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Growing up in a country where English was the language of higher education, I inherited an Anglo-centric view of most developments in science and technology. For example, thinking about the history of printing, the names of Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton came to mind. When I mentioned Caxton to a German friend, they looked blank, having only heard of Gutenberg. Six hundred years before Gutenberg and Caxton, however, there were nameless Chinese monks who used carved wooden blocks coated with ink to print Buddhist texts. Subsequently, movable metal type was used in both China and Korea, two hundred years before Gutenberg’s printing press.
Language matters! The point was driven home to me when I travelled in Central Europe in the 1970s and came across a book. Lightning in his hand: the life story of Nikola Tesla. I read about his discoveries and inventions and thought, it couldn’t possibly be true. Most of these were Edison’s discoveries. The light bulb. The generator. Alternating current. Wrong on all counts apparently. Edison merely perfected the lightbulb and was a savvy marketer. He was also not above using dirty tricks to discredit competition. He is said to have publicly electrocuted dogs and cats with alternating current (ac/which we use today) to prove that his direct current was safer than Tesla’s ac. All this happened in the late 19th and early 20th century. For an amusing take on Nikola Tesla’s many accomplishments compared to Edison’s, see Why Tesla was the greatest Geek who ever lived.
In the 21st century, there’s a face-off between two companies that both borrow the great Serbian genius’s name. Nikola and Tesla. Tesla, as some of you might know, became the most valuable car company on the planet this week, based on market capitalization, overtaking Toyota.
Nikola Motors is far less known, and aims to compete head-to-head with Tesla’s electric semi, a heavy duty battery electric vehicle slated to appear in 2021. Nikola claims its trucks, powered by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell, will provide driving range comparable to a diesel truck. They say that pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will have to compromise either on range or haulage capacity, simply because of the weight of its batteries. Nikola has no sales and no revenue, yet has achieved market valuation of $34 billion in 2020. Hmm! Why is there no end of people willing to bet their money against Tesla?
On the other hand, Tesla has a brilliant track record of achieving seemingly impossible goals, its cars outperforming every other electric vehicle on the road today, and it already has several prototype semis on the road. CEO Elon Musk reiterates at every opportunity that he relies on first principles of physics to base technology choices and manufacturing decisions. The above image, courtesy of the non-profit Transport and Environment (via Clean Technica), seems to support his opinion, that producing hydrogen with current technologies to run vehicles on electricity produced by a fuel cell just does not make economic sense. Many engineers at Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, BMW and Mercedes disagree with Musk and are putting a chunk of their considerable R&D resources into FCEVs* using hydrogen. None of them seem as yet to have prominent plans to roll out extensive hydrogen charging infrastructure so this indicates a future for FCEVs as niche products in the coming two decades.
All the legacy automakers are in a bind because of Tesla’s rapid roll-out of increasingly attractive and popular electric models. They face a triple whammy, locked in to their traditional supply chains, with highly qualified and experienced ICE workforces who need to either be retrained or made redundant, and confronting dramatically decreased car sales in 2020. Post-Covid, the only automotive growth segment seems to be in EVs.
A case can be made for FCEVs in the case of heavy duty, long-range transport vehicles that only need point-to-point charging infrastructure rather than a widely distributed one; think cargo ships, passenger ferries, trains. Aircraft powered by hydrogen? I don’t know whether the concept will take off (pardon the pun), although Zero Avia has short haul aircraft that run on hydrogen fuelled electricity. Whatever the case, the sooner we come off conventional ICEs, the better for our planetary future.
*FCEV – Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle
**ICE – Internal Combustion Engine
The hydrogen economy may be only a decade away, or more. Some people think that battery electric vehicles will replace combustion engines in the interim. Whatever the case, there are exciting new developments happening in the world of hydrogen. Here’s a shared post from the blog Electrifying entitled Hydrogen – unleash the beast.
