Instead of pushing Automakers to incrementally improve miles per gallon, we should empower companies like General Motors and Michelin to transform how cars are built and make liquid fuels like oil irrelevant.
Let's start by reinventing the wheel.
Michelin is now pushing its Active Wheel concept that can simplify how vehicles are built and reduce the manufacturing overhead for auto companies: 'no more engine under the front or rear, no more traditional suspension system, and no more gearbox or transmission shaft...all essential components have been integrated into the wheel itself'
Let's start by reinventing the wheel.
There are a few specialty engineering firms that have built high performance wheel based electric motors, but Michelin has the potential to bring ‘scaling’ to this disruptive technology.The company has integrated the system into the new Venturi Volage which premieres at the 2008 Paris Motor Show. There is also the new WILL built through a partnership involving Heuliez, Michelin and Orange.
Change the Wheel, Reinvent the Factory Floor A New (more effective) Message: Greener cars = Leaner cars
While most companies are focused on growth opportunities around powering homes, cars and factories of the future, some entrepreneurs and startups are targeting another 'next big thing' in micro-power and energy storage systems.
What's the Big opportunity around Small devices? A new era of expanded integration of smart sensors and microcontrol systems is likely to change our world, in the same way computer chips and PCs did in the last half of the 20th cenutry. Technology futurists call this the 'embedded age', or era of ubiquitous and pervasive computing. Even IBM sees a Smart Planet based on an 'instrumented world' where the number of sensors and micro-devices feeding small bits of data onto the 'web' vastly outnumbers today's connected 'computers and servers'.
Imagine new information flows from every product, car, boat, airplane, person, pet, and farm animal all being gathered by low-powered sensors. Imagine building a global smart infrastructure where every connection point along the energy grid, highway and pipeline is monitored in real-time. All these embedded devices sending small packets of mundane, but important data. Each of these devices will need small amounts of power and an integrated energy storage system.
This could be one of the biggest market opportunities in energy over the next century- powering billions of new portable gadgets, sensors (e.g RFIDs), and micro-electromechanical (MEMS) devices integrated into future everyday objects.
Seeing a future in 'Energy Harvesting' Colorado-based Infinite Power Solutions, Inc. (IPS) has raised a Series B round of $13 million to commercialize its solid-state, rechargeable thin-film battery that could be used to 'harvest' ambient energy from micro-power systems driven by light, motion, or heat. Energy futurists imagine these types of energy storage systems integrated into other micro power systems, rather than rely on the old battery schematic of plugging into a wall socket.
The money will go to ramp up volume production of its new THINERGY™ micro-energy cell (MEC™) product family from its new (and 'the world’s first') facility for volume manufacturing of solid-state,rechargeable thin-film batteries.
Could a box full of electrons change the energy industry?
Texas-based stealth energy storage company EEStor is making news again on the blogosphere now that it has received a patent for its ground breaking capacitor that might find use in electric vehicles, utility grids or high performance portable devices.
Why is this important for the auto industry? The key to accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles is to advance energy storage devices. Batteries and fuel cells hold electricity using chemical storage, while capacitors store energy as a charge between two plates.
Designing a low cost, high performance capacitor has been a challenge for energy innovators. But EEStor believes its material platform of barium-titanate ceramic powder (94%) mixed with PET plastic could be the right combination.
The EEStor patent reveals a 281 pound storage device with more than 30,000 plates that can hold 52 kWh of electrical energy.
The company has an agreement with electric vehicle maker Zenn and Lockheed for military applications, but has intentionally kept a low profile. Its effort to remain under the radar of media attention, has in turn created a lot of energy blogger hype.
Batteries, fuel cells and capacitors - Not one device rules them all!
The agreement is an early indicator of a new category for the energy sector based on a simple, but disruptive alternative to 'plugging in' - Refillable Packets sold over retail shelves that offer a real cost and performance alternative to the grid.
The Disruptive Power of High Density Storage Electron Economy via 'Streams vs Packets' In the years ahead, we could see the emergence of a new form of 'packet' based energy distribution that could undercut the grid's last mile, and the notion of 'plugging in' objects to a wall socket connected to a 'stream' of electricity.
The future of electricity depends on chemical storage. Batteries require us to 'plug in' and recharge. Fuel cells keep the 'fuel' (e.g. hydrogen/methanol) and oxidant separate offering a 'refill' platform. One is a storage device dependent on the wall socket, the other is its own 'power plant' that requires businesses to supply 'fuel' rather than direct access to the grid.
Instead of massive market populations around the world waiting for the electrical grid to arrive via a wall socket, why not sell them power packs next to bars of soap at the retail level. Imagine disposable batteries on steroids.
