Battery Electric Vehicles- The 8-Track Tape Players of Transportation

During the 1970s, roadsides were often littered with 8-track tape cartridges and invariably, there would be a length of magnetic tape hanging out of the white plastic case. Anyone who owned an 8-track player knew precisely how the case wound up on the roadside- the tape jammed, the music stopped- again-, and the driver cussed, ripped the cartridge out of the player and angrily tossed it out the window.

The 8-track tape player was the first device to bring pre-recorded in-car entertainment to personal vehicles. Although it validated the concept, its inherent flaws led directly to the development of more reliable replacements.

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are unquestionably the 8-track tape players of transportation. They have validated a form of vehicle propulsion that does not depend on an internal combustion engine, but their inherent shortcomings will ultimately leave them metaphorically tossed out the window and lying on the side of the road. But in some cases, the cost of replacement batteries, which can exceed $10,000, may well transform “lying on the side of the road” from metaphor to reality. Also driving the metaphor to reality is the problem of charging EV batteries when temperatures dip into the single digits. The January cold snap in the Chicago area left hundreds of electric vehicles stranded because they couldn’t be recharged.

In spite of being promoted as zero-emissions vehicles, BEVs create a significant carbon footprint resulting from manufacturing processes and the periodic recharging of batteries, the electricity for which is largely generated by fossil fuel-fired power generation facilities. And ironically, when a BEV runs out of battery power, it is either towed to a charging station by a fossil fuel-powered truck, or a diesel generator is brought to the stranded BEV, with transportation provided by a diesel-powered vehicle.

Other BEV shortcomings include:

Requiring hours for their batteries to be fully charged

Lack of charging stations in many locales

Insufficient electrical grid capacity. Consequently, even if a charging station is available, the requisite electrical power may not be

Battery replacement cost, which will be especially problematical for 2nd and 3rd owners who bought a BEV because they got a”deal”.

Unless new types of reasonably-priced batteries are developed BEV’s will ultimately fade away as a new generation of vehicles hits the streets. These vehicles, which will be fueled by hydrogen, ammonia, or renewable natural gas (RNG) can be refueled in minutes, not hours, and actually produce zero carbon emissions. Some of these vehicles are currently on the road, others are approaching the horizon, and some are about to drive over it.

The challenges that hydrogen- and ammonia-based power generation faces involve cost, distribution and handling, but solutions are being developed at an encouraging pace. One promising development is “Powerpaste”, a fuel developed by Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing and Advanced Materials in Dresden, Germany. “Powerpaste” stores energy at a density 10 times that of a lithium battery. The paste is stored in a cartridge and when released and mixed with water, hydrogen gas is created and fed to a fuel cell. Refueling requires simply replacing an empty cartridge with a new one and refilling a tank with water- something that can be done just about anywhere in minutes- not hours.

Another zero carbon emissions fuel is ammonia. Composed of three parts hydrogen and one part nitrogen, ammonia is abundant and readily available; it has been used in agriculture of over 100 years and annual worldwide production is approximately 180 metric tons.

When used as a motor vehicle fuel, ammonia is a hydrogen source. In that role, it can, in conjunction with a fuel system conversion, be used to fuel existing internal combustion engines, which can also be operated on gasoline at the flick of a switch. Ammonia can also be used as a source of hydrogen to feed hydrogen fuel cells.

A third carbon emissions-free fuel is Renewable Natural Gas (RNG). Derived from the methane produced by livestock and landfills, RNG has been certified as a zero emissions fuel by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board. It is currently being used to fuel tens of thousands of trucks across the country.

Any or all of these fuels, as well as some others will undoubtedly be part of a potential game-changer in the quest for zero emissions engines. That game-changer is the “fuel agnostic” internal combustion engine being developed by diesel engine manufacturer Cummins. That engine can run on hydrogen or virtually any other zero-emissions fuel, as well as conventional fossil fuels.

The future of transportation won’t be driven by a single fuel, but by a variety. As technology brings down costs and improves utility, hydrogen, ammonia and RNG will jockey for position as the best alternative to fossil fuels. And “the best” fuel may well be dependent on application, as one may be the best choice for heavy duty vehicles and another the best choice for passenger cars, SUVs and light trucks. But one thing is certain; one of these fuels will power the vehicles that drive by BEVs sitting on the side of the road, waiting to be recharged.

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