What if we are being too cynical about China’s eco-future in the transportation sector?
Imagine a future in which China is the secret to moving the world’s auto fleet beyond liquid fuels and the combustion engine.
If they can master electron storage systems of advanced batteries, fuel cells and capacitors- they might surprise the world!
Warren Buffet thinks so. The Oracle of Omaha recently invested $233 into Chinese battery and electric vehicle maker BYD.
Now, we are hearing a similar message from other electrical storage system giants who are needed to transform our global auto fleet. A recent Economic Times article China seen as potential electric car hub describes a vision of Johnson Controls where China changes its course to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
Buffet and Johnson Controls see China’s natural advantages:
-Fewer ‘legacy’ issues of existing infrastructure and embedded interests
-Top down policy control to accelerate changes around infrastructure
-Chinese leaders see cleantech as a growth industry, especially around energy storage and electric motor propulsion systems
-Small cars & scooters are the most likely candidates for electric propulsion systems. China (and India) are prime candidates
- A geopolitical desire to avoid issues of oil’s biggest problem. Lack of substitutability. Oil is the perfect fuel, but you can’t put coal or solar or nuclear into a liquid gas tank*. Electricity and hydrogen can be produced by any energy resource.
Of course, electric vehicles are not entirely ‘clean’ and certainly lead to suburban expansion and loss of rural lands. But the trade offs and consequences of doing nothing are hard to challenge. China’s urban areas would benefit from the removal of millions of uncontrolled polluting vehicles.
Even if electricity production came from coal, it is easier to control carbon emissions at a single point power plant rather than individual cars. And China’s industrial strength is powerful enough to change the direction of electric storage companies as well as automakers.
Need more evidence that the electric vehicle industry is going global, quickly?!
Bloomberg is reporting on plans that General Motors is expanding its investment and partnership with China’s SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile Co. It is unclear whether this investment is simply to secure GM’s position in China’s growing market, or if GM might tap China as the manufacturing hub for electric vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
Why this is important to the future of energy?
The fastest way to move beyond the combustion engine is to tap the power of global markets. But it requires us to rethink our assumptions about the future. Namely, if Asia does leap ahead, the US and Europe will have to rethink their aspirations of being ‘energy independent’. Instead they will trade ‘foreign’ oil, for ‘foreign’ batteries!
The Good news
Electric cars can help to clean up air pollution around the world, expand opportunities for renewables to compete in transportation fuels, and could help us better manage the flow and storage of electrons currently limited to a one-way electrical grid.
Electric vehicles can change the world, but they are likely to do so in ways that we cannot currently imagine by mere extrapolation.
What we don't know about the fundamental science of energy systems might actually help us! The problem is that most people assume we already know everything, and that we are running out of solution sets. In fact, we are only at the beginning of a new era of understanding nanoscale (molecular) energy systems engineering.
MIT Chemistry Professor Dan Nocera's lecture Whales to Wood, Wood to Coal/Oil to What's Next? describes what we do not understand about solar energy conversion (photosynthesis) and effective energy storage in nature's form of chemical bonds. His focus is to uncover the science of nature's recipe for storing energy: Light + Water = Fuel.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) has awarded its $1 million top prize for the Wearable Power Prize competition to the team of DuPont/Smart Fuel Cell (SFC) based on a direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC)system.
Announced in July 2007, the US Department of Defense Research & Engineering 2008 Prize challenged energy companies to develop a lightweight, wearable power systems capable of producing 20 watts average power for 96 hours and weighed less than 4 kilograms. The prize conclude in October 2008 with the following awards:
$1 million First Place DuPont / SFC Smart Fuel Cell – the prize confirms DuPont’s ability to help transform energy systems through basic science and applied materials. DuPont is already a major contributor to next generation energy materials used in solar cells, fuel cells, and biomaterials. Smart Fuel Cell is also a leading company in fuel cell power systems.
$500,000 Second Place Adaptive Materials based on its propane-powered solid oxide fuel cells. According to the team’s press release they lost by weight of 28 grams!
