January 17, 2009

Why Emergent Technologies Fail

Autoblog posted about how GM wants to ask the government and private entities to invest in the future of the automobile by funding the build-out of an EV infrastructure. There is no reason why we as Americans shouldn't be driving electric vehicles around right now. In fact, the technology already exists to make EVs just as powerful, safe and versatile as the internal combustion engine vehicles we drive today. The main reason these vehicles haven't become mainstream is entirely due to their perceived range and the lack of an infrastructure that would support them. That, and their extreme price tags.

Not too long ago Popular Mechanics published stories about how the Big3 were working out concepts for EVs, as well as hydrogen vehicles that would couple the best of the EV world but would also enable the range extension benefits of a rechargable "fuel". The HV economy would benefit everyone, but a reliable, safe and low cost/weight containment system for hydrogen, as well as a generation technology that wasn't energy deficient (i.e.: it costs more energy to make hydrogen than it would give off when used to generate electricity) is a long way away.

EV technology, on the other hand, exists that would allow for 400+ mile range and performance comperable to current mainstream consumer vehicles (i.e.: Ford Fusion or Toyota Camry). The problem is, what do you do when you get to that 400 mile mark? You can't just change out the battery, and charging takes time, which a lot of people are not willing to sacrifice.

Popular Science, another wonderful Hearst magazine, published an article about the technology behind Super Capacitors. Basically, they have the same properties as current capacitive devices found in EVERY piece of technology around you. The main difference is their capability to hold much higher charges without the risk of catastrophic failure as well as the capability to discharge slowly without an added heat component. The benefit of this is that capacitors do not have a charege/discharge cycle limit, and they also do not have a limit to their discharge rate. Li-Ion batteries become extremely hot when they discharge at a high rate. Capacitors on the other hand discharge very rapidly. This is beneficial because when you need power in a hurry Li-Ion batteries aren't very good at giving it to you. The way it should be done is this:

Li-Ion batteries should be used to power the vehicles systems as well as provide current for a super-capacitive bank. The drive capacitor bank will have a two stage discharge system that would allow for quick discharge during acceleration and a bypass to power the drive train via the batteries during at speed driving. The second stage of the capacitor bank will allow for regenerative braking that will then funnel the power from the bank back into the Li-Ion batteries, extending the range of the batteries. And because you can't just dump the full charge of the capacitors into the battery all at once the capacitor will also be an intermediate step between the batteries and the charging circuitry, allowing for an infrastructure of sorts in charging stations. You charge up the capacitor bank, it trickle charges the Li-Ions, the batteries power the car, the capacitor charges the batteries and gives you the boost you need when you need it.

The thing I don't understand is why companies haven't tried to perfect high torque, in-wheel motors. This way they can mount short axle, low friction, bi-directional generators to allow charging while driving. To tell you the truth, other than risking the added weight to typically underpowered hybrid vehicles today, I don't know why they don't already have wheel mounted generators.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is there's plenty of things we can do to slake our thirst for oil. Getting every driver out of an internal combustion engine powered conveyance and into an electrically powered one will seriously change the oil commodities market landscape, and the development of the technologies I've described will also open the doors along the way technologies in other areas as well. Sort of like the space program does...

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