Is Electric Propulsion Just A Stepping Stone To Something Better?

Electric Vehicles seem to be the future, but could they be a stop gap to better technology and a truly emission free world?

Courtesy (Mercedes EQS Concept)

Electric cars, in terms of the global market, are still in their infancy but the progress among big name brands is quite noticeable. It seems everywhere you look, someone is creating a new electric car or manufacturers are updating their fleets to include EV models; many have even made commitments to have their full fleet be electric before the decade is out. This is immensely progressive, given how skeptical the whole market was about electric before Tesla broke out and dropped the Roadster. So, having noticed the advancements being made to electric cars and the advancements being made to battery technology every day, it got me thinking. Is this really where we are headed? Will all cars be electric and will petrol stations will be replaced with charging stations and the world will continue to spin? This can't be it.

My theory is, I think EVs are simply a stepping stone until we can make other technologies viable or we discover a new power source. Now I know you’re thinking, “Bro, it could be years before we discover new energy sources and scale them to make them more affordable”. While yes, there is truth to that, there are still technologies out there that are less harmful to the environment than batteries. Yes, you read that right. The reason why we like electric cars is that they run emission free, but the batteries are still harmful to the environment in ways some may not be aware. Before I move further though, I want to quickly explain the technology behind electric vehicles.

What Is Entailed In Making An EV

Electric vehicles are called such because they run off electricity that is stored in the batteries, which power the electric motors to provide propulsion. Simple enough. In basic form, the 2 most important parts of any electric car are the electric motor and the batteries. The part I want to zero in on, however, are the batteries. Almost all EV’s use Lithium Ion batteries, basically these are the same ones that are used in your laptop. The major difference obviously is the size of the battery pack. Take a single laptop battery, add about a few hundred together and that is about the side of the battery pack that gets installed in cars. Yeah, it’s a lot. In terms of power, a laptop battery possesses about 0.05 kWh, an electric car is between 65-100 kWh. All that extra power means we need to manufacture way more lithium batteries than we ever had to before EVs existed, and if you know anything about the battery business, it’s quite a dirty business.

The journey starts with massive mines that dig into the earth to get the materials used to create the batteries; these aren’t simple metals like silver, these are harsh chemicals like lithium and cobalt, etc. Mining is not a small gig. Mining alone is a massive polluter because of the amount of machinery required to keep a mine up and running, not to mention tons of explosives used to dig further and further into the earth. Once mined, the elements now need to be processed. However, the processing is not done in the same region where the elements are mined, they need to be shipped in cargo ships to a whole different part of the world. Shipping items is again a heavy polluting industry but given labor rules and costs, other countries are better suited for the processing. Once the batteries arrive, the act of processing and refining is another pollutant, aside from the manufacturing plants themselves that are required to stay online to refine the product around the clock. Then when the batteries are refined, once again they are shipped to another part of the world which adds again to the carbon footprint. At this stage, they still do not resemble a battery pack that can be fitted to a car. Finally, they ship it off one last time to the assembly factory to be installed to the car. One can only imagine the total environmental impact of the whole process of getting and installing these batteries.

Battery manufacturing is so much of a polluter, it leaves one to wonder about the actual impact of EV’s on the road will actually be. But it doesn’t end there. Once the car is made and is on the road, you now need to charge this car to actually use it and to do that you need to plug it in. Doing this most likely means you are providing your new electric vehicle with grid electricity which is created by coal burning power plants. Yikes. It seems like we are trying to do the right thing with buying emission free vehicles but when we analyze the production and use of the car, we keep shooting ourselves in the foot.

Some of the Technology Already Available Now

There does seem to be some hope for us however. Some manufacturers have played around with hydrogen power and it definitely does look promising to me. As of now, there only seem to be a handful of brands playing around with this idea: Toyota with their Mirai Fuel Cell, and Honda with their Clarity Fuel Cell. The huge upside to the whole hydrogen model is extremely easy to see. Let’s start with the cars themselves. The car is simply filled with liquid Hydrogen at a pump and just like a gas pump, it only takes a few minutes to get the tank full, and as you are driving along, the only emission that is emitted from the tail pipe is water. When it comes to Hydrogen, the refining process is really simple and as far as a process goes, it does not even come close to the energy required to refine hydrogen. In reality, it is a really simple process of extracting the Hydrogen from the air and converting it to a liquid form. The Hydrogen does need to transported with care as it can be combustible and it needs to compressed at all times, but the best part about Hydrogen power is that it’s an unlimited resource. We won’t have to worry about running out of Hydrogen at all.

There are some downsides though. These Hydrogen powered cars are really only available in California. The reason, there simply aren’t enough Hydrogen pumps across the U.S to offer the car everywhere. While refining Hydrogen can be cheaply done, the limited numbers of car being made means it becomes harder for this technology to scale and become more economical for people to own. Really it becomes a bit of a catch-22 situation. If there are no pumps, there can’t be any cars, and if there are no cars there can be no pumps made. The price of the vehicle is probably the first biggest deterrent and then second, the lack of pumps available. For example, the Toyota Mirai FC is priced at nearly $60k for what is basically a hatchback. That’s almost as much as a very well-equipped Audi SQ5.

What Could The Future Be?

Elon Musk is famous for saying electric is the future and that hydrogen power is simply stupid and not worth the time and investment. But it begs the question, is there a new technology out there that can be better? On paper, hydrogen seems to be a great solution but there is one aspect that still is gray. If we can make this technology economically viable, can it be used it in broader applications? Petrol power today is used in everything from compact cars to heavy-duty pickup trucks to extremely fast super cars. Hydrogen will need to apply to all these various applications and be without fault.

Electric technology, while looking promising today, still needs to solve the enormous problem of battery creation and reefing along with the process of electricity delivery. Yes, there seems to be progress in reducing the carbon footprint in the battery mining, creation and refining processes and electricity delivery can be solved if the whole world ran off solar, but these are problems that need to be solved on a large scale. Not to mention, the charging infrastructure needs a huge boost to get more people to adopt the electric car. The simple lack of charging stations and 30-minute charging times are very soon going to be hugely unacceptable. Not to say they are not achievable; these are just huge undertakings. With these 2 technologies in their relative infancy, one more than the other, I still feel there can be something better that we need to explore, something that can be used in various applications like electric power but also has the huge sustainability leg up that Hydrogen power does.

This may require finding a whole new energy source in total and while that may take a while, some questions need answering. If there are still huge problems that still need to be solved with the tech we have now, what would happen if we were to find a new more sustainable way to power our cars? Do we abandon these technologies before perfecting them and move to the latest and greatest technology? Is it our responsibility to find something more sustainable and just let EV’s and hydrogen tech run their course in the meantime? If you ask me, I think my answer, without a shadow of a doubt would be…. Yes!