$250,000 Third Place
Little is known or published about third place winner Jenny 600S system of Middleburg, Virginia. [We are investigating!!]
Why portable power?
The US military’s efforts are clear – reduce the weight of energy systems for soldiers carrying an increasingly diverse array of electronic equipment from GPS devices, communication devices to vision glasses. The military is also looking for high density systems to power tiny field sensors, urban surveillance robots and unmanned aerial and mobile vehicles (UAVs).
Portable power is equally disruptive for non-military applications. Effective electron storage systems could lower the costs of electric vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors; reinforce national electricity grids; and improve performance and reliability of distributed power systems in urban and rural settings. The science and technologies behind this prize are certain to go well beyond military applications.
The US military has a number of contests that push innovation. The most disruptive is its Grand Challenge for fully autonomous vehicles. But in the world of energy, the next logical step beyond portable power storage will be on site power generation! So we’re imagining small appliances that can take any material and convert raw inputs into usable forms of electricity, hydrogen or liquid fuels.
Could a box full of electrons change the energy industry?
Texas-based stealth energy storage company EEStor is making news again on the blogosphere now that it has received a patent for its ground breaking capacitor that might find use in electric vehicles, utility grids or high performance portable devices.
Why is this important for the auto industry? The key to accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles is to advance energy storage devices. Batteries and fuel cells hold electricity using chemical storage, while capacitors store energy as a charge between two plates.
Designing a low cost, high performance capacitor has been a challenge for energy innovators. But EEStor believes its material platform of barium-titanate ceramic powder (94%) mixed with PET plastic could be the right combination.
The EEStor patent reveals a 281 pound storage device with more than 30,000 plates that can hold 52 kWh of electrical energy.
The company has an agreement with electric vehicle maker Zenn and Lockheed for military applications, but has intentionally kept a low profile. Its effort to remain under the radar of media attention, has in turn created a lot of energy blogger hype.
Batteries, fuel cells and capacitors - Not one device rules them all!
Trying to make the case that surface area is important to the future of energy is difficult. Surface area is not a sexy concept, and nearly impossible to fit into a media sound clip.
Barack Obama and John McCain do not call for energy systems with high surface area nano-catalysts. Instead they call for cheaper solar, and more powerful batteries and fuel cells for electric vehicles. Energy researchers would say – same thing!
Saying nanoparticles is a little better and certainly ripe for a media sound bite. But what if you could take a picture of molecules on a nanoparticle surface?
Now a group of researchers led by MIT have released the first composite atomic-scale images of the catalytic surface area of platinum-cobalt nanoparticles used in fuel cells. Their efforts could accelerate the development of electric fuel cell vehicles.
Surface area and the future of energy
Energy reactions occur when molecules interact. We simply capture the released energy. The cost and performance of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors depends on how molecules react (or do not interact) on tiny pieces of elements like lithium, carbon, titanium, and platinum.
The smaller the pieces, the more surface area, the more molecule interactions, the better the reaction. It also means lower cost because you use less material(e.g. expensive platinum).
If we can see the surface area of nanoscale designed catalysts we can design better (and cheaper) catalysts used in fuel cells.
First images of nanoparticle platinum-cobalt surface
Today a group of researchers from MIT, UT-Austin and ORNL has released images of nanoscale surface by using a technique known as Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy.
The researchers analyzed platinum and cobalt nanoparticles to understand why the performance of a combined catalyst was more reactive than simply using platinum alone.
Now the researchers can propose and test theories to why the material is so reactive. If researchers can design catalysts with less platinum, the cost of fuel cells could drop dramatically.
The same principle of surface area applies to building better batteries and capacitors. If we can apply this imaging technique across all devices, we could accelerate commercialization of highly efficient energy storage systems.
The future of clean abundant energy depends on our ability to lower the costs of chemical reactions in energy conversions involving light, hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. These are the foundations of most energy systems, and basis for developing ‘green chemistry’ that avoid harmful byproducts.
If we want to create low cost solar cells or improve batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, we must advance our knowledge and nano-engineering of catalysts. If we want to reduce the impact of harmful emissions from coal, oil and natural gas, we must turn to catalysts.
