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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Disruptive Technology, Part 2

The times, they are a-changin', and maybe it's time to change the batteries as well. In the first installment of disruptive technology, we talked about brick-and-mortar disruption by internet commerce, the disruption of books by digital media, the constant revolution in data storage, and the disruption of several markets by smartphones and tablets.

Now we will talk about some another market currently undergoing disruption.

Internal Combustion Engines

Most people would think that the internal combustion engine is here to stay. This is almost certainly true because of the near-impossibility of replacing aircraft engines with anything else at present. But with cars, some leaps and bounds have occurred. And the market is beginning to see the effect of technology disruption.


Hybrids are here and are rapidly maturing as a market. The revolutionary vendor Toyota farmed out an entire market and became the Apple of hybrid vehicles with its Prius. Now most manufacturers have a hybrid car and this is increasing the average efficiency of petrochemical fuel usage. Which has been lowering the demand for three years now. But hybrids are still dependent upon gasoline. Is it possible to dispense with the petrochemical use and make a vehicle that only uses batteries?

Electric Cars

Electric cars do exist and are in common use already. The Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and the Tesla Roadster are examples of all-electric cars (except the Volt, which has a range-extending internal combustion engine, of course). Electric cars provide zero pollutants (and no tailpipe). The engines are quiet, and efficient, providing better acceleration than internal combustion engines. And they don't use foreign resources. So they can reduce the dependence upon an imported consumable.

But there are issues with electric cars: maximum distance traveled, charging, acceleration, batteries, the carbon footprint of making the electricity in the first place, and of course payoff.

Maximum Distance Traveled

The Tesla Roadster travels 244 miles between charges, but costs $104,000. The new Tesla Model S is coming out this summer with 160 miles between charges and has an extended-range model that can go 320 miles between charges. And the price, at about $40K to $60K comes down to less than half that of the Roadster. But it has about the same acceleration capabilities.

Other electric car offerings, such as the Chevy Volt (40 miles between charges, but with a range-extending internal combustion engine), and the Nissan Leaf (100 miles between charges) are extending the options for prospective customers.

But the scoop is that the Volt is really more like 33 miles between charges.


Charging one of these cars is actually quite cheap: somewhere between $2 and $4 per "tank". That's certainly encouraging, given that a tank of gas cost me $80 this morning. Yet it took me about 4 minutes to fill up.

But wait, how long does it take to charge these cars? On a 110-volt outlet it could take as long as 20 hours! With a 220V outlet, this goes down to 8 hours. You might be installing one of these in your garage. It's not really too foreign since your dryer has the same basic hookup.

But the huge amount of time it takes to charge is still reducing the usefulness of these devices. I have heard of quick-charge stations; couldn't we just use those?

Practically all of the "quick-charge" stations are in Southern California. So much for going to the gas station! Even a quick-charge to 80 percent capacity is an agonizing 30 minutes of time.

Yet, Nissan seems to have come up with a ten-minute charging solution by changing the material of the electrode in the battery. This could be just what is needed. Or at least it's a start. And it may not appear in use for quite a while, as is typical for battery advancements.


These cars will have to be as ballsy as mine before I buy one. Well, in some cases they actually are! The Volt goes from 0-60 MPH in about 8.5 seconds, 10 seconds with four occupants. The Nissan Leaf goes from 0 to slightly over 60 MPH in 11.9 seconds. Ho hum.

But the real surprise is the Tesla Roadster with 0-60 MPH in 3.7 seconds! And the Tesla Model S approximately matches this. So there are some more expensive options out there for those of us who like to drive fast and feel the torque.

The improvement in acceleration was achieved by replacing lead-acid batteries with lithium-ion batteries. Now, the amount of energy per pound matters almost as much as the total amount of energy stored.


The main issue with electric car batteries is how much power they can store per weight. Lead-acid batteries (used in traditional internal combustion engine cars) can store 30-40 Watt-hours per kilogram. If we use a Nickel-metal hydride battery, we can get 30-80 Watt-hours per kilogram. If we step up to Lithium-Ion batteries, though, we can get 200 and more Watt-hours per kilogram, though typical Lithium-polymer batteries are at about 100-130 Watt-hours per kilogram.

But each of these technologies has a different issue: how many charges it can withstand before requiring a replacement. On the Tesla electric cars, a "blade" technology allows part of the batteries to be replaced in the shop on a need-be basis.

Some new Lithium-ion battery types can withstand 7000 or more charges, which means they could practically last more than ten years.