A quick internet search reveals that the name ZOE means “life” in Greek and is usually a girl’s name, although it can be used for boys as well. A website called “Behind the Name” tells us that the name ZOE was adopted by Hellenized Jews as a translation of EVE. Two early Christian saints of this name were martyred under Hadrian and Diocletian. A few weeks ago I bought the Zoe pictured below. This Zoe has nothing to with saints or martyrdom but it could be one of a tribe that will help a gasping planet to breathe a little easier.
When one lives in a city with well-designed public transport there is little need for a private car, but after hearing a few acquaintances talk about range anxiety and the impracticality of electric cars, I decided to buy one and rent it out on a daily basis. This is intended as a small step to allay common fears and misconceptions about electro mobility. Some of these misconceptions are due to society’s resistance to change; others are spread by petrol heads, addicted to imported oil and oblivious to environmental costs and the thousands of kilometers conventional fuel has to travel before it enters the tank. Contrast this with electricity that is generated much closer to home (or even at home with your own solar panels!), and potentially available at every city street corner. Then there are the car companies with their armies of highly qualified technicians and engineers whose skills will suddenly become obsolete. Instead of powertrains and cooling systems, they suddenly need software engineers to tweak more power out of lithium ion batteries, or optimise charging speeds at various levels of charge, or find ways to enhance the power density of the cells they use. For example currently, the batteries of the BMW i3 carry a charge of 170 Wh/kg compared to the 250 Wh/kg of a Tesla. That’s a 32% advantage in battery weight alone, which translates into range, efficiency and price. And a company like Tesla makes improvements all the time, continuously upgrading even its older cars with over the air software updates. So conventional car companies have a vested interest in maintaining the manufacturing status quo and will produce more affordable electric cars only when more customers demand them.
The Zoe pictured above has a maximum range of 150 km, which translates to somewhere around 120 km in the real world, depending on driving speeds, terrain and temperature. In my fossil-fuelled car-owning days, I usually drove around 50 km a day during the week. On weekends, a jaunt to the surrounding countryside might mean a trip of 200 kilometers. The big surprise driving the Zoe in 2019 was to find that a good network of charging stations already exists around the country and in most countries in Western Europe. The big problem is they are not well marked, even on highways. The various charging points are not necessarily shown on a common app. These are all deficiencies that have to be overcome in the coming months, and I will try and talk to companies about these points. But the bottom line is, if one is willing to do some homework before a journey and map out a choice of charging points along the way, one can cover most of Western Europe emission free. Of course, I hear someone say, but ah, what about the emissions caused by the production of electricity. Good point. All the more reason for Europe to phase out its remaining coal-fired and natural gas power plants and switch to PV, wind and hydro.
Oh, but wind and PV are intermittent! You’ll still need fossil fuelled power to provide a stable base load of energy. This used to be a valid argument, but no longer. Efficient software, smart meters and battery backup can do the job at much lower rates. Additionally, countries like Norway, Spain and Austria are geographically favoured and have enough sites where pumped hydro can do the job at competitive rates. While writing this article I came across an interesting site listing existing pumped hydro storage (PHS) and future potential for six countries (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland and Spain).
The above work shows that conditions in various EU countries differ widely due to varying geography, political will and regulatory systems. There are many choices we can make as individuals to lower our carbon footprint. The quickest three steps may be to lower thermostats in winter, switch to a plant-based diet and either walk or use a bicycle for errands within a 5 kilometer radius of the home. If we must drive, then an electric car is not only better for the planet, it costs less to run and maintain in the long-run. The good news is that by now there are used electric car models available for the price of a small used car like the Volkswagen Polo. If you’d like to rent the Zoe pictured above for a day, a week or more, look for it on the car-sharing website at drivy.at and take it out for a spin. You will enjoy the drive.
There’s a new car sharing company in town called Caroo mobility (caroo.at). Their selling point: e-cars only, offering a choice of makes and models that are fun to drive and easy to manoeuvre in town. They offered initial longer term rentals to volunteer alpha testers, so I took a BMW i3 for 2 days. The test package included 200 free kilometers per day, so I was looking forward to several test drives around the city and surrounding countryside. Recharging at the local energy utility’s (Wien Energie) 22kW installations was a breeze and took around two hours for a full charge (180 km in winter). The company supplied two different charging cards for the car. A smart phone app, quickly downloaded from a wide range of choices on the app store, showed several hundred charging points in and around the city. I should have remembered Murphy’s Law at this point!