Nanoscale design of shapes
Catalysts speed up chemical reactions. At the most basic level shape matters. To improve performance we can design catalysts at the ‘nanoscale’ (billionth of the meter) to change properties of low cost abundant elements rather than rely on expensive precious metals. At the nanoscale we design higher surface area to increase chances of molecules reacting, and we can design shapes so that they have high selectivity to deal with a certain type of molecules (e.g. capturing sulfur, releasing hydrogen).
Up until now, scientists have only dealt with snapshot images of catalysts before or after. Never live, in action. Now Berkeley scientists have changed the game. “By watching catalysts change in real time, we can possibly design smart catalysts that optimally change as a reaction evolves,” Gabor Somorjai, a renowned surface science and catalysis expert.
Berkeley researchers are confident that catalysts can be designed to decrease the harmful effects of pollutants, improve performance of energy storage systems like batteries and hydrogen fuel cells and create ‘greener’ liquid fuels and feedstocks associated with ‘green chemistry’ in which waste byproducts are minimized.
Just a short post to clear up a common mistake made by the media on the future of electric cars:
We do not have to choose between ‘electric’ versus ‘hydrogen’ cars. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles. The only alternative to the combustion engine is an electric motor. The question is – what should power that electric motor? Batteries or fuel cells? Why not both?
Good News: Electric vehicles are coming!
The good news is that stories on electric vehicles are popping up all over the web. Bloggers and mainstream media outlets are covering announcements for production volumes of electric vehicles that are coming from every corner of the world. Sooner or later a leader will step up a confirm our plans to kill the combustion engine-’.
Bad news: People confuse electric motors for energy storage devices
The bad news is that while trying to describe ‘the future’ most bloggers and journalist fall back on merely describing a snapshot view of today. Then they extrapolate it forward assuming the past will dictate the future. They see battery powered electric cars and assume this is the future.
Cars are not iPods, and batteries alone cannot carry the auto industry forward. While there is no doubt that the first generation of electric vehicles are going to be built around advanced lithium ion batteries, next generation electric vehicles (circa 2015-2025) are likely to integrate three different energy storage systems- batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors.
So while bloggers and journalists often describe uncertainty about the direction of the auto industry by asking: Is the future car powered by a battery or fuel cell? – the answer is both.
Hydrogen stored as a solid, then converted in a fuel cell produces electricity.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are electric vehicles.
A ‘hydrogen economy’ is an economy driven by electricity. H2 is just the chemical storage system.
MIT Technology Review is reporting on a breakthrough in manufacturing thin, dense films of carbon nanotubes that could improve electrodes used in 'super' batteries and capacitors used in portable devices, 'smart grids' and electric vehicles.
Energy Storage: Batteries, Fuel cells & CapacitorsBatteries and fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity in a controlled circuit. Capacitors hold electrons as a physical 'charge' and are used in applications that require rapid discharge of energy. All of these energy storage devices are going to evolve in the coming Era of Nanoscale Engineering.
How do you talk about the Future of Energy? The MIT breakthrough demonstrates the enormous potential of nanoscale design of material components that facilitate energy reactions. It would be a mistake to merely extrapolate our current energy technologies forward based on the disruptive nature of nanoscale energy systems.
The MIT breakthrough highlights two fundamental areas to focus our conversation:
New Properties at Nanoscale Carbon The electrical and chemical properties of carbon (and other molecules) change when you shift design from the 'microscale' (millionth of meter) to the 'nanoscale' (billionth of a meter). In recent years, researchers have demonstrated an incredible capacity for carbon nanotubes to capture photons, store electricity and hold hydrogen. Likewise, the performance of metals (e.g. platinum, zinc, nickel) changes dramatically at the nanoscale.
Titanium 'Nanostructures' - Electrons & Hydrogen Boston College researchers have demonstrated a novel titanium nanostructure with expanded surface area for greater efficiency in the transport of electrons that could be tapped to split water to store solar energy in the form of hydrogen.
