It all comes down to energy. Early in the day of the automobile the electric car was the simple, clean, quiet and reliable choice. It had more than sufficient power, but the batteries of the day could not store enough energy to compete with a tank-full of petroleum (or even alcohol). This turned into a killer deficiency. The electric was left driving short trips around town; gasoline offered range, all-day cruising, FREEDOM! Despite the pathetic 14.9% average efficiency of the US gasoline-powered fleet, a 15-gallon tank of gas can be turned into a whopping 82 kilowatt-hours to the wheels, yet it weighs less than 100 pounds and refills in a few minutes. A typical lead-acid battery pack for an EV weighs hundreds of pounds and holds less than 20 kWH, yet requires several hours to recharge. Clearly, something had to change before battery-powered vehicles could compete on the same turf.
Ever since the first Li-ion powered tzero showed that electric vehicles could overcome the range barrier, it was obvious that some battery technology would eventually make the EV competitive. The Li-ion battery with the lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) cathode clearly wasn't it; cobalt is too expensive, it charges too slowly, and it releases oxygen when overheated which leads to destructive and hazardous thermal runaway. Besides, the $60,000 cost of a tzero full of 18650 cells was clearly beyond what the market will bear.
Several different chemistries are now vying for dominance. Valence Technology's Saphion, based on doped lithium iron phosphate, is made from very inexpensive materials and has no thermal runaway problems. Altair Nano has a number of products, some of which are meant for batteries; I understand that their lithium titanate is going into some fast-charging cells which also beat the thermal runaway issue and have excellent charging performance and cycle life. A123 Systems is cagey about their exact technology, but they've announced some power tools powered by their cells. Their cycle life is claimed to be good, and charge/discharge rate is stellar: 5 minute recharge, and discharge power almost up to 5 kW/kg. One of these appears bound to kick NiMH out of conventional hybrid vehicles; after that, the drop of price with increased manufacturing volume will lead to more and energy storage aboard vehicles. If this is combined with recharging from the grid, it will lead to less and less need for petroleum. It only takes one technology to cross the finish line to make it all happen.
Enter a dark horse to the race. a barium-titanate ultracapacitor. EEStor claims a unit with the following characteristics:
Reading this at The Energy Blog was another "HOLY CRAP!" moment for me. This is far cheaper than Li-ion batteries. Its energy density is comparable, the cycle life is far beyond the needs of a vehicle, and the power density is astounding. At a 10-minute discharge rate, I calculate the power output as up to 312 kilowatts. That's more than FOUR HUNDRED HORSEPOWER from a 400-pound package! If it can be drained in 200 seconds, it would out-power a Bugatti Veyron.
This product looks like it would make a killer EV all by itself, but it would also shine as the storage element of a GO-HEV. Suppose you could get a third of the capacity for half price: 17 kWh for $1600, weighing 150 pounds. It would drive a Prius+ about 60 miles, a somewhat larger car perhaps 45-50. If it let you eliminate 80% of a 750 gallon/year gasoline habit and replace it with $600 of electricity, it would save you about $800 a year at the gasoline prices I see.
Would you buy it? (You're reading this; do I really need to ask?)
If these things work as advertised, the first auto manufacturer to market them is going to see the fuel consumption of its products plummet. It would constitute a suit for divorce from the oil industry and everything else it is associated with. It could turn "electric" into synonyms for clean, quiet, safe, economical, and screaming performance. And peak oil? Who'd care? Overnight, oil would cease to be relevant.
A technology and a manufacturer. It only takes one.
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