It is a simple but disruptive idea to the notion of end point grid access. What if Walmart could sell you a 20-pack of energy cartridges to fuel all of your home appliances and gadgets? Or electric vehicles (via solid hydrogen bricks)?
Why push for energy Packets? Learn from 'Streams' of Water vs 'Packets' of Bottled Water
Today, the lights are still out for nearly a half million people in Houston, Texas- the ‘energy capital of the world’.
Business Week is reporting that ”...13 days since Hurricane Ike ripped through Texas, and nearly one-quarter of the residents of the fourth-largest U.S. city still don’t have electricity.” (Reporting by Christopher Palmeria)
Is the problem electricity production?
No. The power plants are fine.
The problem is the wires. The grid itself
The network is too vast to repair quickly in the fall out of Hurricane Ike.
The problem is storage.
We have no viable way of storing vast amounts of electricity at the local level.
The solution? Making energy storage a priority and create systems that support a local ‘Electron Reserve’.
What are the big energy lessons from Hurricane Ike?
The modern architecture for electricity grids is antiquated and fragile. Central power plants connected to home wall sockets need to be re-invented around software and storage.
Lesson #1 – Don’t assume the lights will always be on!
Today we just assume that the electricity will always be there. But only five years ago we assumed that the cheap oil would always be there. But how vulnerable is the stream of electrons?
In the US and Europe national electricity grids are aging and in much worse shape than most people might recognize. The current grid structure is highly vulnerable to overloads, bottlenecks and events that can shut down major sections of the grid. And over the next twenty years energy grids will be forced to carry more electricity, not less.
Trying to make the case that surface area is important to the future of energy is difficult. Surface area is not a sexy concept, and nearly impossible to fit into a media sound clip.
Barack Obama and John McCain do not call for energy systems with high surface area nano-catalysts. Instead they call for cheaper solar, and more powerful batteries and fuel cells for electric vehicles. Energy researchers would say – same thing!
Saying nanoparticles is a little better and certainly ripe for a media sound bite. But what if you could take a picture of molecules on a nanoparticle surface?
Now a group of researchers led by MIT have released the first composite atomic-scale images of the catalytic surface area of platinum-cobalt nanoparticles used in fuel cells. Their efforts could accelerate the development of electric fuel cell vehicles.
Surface area and the future of energy
Energy reactions occur when molecules interact. We simply capture the released energy. The cost and performance of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors depends on how molecules react (or do not interact) on tiny pieces of elements like lithium, carbon, titanium, and platinum.
The smaller the pieces, the more surface area, the more molecule interactions, the better the reaction. It also means lower cost because you use less material(e.g. expensive platinum).
If we can see the surface area of nanoscale designed catalysts we can design better (and cheaper) catalysts used in fuel cells.
First images of nanoparticle platinum-cobalt surface
Today a group of researchers from MIT, UT-Austin and ORNL has released images of nanoscale surface by using a technique known as Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy.
The researchers analyzed platinum and cobalt nanoparticles to understand why the performance of a combined catalyst was more reactive than simply using platinum alone.
Now the researchers can propose and test theories to why the material is so reactive. If researchers can design catalysts with less platinum, the cost of fuel cells could drop dramatically.
The same principle of surface area applies to building better batteries and capacitors. If we can apply this imaging technique across all devices, we could accelerate commercialization of highly efficient energy storage systems.
Founder Elon Musk (of Paypal fortune; SpaceX rocket fame) is now leading the company replacing CEO Ze’ev Drori. In the company’s blog Musk reports the anticipated closing of its Rochester Hills office near Detroit, and new growth focus on its Roadster sports car and sales of its powertrain.
Only a month ago the company brought joy to the California Cleantech community by announcing plans to build a $250 million facility to manufacture a zero-emission lithium ion powered sedan in the heart of Silicon Valley. Now this Model S version of Tesla’s electric car might be delayed until 2011 depending on a number of conditions.
The change in leadership is related more to ‘extraordinary times’ rather than the core vision of Tesla’s business plan. The electric vehicle market is just getting started and Tesla could certainly emerge as a specialty vehicle maker or powertrain designer.
In recent days, we have highlighted the steady stream of media commitments of production vehicles (2009-2011) from automakers GM, Nissan, Tata Motors-, BYD, and Chevrolet
Electric infrastructure investments are also not likely to slow down unless automakers divert from recent plans. In recent weeks electric vehicle infrastructure startups like Better Project have had their business efforts validated by Warren Buffet’s $233 million investment in Chinese battery maker BYD, and $500 million plan to extend France’s grid to vehicles by utility giant EDF
The future of electric vehicles based on a combination of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors should not be completely derailed by an economic slowdown. So despite the bumps ahead, we expected Tesla to stay on its course.