The team led by Professor Dunwei Wang will continue to improve overall efficiencies, but there is no doubt that they have advanced the 'relatively new science of water splitting' using semiconductor catalysts to separate and store hydrogen and oxygen.
The 'nanostructure' combined titanium disilicide (TiSi2) to absorb a wider spectrum of solar light, with a coating of titanium dioxide which is known to split water using ultraviolet light.
"The current challenge in splitting water involves how best to capture photons within the semiconductor material and then grab and transport them to produce hydrogen," Wang says. "For practical water splitting, you want to generate oxygen and hydrogen separately. For this, good electrical conductivity is of great importance because it allows you to collect electrons in the oxygen-generation region and transport them to the hydrogen-generation chamber for hydrogen production."
Why Nanoscale Matters: Remembering this is a Transition, not a Crisis I think it is important to recognize that we have not run out of options in creating and storing clean forms of energy. It's just that the old set of solutions cannot get us to to where we need to go!
We don't need to go to the mall. Trying to appeal to consumers to 'buy green' will not get us there. It is a superficial strategy that falls flat against global realities of expanding demand for energy.
We don't need to go to oil and coal fields. Continuing to extract energy from the Earth won't get us there. We are seeing limits to growth with conventional oil production, leaving only carbon heavy alternatives.
Where we need to go is down to the molecular ('nano') level of energy interactions, and then reimagine new ways to capture and store energy based on a new understanding of what is really happening!
Researchers have successfully demonstrated a new way to test materials for storing hydrogen as a solid. Dutch-sponsored researcher Robin Gremaud has built a solid storage system for hydrogen based on a light alloy of magnesium, titanium and nickel. Gremaud used a novel (and potentially disruptive) method for simultaneously analyzing thousands of different combinations of the metals. This solid storage system could weigh sixty percent less than a comparable battery pack.
Why is this important to the future of energy?
The concepts of an ‘electric car’ and ‘hydrogen economy’ are misleading. The future is powered by electricity, but we can store electrical energy in form of chemical bonds of hydrogen. (Mother Nature stores energy in chemical bonds of hydrogen-carbon via coal and oil.) So a hydrogen economy is a world powered by electricity. And a hydrogen fuel cell car is still powered by electric motors.
Despite the emergence of advanced lithium ion batteries for the first wave of electric vehicles
, next generation cars are likely to be powered by a combination of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors. Not one energy storage device is adequate enough to meet the demands of automotive applications.
The key to growing the world’s electric vehicle fleet is developing advanced energy storage systems. If batteries struggle to meet the performance demands of automotive applications, hydrogen fuel cells could emerge as a viable alternative assuming we have a viable storage medium. Now researchers have demonstrated a method that might accelerate development of metal based solid state hydrogen solutions.
The future you hear about on the news is not what it appears.
Yes, the 'electric car' is coming, but do not be fooled by first generation ideas being fed into the mainstream media.
The short term challenges are probably being understated as the transition will take many years to unfold. But the long term disruptive changes are more profound than anything you might see on a 60 Minutes special featuring battery car owners in California.
Electric vehicles are likely to change our energy grid, roads, cities and suburbs in ways that are hard to imagine today.
Software - Drive by Wire & The Digital Driving Experience While stodgy Wall Street Journal Op-Ed pieces continue to characterize electric cars as expensive, wimpy cars- there truth is that electric drive systems offer a lower cost manufacturing platform and a flexible software based driving experience.
Establish software and location based services to vehicles, and you create a foundation for revenue streams based on mobility services in a 'wired and connected vehicle'. (Not to mention 'pay per mile' funding streams for transportation infrastructure instead of paying per gallon taxes.)
Companies like Johnson Controls, Microsoft, Intel, Bosch (et al) are developing 'drive-by-wire' software and microcontroller solutions that can make a car sound and feel like a Ferrari, a Mini-van, or Sedan with the push of a button. There is a huge upside in software-service sales that the digitize the driving experience.
Storage: Vehicle to Grid (V2G) & 'Skateboard' Vehicles on Sidewalks