We travelled outside the city on the second day, planning to visit two different towns south and east of Vienna, travelling around 220 km in all. Fully charged, the dashboard showed 180 km range left so we thought, armed with two charging cards, no problem. We’ll charge somewhere along the way. The two phone apps of charging stations, hastily downloaded in the morning, chosen at random from more than a dozen, showed scores of charging stations around the two towns and along the highway. We set off, the car fully charged and showing 180 km of range left on a cold, clear winter morning. By the time we reached the first town, 50 km distant, the screen showed we had 115 km of range left, not bad at all, considering the heating was set to 20C and we drove at modest highway speeds. After our visit in the first town, we had plenty of juice left for the next town, 70 km away. Our apps showed several charging stations at the next town, but we decided to play it safe and top up the charge before heading off. Our real EV learning experience began here.
At the first charging station, run by a different utility, our cards were compatible, but the car did not charge. I called the hot line of the utility and was assured, if the pillar light was green, the charge should work. Green lights all around, no charge! The helpful hotline lady said, sometimes these things are finicky. Try disconnecting and reconnect again. Tried this several times, no luck. So we drove around the outskirts of the first town for an hour, looking for other charging stations. Found another one. The chargers were not Type 2, the ones we needed. By this time our range had come down to 90 km, still enough to make it to the next town. Unsure of what would happen there, we decided to head back to Vienna on the highway, where there are a few charging stations. All of the charge stations were badly marked, so we missed the exits to two. Finally pulled into a giant service station where we found a bank of 6 high speed chargers, labelled 150 kW, 175 kW. The plugs were incompatible with our car. I assumed they were CCS, to allow high power DC fast charging, and was afraid they would fry our batteries even if I could connect. There was one 44kW pillar, where the BMW’s plugs were compatible, but our two charging cards were not valid here. So we ended up driving an extra hour back to Vienna to fully charge the car at one of the city’s charging stations.
So my short summary here. The BMW i3 is beautiful to drive with many well thought out details, some design quirks that don’t really work for me on first use (like the back doors opening backwards), beyond my budget, with the bare bones version starting at around €40,000. So when I buy an electric car later this year, it’s going to be a used Renault Zoe at 25% of the price of an i3, with a monthly rental fee for the battery. A word about the rental fee that begins at around €60 per month; it might sound like an additional financial burden, but remember that battery rental will keep your insurance costs low, since the most expensive component of the car does not have to be insured. Worth keeping in mind when you decide on a purchase plan. And the last word. Before I (or you) buy an EV, download a good app of local charge points and make sure you study the specs, not only of the car, but of charging port requirements with their corresponding charge cards or apps.
Ever wanted to go on an ocean liner? Cruise ship advertisements idealise the high life to be had on the high seas. What they never say is how much ships pollute. The average ship runs on low grade oil, which can be likened to a sludge that emits more particulate matter than a million cars; more sulfur than seven million cars. And that’s just one cruise liner!
Several Scandinavian ferries now run on hybrid diesel-electric systems but, as in most advances in electric propulsion these days, China is taking the lead, as a cargo ship with a 2.4 MWh battery pack launches in Guangdong. Ironically, the ship will be used to transport dirty coal!
Car makers have a problem. They don’t admit it yet. Or maybe they do admit it to themselves, although not in public. Why should they, when enough people are buying bigger cars? Global car sales in 2017 were close to 90 million vehicles in all categories, including SUVs and light trucks. That’s roughly 1 car for every 77 people. Less than 1% of these were electric. How many more cars do we need? Car companies are powerful entities that are in the business of selling dreams; dreams of freedom, of the joy of the open road, dreams of independence. The irony is that as we buy into the dream, we destroy the very foundation on which our dreams are based.
