The electric car is a technological cul-de-sac

October 6, 2009

The End Is Nigh is always an arresting headline, the end which is nigh now is the Age of Oil, following the deep thoughts of the boffins at Deutsche Bank.

They are forecasting a “game change” as a result of – wait for it – the electric car. Their thoughts are “unburdened by the conflicting forecasting agendas of government agencies, oil companies or auto makers”, so can roam the intellectual highways and byways.

They postulate a price spike to 175 dollars around 2016, followed by an “equilibrium” price around 100 dollars by 2030. The shock will be enough for the electric car to displace the conventional automobile, and OPEC will eventually be reduced to cutting prices to maintain its market share.

These projections are far enough into the future to ensure that nobody will remind Paul Sankey and his fellow authors of their words if they turn out to be hideously wrong.

Even at hundred-dollar oil, the electric car is a technological dead-end, and the battery is the roadblock. The technology is improving, but there is no sign of the “breakthrough” that might put energy storage capacity within an order of magnitude of the petrol tank. Nor is there a solution to the question of charging times – and the faster a battery is charged, the less efficient the process becomes.

The size of the problem can be simply illustrated: if a dozen cars are filling up simultaneously, the energy transfer (of fuel into the tanks) is equivalent to the output of a medium-sized power station.

Then there is the question of the cost of the exotic materials needed to squeeze more from batteries and electric motors. Rare earth elements, with unpronounceable names and mostly found in China, are crucial to modern technology, but electric and hybrid cars eat them wholesale.

 Rare earths will no more run out than will oil, but they may get much more expensive. That Toyota Prius sitting so smugly outside your house is full of them. It presents a tempting target for the same scrap metal merchants who helped themselves to manhole covers during last year’s commodity boom.

Compared to the petrol, or better still, diesel engine, the electric car is a poor use of primary energy. Fuel must be burned to generate the power, which must then be transmitted and stored in the battery. Each process costs energy, and the total thermodynamic efficiency is less than that of internal combustion.

The air quality in cities may be marginally better, but improved exhaust controls will do that far more cheaply. So here’s my prediction for 2030: the electric car will turn out to be a vast, and unnecessary diversion of technological effort.


Comments are closed.