Archive for June, 2011

How a diplomatic spat between China and Japan is shaping electric cars and hybrids

You may have noticed a number of posts in this blog regarding Chinese EV and hybrid development.  It’s simply because they are a huge market for cars and will shape the development of EV and hybrids.  Here is the other side of their role – they control 97% of the rare earth market which is leading to the development of induction motors for the Prius.

So what do rare earth elements have to do with hybrids, electric cars, and what are they anyways?

First off, rare earth elements aren’t that rare!  When they were first discovered, they were very hard to extract from ore so they were thought to be rare.  In fact, most of them are common elements.  The biggest difficulty in mining them is that they do not occur in very concentrated deposits like coal.  There are 17 rare earth elements and most of them are used in everything from LCD screens to magnets. For more specifics on rare earth elements, look them up on wikipedia.

However, their rare name is becoming more appropriate as the auto industry ramps up bigger and stronger motors.  The auto industry consumes about 40% of rare earth element production.  China has a near monopoly of 97% over the sale of rare earth elements due to lax environmental controls and illegal mines.  The recent spike in rare earth element prices, ironically due to their monopoly, has led to the re-opening of mines in places like the United States.  However, mines can take 10-15 years to bring up to capacity.  Japan is also seeking development of more mines in other Asian countries.  Although China is beginning to introduce better environmental regulation to their mines, there are still plenty of illegal mines or mines whose inspectors are paid to look the other way so it will be a while before the market becomes more stable.

Because many critical components in consumer and industrial products rely on Chinese imports, it’s not only in Japanese car companies’ interest for more availability and stability of these elements..  It did become a problem for Toyota when an officially denied Chinese export ban to Japan of rare earth oxides during late 2010 resulted in a shortage of motors.  Each Prius uses about 25 lbs of rare earth elements in the battery and motor alone.  It’s not something that can be easily or quickly substituted so this ban became an immediate problem.

This led Japan to do more research into induction motors for automobile use.  Induction motors use electromagnets, motors that rely on an electric current to produce an electric field, instead of the permanent magnets used in current motors.  Permanent magnet motors are still far more efficient.  The question is when will they become enough of a liability to seek another source of propulsion?

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The US confirms its appetite for electric only cars, Leaf sales great

I would have thought the Chevy Volt would have outsold the Nissan Leaf due to range anxiety.  The Volt runs its gasoline engine to charge  the battery and provide propulsion when most efficient.  The Leaf is a full EV with no range extenders.  But this is not the case.  According to Nissan, they’ve been selling about 1,500/month as of June 2011 vs. about 500/month of the Volt.  Why is this?

So far, all the VW-Audi-Porsche hybrids are hybrids which run both an electric motor and gasoline engine during normal driving.  Future planned cars include the blue-e-motion which are full EV.  Should VW group focus its efforts on leapfrogging the Prius and making a full EV car?  It seems that its main market for these cars, the US, has thrown its weight behind one solution.  This could have a significant influence on future plans.  Europe still prefers diesels and probably will for the near future.

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VW Group head of research says it’s time for electrification, but progress has been extremely low; “We need more”

In the keynote address at the 4th Symposium on Energy Storage: Beyond Lithium-ion, hosted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, Jürgen Leohold, head of Volkswagen Group research (and 2009 EUCAR chairman), said that one of his key messages was that although the automotive industry is really at a turn in time toward electric mobility, the progress compared to other technologies made in the 111 years since Ferdinand Porsche introduced an electric vehicle at the world exposition in Paris has been extremely low.

That car, Leohold noted, had a lead-acid battery pack with about 24 kWh of energy, was propelled by wheel hub motors and had a range of about 50 km—“not that much different than today. We definitely need more for electromobility to become established in the market.

In the 1970s Volkswagen had put two electric cars on the market, but sales figures were in the two-digit numbers, Leohold said.

So what has changed? What has changed the business mainly is that Li-ion batteries have come around and finally supported an energy density that allows you to build a halfway decent car.

—Jürgen Leohold

Leohold cited a number of drivers for the current movement to electromobility (that were largely echoed by other speakers during this first day of the symposium):

  • Climate change and emissions;
  • Urbanization and megacities; and
  • Shortage of fossil fuels.

For an industry like ours, where products are dependent for more than 90% on oil derivatives, this is a very critical situation. We are very much convinced that we must initiate a change. Any change in the drivetrains will take a long time, so we have to start now to address these issues.

—Jürgen Leohold

To limit warming to 2 °C, the annual emissions reduction has to move from a 20% target in 2020 to a 2050 target of up to a 95% reduction in developed countries. It will not be enough to improve the efficiency of conventional engines or to launch alternative fuel concepts, Leohold said. To fill the gap to sustainable and zero emission mobility, clean drive technologies, such as the electrification of the drivetrain, will be required. However, he stressed that “new forms of mobility cannot be separated from the question of where the energy is coming from”—a reference to the need to widely deploy low-carbon sources of electricity.

Electricity used to charge plug-in vehicles should come exclusively from renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar power, he suggested—otherwise, there is no greenhouse gas emission advantage over a conventional vehicle with optimized fuel consumption.

Volkswagen is taking a three-step approach to address these challenges, he said.

  • Increasing the efficiency of existing drivetrains, usually the fastest approach and a very effective approach.
  • Convert to new types of fuels that are fairly CO2 neutral such as biofuels, although Volkswagen thinks the potential of biofuels worldwide is limited to 10–20%. “But nevertheless, that’s something.
  • New technologies, and electromobility part of this.

Based on well-to-wheel projections factoring in improved conventional technology and electricity sources over the next 9 years, Leohold noted that:

The electric vehicle is not really that big an improvement compared to conventional engines if you consider technical progress. The only way to get real drastic improvements in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions is if you change the energy supply. Meaning that either with fossil fuels you go to biofuels, but that potential is limited as I mentioned already, or we go to renewable resources…with the electric drivetrain.

…This is not enough. If you look at 2050 and 2 degrees, this cannot be reached by any fossil fuel approach or conventional drivetrains. It requires electrification of the drivetrain. Since the ideal battery is not around yet, we have to introduce hybrids.

—Jürgen Leohold

The range issue. The biggest challenge for electric vehicles, reaching back to 1900, is the limited range. Today, actual range could be as low as 80 km out of a theoretical 150 km given cold temperatures or other adverse conditions or behavior, he noted. By contrast, the Golf diesel BlueMotion has a 1,447 km range.

The big question is how will the customer react to this change in performance? Will they accept cars with this limitation? We think many will change, especially those with second cars.

—Jürgen Leohold

While vehicle-level approaches such as lightweighting can squeeze out some additional range—dropping 100kg could increase the range by 3.5% on an EV, Leohold said—modifications such as that are “not really significant. The main challenge is the battery.

Requirements for future electrical energy storage system. Leohold said that Volkswagen was confident that by the end of the decade, there be commercially available Li-ion batteries with an energy capacity in the range of 200 Wh/kg, perhaps a little bit more, up from the approximate 120 Wh/kg of today.

However, the industry needs a technology change to deliver the next stage of batteries, with capacity on the order for 400-600 Wh/kg. And “to build a decent type car”, the industry needs capacity on the order of 1,000 Wh/kg.

There may a 150-mile range in a regular [electric] car by the end of the decade, but we doubt we will reach more as long as we are limited to Li-ion…A mass market [for EVs] depends on the range of these cars. This is where we put much hope on future technologies.

—Jürgen Leohold

Source: Green Car Congress

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