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Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance calls you one of three Black Swans in the world of energy and transportation this century; the other two being Fracking and Fukushima. You are often compared to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Iron Man, and shades of Einstein. You have advised Presidents. Heads of state visit your factories to see how they could improve the lives of their citizens. You stepped in without fanfare to donate money and provide power to a hospital in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. You issue audacious challenges to yourself and to others and sometimes miss deadlines, but ultimately deliver on your promises. Thousands, perhaps millions of people, speculate against you in the stock markets, hoping to make a quick profit from your failure. So far, they’ve been disappointed. But you put your money where your mouth is, so for every one of these speculative sharks, there are a thousand eager customers for your products and millions of well-wishers who hope you can help save the planet.
And yet you feel alone and unloved. You search for a soul mate and are willing to fly to the ends of the earth to find true love. You must know that love is like a butterfly. Be still and perhaps it will land on you. There are no guarantees, but the chances are infinitely greater if you cultivate stillness. And while you wait, exchange your loneliness for the wealth of solitude. As Hannah Arendt and Plato observed: Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business.
As the father of five children, know also that their childhood is a precious and finite resource that you could use to your benefit and theirs. Childhood ends all too soon, so help them in whatever way you can to make good choices. You seem to have done so for yourself. In the meantime, millions of people around the world wish you well, as I do.
I bought a motorcycle for extensive local travel in an Indian city. A few friends and most of my middle class extended family were aghast when they heard. This is a form of suicide, they said. Look at the state of traffic on the roads. You need to protect yourself in a car.
Here are my answers to the criticism. First, there’s enough pollution already, and I’d rather travel at 55 km/liter with a 100cc motorbike rather than around 20km/l with a small car. Of course, the best alternative would be an electric vehicle powered by renewable energy, or else public transport, but neither of these options is currently practicable for my purposes.
Second, as the image above shows, progress is much faster with two wheels on congested roads. And third? I was reminded of the third reason this week when I had the painful news of a dear friend killed in a freak traffic accident in a European city, one of the safest cities in the world. I grieve at the loss. My take from the deep sadness I feel is this: seize the day, live as carefully and as well as you can, but follow your heart and do as you think you should do.
Salar de Uyuni in Southwest Bolivia contains an estimated 43 % of the world’s easily recoverable lithium. Together with neighbors Chile and Argentina, the three countries contain 70% of the planet’s reserves. As most people are aware by now, the renewables revolution is gathering momentum, and the world needs lithium, lots of it. The people who follow these trends estimate that Tesla’s Gigafactory alone, when it comes into production, will double world demand for lithium, whose prices have shot up just in the last two months of 2015 (from US$ 6500 to 13,000 a ton in November/December). American, Japanese, Chinese and South Korean companies are already mining around 170,000 tons of lithium worldwide. The Argentinian salares, or salt flats, comprise thousands of square miles in the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta. The Salinas Grandes in the latter province is estimated to be the third largest in the world. But the grand-daddy of them all is the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia that stretches over 10,000 sq.km. To paraphrase Exupéry, Salar de Uyuni is made up of salt, salt salt, and more salt, to a depth of one meter or more. In addition to common salt (sodium chloride), the salars contain other useful chlorides; potassium, magnesium and lithium chloride. The estimated 9 millions tons of lithium contained in this salar, conveniently concentrated by natural evaporation, should be enough to power a global energy revolution or two, but at what cost? Bolivia has suspended mining operations after the local residents opposed it, and Chile is granting no new concessions. These are understandable steps, in the light of what economists call ‘the resource curse.‘ In a nutshell, the resource curse or the resource paradox is that often countries with non-renewable natural resources (like minerals and oil) tend to have lower economic growth and less democracy than countries with fewer natural assets.
Understanding the resource curse does not help the international battery industry or alleviate the world’s need for non-polluting sources of energy, however. The increasing price of lithium is driving research into methods of obtaining it from the most abundant source on the planet, the oceans. Industrial ecologist Robert Ayres confidently predicted to me more than a decade ago that we would get all the lithium we need from the ocean. “There’s billions of tons there,” he said. True, there is an estimated 230 billion tons of lithium in seawater, but at a concentration of 0.14 to 0.25 parts per million, I did not believe it possible to extract it in meaningful quantities at reasonable cost. Changed my tune this week.
