Transportation is the largest consumer of oil and the globally, it’s the biggest source of pollution, greenhouse gases, soot and fine particulates; gasoline and diesel have fuelled global transport and been the lifeblood of the international oil majors and national oil companies. That, however, may be changing.
Oil’s power density and affordable price has made alternatives non-starters, pushed many mass transit systems to bankruptcy, and made auto, tyre, road construction, and insurance companies rich.
The Tesla effect
Then came Tesla, for the first time offering a slick, high-performance car with reasonable range. Currently too expensive for the mass market, Tesla has nevertheless challenged the internal combustion engine (ICE) industry and forced virtually all car markers to get into electric vehicles.
With a $5 billion gigafactory just completed in July 2016 near Reno, Nirvada. Tesla is promising to move mainstream, offering more affordable cars with decent range. That is all wonderful. But Tesla and all other electric and hybrid cars still suffer from lack of charging infrastructure, and even when that is in place, drivers will have to take long breaks on long drives to recharge their batteries. Depending on the details, 90 minutes or more are typically needed to more-or-less recharge an empty car battery, an annoying wait compared to a five-minute fillup at the corner gas station.
Moreover, even with Tesla’s slick design, the batteries are heavy and can only be charged/discharged so many times, after which their performance drops. Trucks and heavy-duty vehicles pose even more difficult challenges if they are not recharged frequently – not always convenient or practical. Batteries, in other words, are not a perfect substitute for cheap petrol which is available nearly everywhere you go.
What would be ideal is a light, inexpensive battery that can pack large amounts of energy in a small space, can be charged more or less instantly, and discharged more or less indefinitely without loss of performance. That would be the holy grail of storage, not only challenging the ICEs but also making Tesla’s gigafactory virtually obsolete before it starts mass production.
Super potential for supercapacitors
A new generation of supercapacitors made from cheap and plentiful material – now in laboratories – is expected to become commercial in three to five years. According to UCLA Professor Richard Kaner, the company he is affiliated with, Nanotech Energy, is using graphene as the basic medium for storing energy. As the technology moves out of the laboratory, he expects it to initially find a role in high-value applications such as mobile phones and computers, followed by other applications such as electric vehicles.
The ability to fast-charge a supercapacitor in, say, two minutes or so, will solve the range anxiety associated with current EVs. Imagine pulling into an electric charging station and getting more or less fully recharged in the amount of time it takes to fill up your tank with gas. Who needs clunky, noisy, polluting cars, or even Tesla batteries?
The same fast-charging supercapacitors can power mass transit buses in cities around the world. If the bus’ supercapacitor can be charged in two minutes or less, then every bus stop can be a charging station, allowing the bus to travel long distances without ever running out of juice. That would be a game changer.
Tesla, which is facing many daunting deadlines and competition from multiple directions, may find that its gigafactory is a losing bet if supercapacitors come to deliver as their proponents claim. That would be yet another game changerIf you’ve found this blog helpful and would like other topics covered, please feel free to drop me an email with suggestions. You’re welcome to subscribe using ‘Subscribe to Blog via Email’ section and this will get you the latest posts straight to your inbox before they’re available anywhere else