“The internal combustion engine is dead, long live the electric car”

Electric cars charge on a London street in 2015. Image: Getty.

New sales of petrol and diesel cars will be banned by 2040 in the UK, which has since been joined by France. Sweden and Scotland will impose the ban by 2032, and Norway by 2025. Coupled with increasing concern over the carcinogenic effects of diesel emissions, the Volkswagen defeat device scandal, and the link between diesel particulates and Alzheimer’s, focus has turned again to electric cars.

There is still much debate about the long-term environmental benefits of electrically powered cars. What fuel mix will the power stations that generate the electricity be using, for example, and what are the implications for the environment of widespread battery production and disposal? Nevertheless, the key message in the Clean Air Plan is the need for an improvement in air quality for the benefit of human health and therefore the removal of petrol and diesel cars from built up areas. It is not an academic argument on the holistic environmental impact.

The electric car actually predates the use of the internal combustion engine in vehicles. Electric vehicles were popular until their complete decline in the 1930s due to cheaper petroleum fuelled cars such as the Model T Ford. Nevertheless, battery technology has now reached a point where it could be a viable alternative to the use of fuels.

In the last decade, manufacturers’ hybrid and electric offerings have grown – but the market is still small. Only 1.8 per cent of new vehicles sold were wholly electric and 3.5 per cent hybrid (a combination of a smaller internal combustion engine supported by electric propulsion) in September 2017, although this represents an increase of 0.3 per cent and 1.4 per cent respectively on September 2016 figures.

According to a 2014 government survey, consumer resistance to adoption is largely due to concerns over recharging and “range anxiety”, with consumers worrying about how far they can actually go on a charge.

In fact, the average annual mileage of a privately owned car in 2016 was 7,500 miles, equating to only 28.9 miles per day – assuming that the car is used for commuting five times per week. This is easily within the range of electric cars, which typically boast ranges of over 100 miles.

Fit for purpose?


Electric cars arguably suit our modern, digital lives far more than the faithful old internal combustion engine – and most of us are now more attuned to plugging in devices that support our daily lives. Surely visiting a fuel station once or twice a week for about ten to 20 minutes should be a rather alien and outdated concept in an instantly connected, plug-in culture many now live in.

Indeed, the idea of plugging your car in at the end of the day is just a logical extension of the need to plug in your phone, your laptop, tablet or even your toothbrush.

But perhaps therein lies the uptake problem. While we have become accustomed to a portable battery orientated culture, we are also very aware of the potential downfalls this brings. We are familiar with the annoyance of our phone running out of battery while we are using it as a sat-nav to get home, or the degradation of a laptop battery over its lifetime, or the ultimate frustration of waking up in the morning to find that our electric toothbrush has run out of charge. Perhaps the modern human consciousness can’t uncouple its infrequent but memorable frustrations with battery technology to recognise the benefits an electric car could bring.

But this may not be an issue among younger generations. My two-year-old son picked up my scale model of a Ferrari 355 (yes, this is being written by a petrol head), pointed to the engine compartment and said, “daddy, batteries go here”. I grew up maintaining cars with my father, so this was quite a shock – but also a revelation. A cultural shift is underway. The knowledge I proudly hold may be irrelevant to my children as they reach driving age – and the joy of explaining the internal combustion engine to my older five-year-old son already seems more akin to teaching history than technology.

There is already a growing infrastructure in the UK for electric vehicles with 14,548 charging points in 5,207 locations (in comparison to 8,459 fuel stations). There are now on-street chargers in most cities and dedicated parking bays in motorway service stations, although access is more limited in rural areas.

Even if charged at home, the range of most current models should be sufficient for the majority of journeys, with the exception of long distance trips, where a change of pace may need to be adopted to permit for the longer charging periods mid journey. For those who typically drive beyond the average range on a more frequent basis, a hybrid vehicle remains the most suitable option.

The ConversationIn any event, after over 140 years of virtually unrivalled domination, the innovation cycle has finally caught up with the internal combustion engine. The internal combustion engine is dead, long live the electric car.

Matthew Watkins is a senior lecturer in product design at Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Which nations control the materials required for renewables? Meet the new energy superpowers

Solar and wind power facilities in Bitterfeld, Germany. Image: Getty.

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonisation”, setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.


On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

The ConversationA country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers”, will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.