Significant technological advances rarely make eye-catching headlines as they come from many small advances involving numerous scientific disciplines. However, every now and again it becomes clear that progress is being made.
When President Obama recently proposed raising the mileage for cars to an average of 54.5 miles per gallon, the automobile manufacturers– much to the surprise of many — said we can do it. An increase of this size is not a trivial task that can be accomplished overnight as it primarily involves numerous small improvements that together lead to significant change.
Improvements in transportation and other energy related technologies are being reported every day. Most of the developments, however, are down in the technological weeds and involve technical concepts nearly incomprehensible to laymen; however, some of the reports do give insights into the directions in which our civilization may be evolving.
Despite the reservations of many veteran auto industry observers, it is clear that plug-in electric cars are coming soon. Nearly every major automobile manufacturer in the world appears ready to market some flavor of plug-in vehicle with in the next few years. A recent study concluded that together these manufacturers have committed to producing some 840,000 electric vehicles by 2013. The demand for lithium-ion automobile batteries is projected to increase from 2.4 gigawatt hours (GWh) this year to 18 GWh by 2013 – a seven fold increase. The rapid increase in lithium-ion battery production — 20 new plants are under construction — is expected to drive the cost of these batteries down from $800-1000/kWh today to the vicinity of $350 by the end of the decade.
Every week now there are several announcements from various laboratories or research groups of new breakthroughs in battery technology. Most of these claim that their development will either bring about significant increases in battery capacity or in the rate of recharging. As nearly all of these announcements involve exotic chemistries, it is difficult for an outsider to judge whether the discovery is scalable and, if so, will the technology be on the market in years or decades. It is notable, however, that so many of these announcements are being made by so many reputable laboratories and universities that it is difficult not to believe that at least a few will prove viable and will have a major impact on our transportation in coming years.
A recent study by Carnegie-Mellon concluded that for the immediate future electric cars with small battery packs and limited electric range offer more benefits to society than larger packs that attempt to substitute completely for conventional fuels. Not only do the smaller shorter range battery packs such as those found in conventional hybrids or the newer plug-in electrics cost far less, they also weigh much less. Large electrical batteries become a lot more dead weight that has to be carried around after discharged than do smaller batteries. In the long run cheaper, long-lived, longer range batteries in an era of very high gasoline prices will prove superior.
Last week one major laboratory announced that its technology could lead to electric cars with a 300 mile range, while another says its titanium dioxide microspheres will allow batteries to be charged to 50 percent of capacity in 6 minutes. Work is underway to standardize wireless recharging systems that would eliminate the need to actually plug-in a vehicle to recharge its batteries. Simply parking an appropriately equipped vehicle in an appropriately equipped parking space would allow the recharging of the batteries to take place. Should developments such as these actually come to fruition and be sold in quantity in affordable vehicles, there just might be a path, albeit a long and tortuous one, out of the liquid fuels transportation mess in which we currently find ourselves.
There is more synergism in the electric car than many realize thanks to the prospect of smart electrical grids which would use the large batteries of plugged in electric cars as temporary storage for electrical energy from intermittent sources (wind and solar power). Simpler versions of smart grids allow car batteries to be recharged directly from excess wind and power.
There is a lot more nascent technology that could allow civilization to continue in a recognizable fashion in a post-fossil fuel world. Lightening transportation vehicles by switching from steel to aluminum and composites is also underway. The new Boeing 787 which is 20 percent more fuel efficient is an example of what is to come.
Another area of technology from which there is a steady stream of new developments being reported is cellulosic- and algae-based biofuels. Unlike electrically powered cars which most of us understand, and have benchmarks such as range, weight, and price by which to judge developments, evaluating progress in converting cellulose to ethanol is much more difficult. Most of the reports of advances are still at the test-tube level and will require years of development and scaling before it is possible to know if whatever has been reported will be viable. For the moment, there seem to be so many competing technologies that it would seem to be difficult even for specialists in plant biology to figure out which ones look promising and how long it will take to become competitive.
The general principle holds, however, that if we are going to continue air travel in its current form, then at least for now cellulosic biofuels that do not depend on food crops would seem to a key adaptive technology.
While the technology for new forms of power and transportation in a post-carbon world seems doable, the economic costs of accomplishing this are far more uncertain. All this technology will be very costly to implement and while some may have electric cars and ride in biofuel-powered aircraft, it is doubtful that all 7 billion or more of us will. The economic impact of depleting fossil fuels may be so great that finding the resources to move ourselves to a post-fossil fuel world is looking problematic.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.