The biggest problem for technologically and economically practical electric vehicles is storing the power needed to operate them A) in amounts great enough to give them a range and speed comparable to conventional vehicles, B) while staying within weight/cost/size constraints necessary to make them affordable, useable vehicles, and C) doing so in a way that doesn't take hours to recharge. Research at M.I.T. may have scored a breakthrough on all three points.
While the financial house of cards the rocket scientists of Wall Street and the international bankers built teeters back and forth, it's worth noting that a new technology is in the works that could have a transforming effect on large parts of our economy and our environment. I ran across the news about it in New Scientist a couple of days ago and it is getting a lot of interest there. It's 'Black Gold' that could really shake up the electric vehicle field. (more)
I'm not going to pretend I understand all of the physics and the chemistry behind the MIT work, but the implications are pretty straightforward. What the M.I.T. team has done is find a way to make a semi-liquid sludge of solid particles in suspension that can store electrical energy in chemical form within a solid structure that contains it while allowing the energy to be extracted or stored (charged up) as needed.
A conventional solid battery can already do this of course - but the M.I.T. concept has some advantages, as reported in New Scientist by Ferris Jabr:
Rechargeable batteries are the heaviest and most expensive components of electric cars by a large margin. Chiang [one of the M.I.T. researchers] estimates that the cost of manufacturing his team's battery will be $250 per kilowatt-hour of generating capacity. So if one were built to replace the 24-kWh battery in the Nissan Leaf, it would cost $6000. That is about one-third the cost of existing batteries, and just low enough to compete with gasoline. Chiang also calculates that Cambridge crude would let a car travel at least 300 kilometres on a single charge, double what is possible with today's batteries.
In other words, lower weight, lower cost, and higher capacity - and it gets better. When the battery is drained, the depleted electrolyte could either be pumped out and swapped for solution that is already charged, replaced just by swapping tanks of electrolyte, or (slower) simply recharging it in place. This set of options promises to greatly reduce the drawbacks of conventional solid battery vehicles to the point where going electric is not going to be that big of a change from going fossil fuel.
There are other implications as well. Any place where there's a need to store electricity in some fashion will benefit from this new battery technology - such as a solar/wind powered home off the grid, or in a hybrid vehicle. The fact that the electrolyte is a solution offers greater flexibility in designing the shape and size of battery components. It doesn't matter where the electricity to charge the battery comes from either - it can be as 'green' as the customer is willing to pay for. As the technology comes into use, look for plenty more applications to develop as people see what can be done with it.
Of course, there are questions to be answered as well. How many discharge-charge cycles can the Cambridge Crude handle before it begins to degrade? What are the environmental effects of obtaining the raw materials and manufacturing them into a battery? How difficult or dangerous is it to store or handle? How will inevitable losses in exchanging charged for depleted fluid be dealt with? What kind of infrastructure will be needed for quick-change stations? What kind of waste will be generated, and how hard will it be to dispose of it safely? What happens if a battery is damaged in an accident - and how does it get handled?
Nonetheless, the initial results seem to be looking good enough to go ahead. New Scientist notes in closing:
Last year Chiang, his colleague Craig Carter and entrepreneur Throop Wilder founded a company called 24M Technologies to develop the battery. They have raised $16 million in funding so far, and plan to have a compact prototype ready in 2013.
Their timing is good - this kind of thing is going to happen less and less often in the future, as the deficit fixation in Washington gets more feverish. It seems the funding of this work didn't come from the mythical 'job creators' out there. The M.I.T. report is careful to note where initial funding came from:
The development of the technology was partly funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). Continuing research on the technology is taking place partly at 24M, where some recent MIT graduates who worked on the project are part of the team; at MIT, where professors Angela Belcher and Paula Hammond are co-investigators; and at Rutgers, with Professor Glenn Amatucci.
The target of the team’s ongoing work, under a three-year ARPA-E grant awarded in September 2010, is to have, by the end of the grant period, “a fully-functioning, reduced-scale prototype system,” Chiang says, ready to be engineered for production as a replacement for existing electric-car batteries.
Some of the things that often get overlooked in discussions of electric vehicles are some of the other advantages that go with them. Electric motors can be built that are simpler, far more rugged and long lasting than internal combustion engines - you don't need the electromechanical sideshow that goes on to manage the burning of fossil fuels within the engine or the waste heat and toxic gasses that result. You don't have an engine that is constantly banging itself apart; transmitting power to wheels is a lot simpler as well when you can replace gears and transmission fluid with electromagnetic fields.
To take these advantages to extremes, John Wayland took a 1972 Datsun 1200 and turned it into an electric powered car that routinely blows the competition away on drag strips. Here a link to a lot of info on the car (and other projects.) Here's a link to a report on it in 2009, along with a 10 minute video showing it in action - there's quite a few Youtube videos out there, too. A few numbers from back in 2009:
It goes from 0 to 60 in 3 seconds! In fact, it can take a quarter-mile in 11.46 seconds reaching a top speed of 114 mph – that’s a world record. And it’s street-legal.
Imagine what Wayland could do with some 'Cambridge Crude' in the tank!