Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Plugging Away at Electric Cars

I watched a cop movie on the tube, last night. A pretty good one. Great getaway scene -- two bank robbers sprinted through a hail of bullets (untouched, of course) and piled into a car, one of them screaming, “Hit the gas!” I thought, if they remake that movie a few years from now, the guy would have to yell, “Give it the juice!” because they’d be bolting in an electric car. Right?
It made me wonder: Why couldn't they have shot that scene today? What IS the state of the electric car? I mean, it's been on the Human To-Do List for 100 years. Yet time has passed, the pressures to replace the internal combustion engine have turned into a perfect storm that’s producing volatile dialogue between those who supply oil and those who buy it, and fluctuating prices that – when high – can slow a mobile society to a crawl and drain a national economy, and toxic byproducts that are poisoning the globe.

So, with all of that motivation to get rid of carbon-based fuels, why haven’t we taken care of business? Because it ain’t easy being green (thank you, Kermit).

But folks ARE paying attention – the automobile industry is one good example. The key element to success is having an efficient, inexpensive, easily-produced battery.

GM, which has its corporate eyes on a lithium-ion version, recently tapped the University of Michigan for a joint venture: the Advanced Battery Coalition for Drivetrains (ABCD), which will work to advance battery technology and resolve issues related battery life and performance.

Ann Marie Sastry (left), an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of engineering at U-M, and U-M's co-director of the ABCD, said that batteries are the most important part of the electric drivetrain but they haven't been studied enough in the automotive world because of their limited role in gas-powered vehicles. The ABCD will allow Sastry and her colleagues to optimize batteries and predict how the batteries will behave over time.

Sastry, whose engineering expertise lies in mechanical, biomedical and materials science fields, said the ABCD would tackle problems that are hard but “worth the investment and risk, because the risk of doing nothing is much, much greater.”

General Motors, which sold 14,439 hybrid vehicles in 2008, is scheduled to introduce the Volt in 2011. Unlike current commercially available hybrids, the Volt is a plug-in hybrid that has an electric motor as its propulsion system. (The difference between a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid is significant and will have vastly different effects on the energy grid.) The Chrysler Aspen hybrid is buzzing around town, and the company intends to introduce two plug-in hybrids or an all-electric car by 2010. Ford has put 100,000 of its Escape hybrids on the road and says it’ll have plug-in hybrid vehicles in showrooms in 2012. These vehicles are part of the next big step toward an all-electric car.

President Barack Obama announced the availability of $2.4 billion to put America to work developing next generation plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and the advanced batteries that'll make them run. Michigan's governor Jennifer M. Granholm said that the carbon party is over and her state's future is battery-powered. China is positioning itself to become a leading producer of hybrid and all-electric vehicles within three years. Japan is the leading market leader in hybrids, today, and is working furiously to put an all-electric car on the streets.

The development of lithium-ion batters and electric cars means more than a world with a green transportation system. These batteries have the potential to store the carbon-free energy that people can harness with home-based solar cells and wind turbines – in a very real sense, lithium ion batteries of the future could be a home's energy-storage center.

It’ll take some time to realize the full promise of the battery in energy technology. But just as the space race of the ’60s and ’70s led to technical achievements no one had foreseen, so too might the development of electric vehicles take us to technologies that aren’t even a flicker in our imaginations, today. And I just might get to see an electric-car chase in the next cop shoot-em-up I watch at 2 a.m.

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