Electric cars are clean, quiet and appear to be the best option of surface transport. Even air transport is seeking a similar option to make the sky cleaner, as thousands of jets criss-cross the globe at all times of the day. We often read about Tesla and its relentless efforts of mass producing electric vehicles, coupled with the infrastructure support. Volvo, the Swedish carmaker, has said that, 2019 onwards, all its cars will be part-electric.
Volkswagen has planned for battery options for all its cars in the near future, as has GM. Among the countries, China is taking giant leaps towards electric and hybrid mobility. However, the most startling of the lot is Airbus, which has the ambition of going hybrid-electric. In addition, a fully solar powered aircraft has already completed its maiden journey around the globe.
In civil aviation, the greatest challenge is that, kilo for kilo, aviation fuel contains 100 times as much energy as a lithium-ion battery. It is relatively easy to meet such challenges on the road, but in the case of aviation it is the ‘lift’ that matters. Towards that, Uber is working on its aerial taxi project. Pipistrel, a Slovenian company, already makes a two-seater electric training plane. Airbus has teamed up with Rolls-Royce and Siemens to convert a miniature plane into a ‘test bed’ for hybrid-electric propulsion, which will serve as a roadmap for the future. In Seattle, Zunum Aero, a promising start-up, has announced plans for its first hybrid-electric plane, a 12-seater, which is being guided and funded by Boeing.
The greatest gain by designing a hybrid airliner is that a jet engine cannot garner more than 58% energy conversion as most of the energy is lost in the form of heat. This is even worse in case of takeoff and landing. The electric motor (in case of a hybrid airliner) can do much better where the energy conversion is to the tune of 95%. Here, the batteries that power them would not need to match the energy density of jet fuel. Electric motors are also lighter than jet engines, have considerable less number of components, far lesser wearable components, and would not require close inspection as compared to jet engines.
Paul Eremenko, CTO of UTC and former CTO of Airbus, says that single aisle planes will be safer, more efficient and cost-effective as a hybrid product. However, Ashish Kumar, founder and CEO of Zunum Aero, says that cost per available seat mile (CASM) will be the key to hybrid airline success. This is obtained by dividing operating cost by capacity, measured as the number of seats in an aircraft multiplied by miles flown. Kumar is confident that his aircraft can fly at a competitive price of 8 cents per seat mile, but Oliver Wyman, the airline analyst, says that American airlines have around 11 cents to their credit.
As far as region-wise developments are concerned, while economically-strong countries have advanced a lot in terms of research and production, the turf is wide open for emerging economies as well, and they can make full use of it either by collaboration or home-grown technological prowess.
The sustained success of electric vehicles can be attributed to three basic factors: policy initiatives, design features, and lithium-ion innovation. And then there is pricing.
We also have to keep in mind the big potential of used electric car battery market. Almost a third of electric car batteries are expected be reused by 2025, providing important applications for the power grid and buildings, according to a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The report estimates that there will be 29 gigawatt hours of used batteries created by electric cars by 2025, and 10 gigawatt hours of those will be repackaged and find new life storing energy for buildings, home-owners and utilities, and re-powering electric cars to an extent. Electric car batteries have a life of 8-10 years. While a brand new battery system is still expensive (the cost is rapidly dropping), a used battery costs a fraction of that and yet has 50-60% of residual life.
Let’s now focus on technological innovation in lithium-ion battery, reducing weight of a vehicle and electrical circuitry. Samsung has said that by incorporating Graphene—an ultra-thin form of carbon—into a lithium-ion battery it had managed to boost its energy capacity by 45% and greatly reduced charging time.
A promising new idea is a solid-state battery that uses solid electrolytes instead of liquid found in lithium-ion batteries. These are smaller, have more capacity and cheaper to produce than lithium-ion batteries.
As far as manufacturing of electric cars is concerned, their bodies are not held together by rivets or welds, but by advanced adhesives, similar to those used in modern aircraft. Even the grades of steel are thinner, and companies are using more aluminium and advanced lightweight steel. Magnesium, which is lighter than even aluminium, is also being used.
Coming to voltage, earlier the circuitry was limited to 12-Volt, owing to the battery discharge circuit limitation, but now carmakers are moving to 48-Volt electrical systems, which leads to faster acceleration, among other benefits.
As for the policy perspective, China is planning to extend the tax rebate in the form of 10% purchase tax. In India, industry body SIAM (Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers) has urged the government to bring down GST on electric vehicles to 5%, from 12% at present. In the US, federal incentives range from a tax credit of $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the size of the battery, and some states in the US offer electric vehicle buyers and businesses a credit for purchase and costs of charging equipment.
The government also has a big role to play, as charging sections need to be set up at strategic places across the country. Reportedly, the 4,000 charging station tender floated by EESL got cancelled due to complaints from bidders over lack of clarity on the specifications of the chargers. Another aspect is whether to install AC or DC chargers.
With strides being made steadily towards the development of affordable electric vehicles, it appears these are not a distant reality.
By Subrata Ray, Chief project coordinator, Renewables and Natural Gas, RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group