energy losses associated with fuel distribution, as is ICE vehicles’ case.
It seems that ICE vehicles powered with fossil fuels have reached their maximum efficiency. However, some innovations might improve e-vehicles even further.
Currently, the biggest hurdle for e-vehicles is batteries. Lithium-ion battery packs are used in them as a means to store energy. They have the advantage of carrying a high amount of charge for their weight (specific energy) and volume (energy density) and give a high output voltage per cell compared to other cell chemistries. It makes them perfect for extending the range of e-vehicles, but these batteries are notorious for having limited life cycles and safety concerns. More importantly, Lithium mining is known for its questionable environmental impact and slow production. This may cut the supply chain stopping new battery production.
Li-Cycle, Northvolt, and Ganfeng Lithium are among some of the startups building recycling plants. This will enable a cyclical supply chain for e-vehicles rather than one based on mining. With a reduced reliance on mining, the environmental impact is lessened, further strengthening the case for them. Additionally, recycling is an environmentally friendly means of Lithium production with lower associated costs than mining.
Though the Lithium supply chain may remain intact due to recycling, it does not solve their inherent danger and low life cycle problems. These problems have led to accelerated research in alternative battery chemistries such as Solid-State Batteries (SSBs). These batteries promise to solve Lithium-ion batteries’ issues by incorporating a solid electrolyte as opposed to a liquid electrolyte. Theoretically, this enables the batteries to better regulate electron flow with the added advantage of having a longer lifespan, higher energy density, and increased safety.
This technology is still in its infancy. Companies like Tesla, Dyson, and Samsung are trying to find the right set of materials that work best to provide the most suitable battery. One of these materials is sodium, a metal available in high concentrations throughout the world and does not degrade the environment during its mining process, particularly rock salt mining.
Innovations requiring sodium as a viable material may take years to manifest. However, it shows that current researchers are considering the environment and making sustainable technology for the current e-Vehicle market.
For the longest time, Induction motors were hailed as the best option for e-vehicles due to their high torque-speed characteristics, compact size, cheap and simple construction, and durability. They are by no means perfect as they are difficult to control, have high inrush currents when starting, and have to compromise efficiency due to their operating mechanism, which introduces hysteresis and I2R losses.
SynRM motors are the most recent innovation in e-vehicle drive technology designed to improve tank to vehicle efficiency. These motors incorporate electronic circuitry and a novel rotor design to improve electromagnetic induction and reduce losses, thereby requiring lesser cooling. Higher efficiency means that more of the energy stored in a car’s batteries is converted into useful work to drive the vehicle; hence, fewer fossil fuels are burned to cover these losses.
In 2019, solar and wind accounted for approximately 2.7% and 5.4% of the world’s renewable energy generation, respectively. Though, nothing compared to fossil fuels, which have a combined generation of more than 70%. What’s important here is the increasing trend in renewable energy adoption and the decreasing fossil fuel trend. It’s no surprise that the diminishing supply of fossil fuels and their rising prices are causing the world to move towards renewable means to fulfill their energy needs.
In 2018, the EIA reported that renewables would account for nearly half of the world’s energy needs, but what does this mean for e-vehicles? Since a significant chunk of lifecycle emissions for e-vehicles comes from power plants that run on fossil fuels, the increasing shift towards renewables will help reducing carbon in the atmosphere. However, this a scenario where the world maintains its current trajectory. It’s up to policymakers to enforce regulations such that this goal is achieved.
At this moment in time, scientists have their work cut out to bring technological innovations for widespread e-vehicle adoption. This will, in turn, help preserve the environment and cater to sustainable living.
We can already get a sense of our future from noticing the increasing wildfires, droughts, flash floods, and melting glaciers brought on from climate change due to GHGs. In any case, our present actions will define the environment of our future.