Many companies worldwide have been experimenting with various reverse osmosis technologies (the same technology that’s most often used to desalinate seawater) to produce brine concentrates dense enough to make lithium extraction economical. Now there are reports of several companies in a dozen countries that envisage producing lithium from brine concentrates at prices ranging from $1,500 to 5,000 per ton. Here’s an article about one of them.
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Four recent reports on new breakthroughs in renewable energy generation and storage technology reinforce the promise that was once made for nuclear power: abundant energy for all, including the poorest in society, even though it may never be “too cheap to meter.”
High Performance Flow Batteries The promise of renewable energy technologies will be fully realized when battery storage becomes reliable enough and cheap enough to even out intermittent flows. Today the problem is partly solved by feeding energy from rooftop panels into the grid and then receiving compensation from the energy utility for the power supplied either in cash or in the form of reduced electricity bills. Looking at a typical electricity bill in Euroland (my own) I see the following charges. The unit price (per KWh) is between 6.5 and 7.3 Eurocents, but after grid charges, network costs and taxes are added, I pay 26 cents per KWh. Ironically, bulk consumers (factories, office blocks and large companies) pay lower rates, around 8 to 15 cents per KWh, depending on level of consumption. Now the whole picture is changed with the advent of low cost storage systems that make home batteries affordable and economical. Imagine home systems that can deliver electricity for all your needs at no cost for twenty to thirty years, once installed, barring the onetime cost of the system. Coming soon, to an affordable home near you.
Silicon cones inspired by the architecture of the human eye. The retina of the human eye contains photoreceptors in the form of rods and cones. Rods in the retina are the most sensitive to light, while cones enhance colour sensitivity. Modelling photovoltaic cells based on the makeup of the retina, researchers have been able to enhance the sensitivity of solar cells to different colours in the sunlight that falls on each cell and thereby increase electricity output by “milking the spectrum” closer to its theoretical maximum. Increasing efficiency of the average rooftop PV cells from the current 18-20 to 30% would make such systems cheaper by far than grid electricity mostly anywhere in the world, even in temperate countries. Coming soon, to a rooftop near you.
Modular biobattery plant that turns biowaste into energy. Biogas plants are old hat. They have undeniable benefits, turning plant, animal and human waste into energy (methane) while leaving behind a rich sludge that is excellent fertiliser. However, good designs are not common and they are sometimes cumbersome to feed and maintain. Now comes an efficient German design that promises to be modular and economically viable even at a small scale. In another development, the University of West England at Bristol has developed a toilet that turns human urine into electricity on the fly (pardon the pun) and the prototype is currently undergoing testing, appropriately enough, near the student union bar. Coming soon, to a poo-place or a pee-place near you.
New electrolyte for lithium ion batteries. Lithium ion batteries using various electrolytes have already become the workhorse of the current crop of electric cars and for medium-sized storage requirements. New electrolyte chemistry discovered at PNNL Labs shows that reductions of upto ten times in size, cost and density are feasible and various electrolyte/electrode combinations are being further tested for production feasibility. Coming soon, to a battery storage terminal near you.
So what should you do, as a concerned global citizen, until you can lay your hands on one of these devices (or all of them) for your own use? Tread lightly on the earth, don’t buy bottled water, reduce energy use, walk when you can instead of driving your car (your arteries will love you for it), buy local produce, eat less meat (your grateful arteries again), think twice before flying off to that conference (think teleconferencing), buy an electric car if you need a new one, and remember that every liter or gallon of petrol you fill into your old one not only fuels your car but potentially also the conflicts in the Middle East and/or lines the deep pockets of Big Oil which definitely does not want your energy independence.
Google’s driverless car has now clocked over 300,000 accident-free miles. Despite roadblocks, self-driving cars will be common within a decade. The next step: installation of magnetic resonance coupling infrastructure along highways and major roads. Electric cars will exit the highway fully charged and complete their journey on autonomous battery power.