Will Electric Cars Ever Become More Than City Runabouts?

People, especially in North America, love their cars. The challenge of maintaining the personal mobility so dear to North Americans demands technological innovation on a number of fronts.  While, in the near term, it looks like batteries will power some vehicles, there are practical limitations that may doom the battery-powered car in the long run.  Weight, or power density (power to weight ratio), is a major concern.  The efficiency of an electric vehicle is degraded if it has to haul a battery weighing hundreds of pounds, and the cost of the battery combined with its finite lifespan may make the electric vehicle economically un-justifiable – I haven’t yet heard from those saddled with replacing their hybrid’s battery yet.  Beyond that, there are conversion losses, both in batteries during charging and discharging and in the running of electric motors, that further decrease the efficiency of electric vehicles.  Either new battery technologies with much higher power density will be developed, or the technology of choice may eventually be hydrogen, whether internally combusted (the more ready and better understood technology) or used to produce electricity via a fuel cell.  That’s all in the near term, however, and more effective technologies may be not far off.Hydrogen power might be better, for vehicles in particular. If fusion power can be developed, the vast and inexpensive supply of electricity could make hydrogen more practical as a fuel.  It is clean burning, and has already been proven workable in internal combustion engines.  Hydrogen storage systems, usually involving a hydrate and hydrocarbon, are under development or investigation, and we already have at least some of the liquid and gas handling infrastructures needed to transport, store, and dispense such a fuel.  That’s not to say that a huge investment won’t be needed to make such a change, but it suggests it might be phased in as standard fossil fuels are phased out, as their increasing cost will phase them out of use naturally.
What happened to fuel cells? Why don’t hydrogen fuel cells come up as the option of choice to power electric cars?  Unfortunately, for all the promotion fuel cells received 5-10 years ago, we’re not hearing much now, and that makes me think that the various research projects ran into substantial stumbling blocks they haven’t yet been able to overcome.  Alternatively, it is possible (but less likely) that the organizations funding fuel cell research ran low on funds and political support, or just decided that other avenues were more economically feasible or promised more profit than fuel cells.  Most often when a widely-promoted technology fails to emerge it is for a combination of reasons spanning the technical and financial.

Will nanotechnology change “the game”? As for the more distant future, will nanotechnology devices assist in storing and releasing hydrogen, methane, or another gaseous or liquid fuel?  Will nanotechnology-enhanced surfaces result in new friction-reducing capabilities that can significantly decrease losses in mechanical systems such as electric motors, internal combustion engines, and drive train components?  Will nanotechnology surfaces on roads create new transportation forms that skate over a road that actively passes objects along, bucket brigade style, in a controlled way that will eliminate accidents and permit higher speeds on specially-prepared roads?  Will “bullet trains” on nanotechnology-enhanced tracks travel so speedily and efficiently as to cut air travel demand significantly?

As always, I welcome your comments — Tim


One response to “Will Electric Cars Ever Become More Than City Runabouts?

  1. Hydrogen is always going to be the fuel of the future. It is low density. We can use electricity to make liquid fuels.

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