Has China developed the ultimate vehicle? A cheap, solar powered car? Not quite.
While the ‘solar car’ concept makes a great viral story for web readers, it is not a revolution for the auto industry. Powering electric cars takes a lot more than putting solar panels on the roof. We need viable infrastructure and tremendous amounts of stored energy density to make a real transition into electric vehicles.
The vehicle was demonstrated at the 29th Zhejiang International Bicycles and Electric-powered Cars Exhibition. The solar panels are simply placed on the roof and not integrated into the vehicle’s body. And it reportedly takes 30 hours of direct sunlight to charge the batteries that will drive up to 90 miles.
Electric Vehicles need Energy density
The good news is that electric vehicles are coming. We have highlighted recent electric vehicle commitments of production vehicles (2009-2011) from automakers GM, Nissan, Tata Motors-, BYD, and Chevrolet.
So why is this solar powered cars more a gimmick, than a revolution?
There is a classic scene in the movie The Graduate, when Mr. McGuire a distinguished family friend gives recent college grad Dustin Hoffman some unsolicited advice – go into ‘plastics’. [Video clip] His visions of the future were driven by the promise of the nascent plastics industry. The man missed ‘computers’, be wasn’t entirely wrong as plastics have changed the world in very profound ways.
Today, Mr McGuire might say go into ‘energy storage’ to a recent college grad. ‘Don’t just focus on energy production, look at how energy storage can change business models for renewables, utility grids, electric vehicles and bringing power to billions of people who don’t currently have access to energy grids.’
Why energy storage? Because energy from wind and solar farms goes wasted when they are unable to find use on one-way utility grid wires that have no storage along the way. Electric vehicles find it difficult to dethrone the combustion engine without high density storage systems that match the power of gasoline. And national electricity grids are vulnerable to power outages caused by breaking the stream of electricity flowing from power plant to wall socket.
Storage is going to have a tough time competing for headlines against climate change, peak oil and clean coal, but it is one of the most disruptive pieces of the future energy puzzle.
Globalization of Energy Storage sector
Like all other energy markets, energy storage will likely be very integrated and global across the value chain of raw material providers, manufacturers, designers and product integrators. But will also be a highly competitive few years as regions try to position themselves for growth in batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
Now Indiana-based Ener1 has acquired an 83% interest in Enertech International, one of South Korea’s leading lithium-ion battery cell producers. The stake will allow Ener1 to expand manufacturing capacity of its lithium-ion automotive battery subsidiary, EnerDel as automakers around the world prepare to launch electric vehicles, and position the company for expanding storage to utility grids of tomorrow.
“Enertech is one of the largest lithium-ion battery producers in Korea, behind only LG Chemical and Samsung,” said Ener1 CEO Charles Gassenheimer. “This acquisition gives us immediate scale and volume manufacturing ability, as well as an important beachhead for supplying Asian car makers that plan to use lithium-ion technology in their electric drive vehicles.”
The future of clean abundant energy depends on our ability to lower the costs of chemical reactions in energy conversions involving light, hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. These are the foundations of most energy systems, and basis for developing ‘green chemistry’ that avoid harmful byproducts.
If we want to create low cost solar cells or improve batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, we must advance our knowledge and nano-engineering of catalysts. If we want to reduce the impact of harmful emissions from coal, oil and natural gas, we must turn to catalysts.
Nanoscale design of shapes
Catalysts speed up chemical reactions. At the most basic level shape matters. To improve performance we can design catalysts at the ‘nanoscale’ (billionth of the meter) to change properties of low cost abundant elements rather than rely on expensive precious metals. At the nanoscale we design higher surface area to increase chances of molecules reacting, and we can design shapes so that they have high selectivity to deal with a certain type of molecules (e.g. capturing sulfur, releasing hydrogen).
Up until now, scientists have only dealt with snapshot images of catalysts before or after. Never live, in action. Now Berkeley scientists have changed the game. “By watching catalysts change in real time, we can possibly design smart catalysts that optimally change as a reaction evolves,” Gabor Somorjai, a renowned surface science and catalysis expert.
Berkeley researchers are confident that catalysts can be designed to decrease the harmful effects of pollutants, improve performance of energy storage systems like batteries and hydrogen fuel cells and create ‘greener’ liquid fuels and feedstocks associated with ‘green chemistry’ in which waste byproducts are minimized.