The idea of swapping out batteries for freshly charged batteries is a possible solution to the charging problem, and it can also alleviate the problem of the lifetime in terms of the number of charges. Then you could go to the gas station (actually a battery swapping station) and get an instant refueling. The time to refuel the batteries would then be spent in the charging stations themselves. Hmm.

So what we need is a standard battery type that is shared between all electric cars. Right now, the battery is really one of the major advantages that each electric car vendor actually has. With the right standard (that had the right flexibility), though, the research on batteries could go on in parallel to the electric car manufacturers and improve incrementally over time. It would create a new industry.

Carbon Footprint

These cars are electric, right? They are totally green with no emissions! Oh, wait... where does their fuel come from?

Really, the carbon footprint of an electric car is the footprint of the creation of the electricity used to charge the batteries again and again. So, where does your electricity come from?

In China, the explosion in electric and hybrid cars has led to an interesting problem. It turns out that the carbon footprint of making the electricity is much worse than that of using internal combustion engines in the first place. This is because they use coal to make 70 percent of their electricity (cough).


These cars will certainly pay off over time, since we won't be buying gasoline, right? It turns out that electric cars are quite expensive compared to their internal combustion and hybrid cousins. Well, the payoff probably won't be there until oil gets to about $300 a barrel.

As for the Tesla Roaster: payoff isn't really the right word. It's about the satisfaction of driving one, I hear. Payoff is getting better for the Tesla Model S, though.

Their recently introduced (but yet to be manufactured) Model X is more of an SUV when compared with the Model S's sedan format.

Planes, Trains, Trucks

The larger hauling capacity of trains and the extreme energy requirements of aircraft are in another league from the hauling and energy requirements of personal transportation. Diesel fuel, Jet Fuel, and gasoline is used for these situations because the energy density of petrochemical fuels is about 35 times the energy density of the best batteries in use with electric vehicles today.

Currently only Hydrogen has the possibility to displace it, when compressed. But even Hydrogen uses up more space: it takes six times the volume to store an equivalent amount of Joules of energy using Hydrogen than when using gasoline.

So, perhaps the internal combustion engine is here to stay for a while. At least for the heavy lifters of industry and travel.

What Needs To Happen?

Can technology overcome the problems with electric cars? To some extent and within a limited usage constraint, it has already. But to get to the point where even aircraft can practically become electric, some changes are going to have to occur.

We need a serious advance in battery energy density. If you consider that the efficiency of the electric motor is about 75% compared with the 20% efficiency of the internal combustion engine, and if you consider the factor of 35 of energy density between the best batteries and gasoline, the energy density will have to go up by a factor of at least about 11 or 12 before we can see batteries powering Dreamliners. But is that all that's needed?


The amount of time it takes to draw a given amount of energy from a battery must also go down, so you can increase the work temporarily for harder tasks. And the charging time will have to go down, even if battery swapping stations can become the standard.

This means that batteries and capacitors are going to have to merge. A capacitor can be charged in very little time, hold its charge for a very long time, and discharge almost instantly. If a battery can be switched into capacitor mode, this will go a long way to improving the usefulness of batteries for driving mechanical systems that require a large amount of work.


  1. Great post Mark!
    What about fuel cells? how do they compare?
    Is there another energy storing tech that is on ht near horizon? (Come on cold fusion guys)

    1. Well, Hydrogen is one type of fuel, and compressed at 700 bars, still takes up six times the volume of gasoline for an equivalent amount of power. If it could be compressed to a liquid, then there might be hope to reduce the bulk of energy storage. But I fear this will be impractical for cars, unless you don't mind a car only being able to drive 100 miles between refueling. Still, Hydrogen fuel cells can be refilled quite fast.

      Fuel cells are more likely to be used for gadgets in the near term, I expect.

      Because of the physics of energy density, I'm holding out for better batteries. Advances in battery technology seem to be always on the horizon: nanotech, supercapacitor hybrid designs, etc.

      Cold fusion never panned out, even though there have been rumors of possible interesting chemical reactions enabled by palladium's molecular-level porosity. Nanotech can do better, I expect. And nanotech will ultimately be cheaper than exotic metals, due to resource constraints.

      Of course, the real future of energy is antimatter. Centuries off?

  2. Hydrogen isn't dense enough. LPG is viable now and apparently the world has decades (or more) of reserves. Coal can be synthesized into liquid fuels via Fischer–Tropsch process, and apparently decades (or more) of reserves as well.

    Peak oil is probably a myth propagated by those ignorant of the Economics 101 concept of price elasticity of supply and the destruction of investment in reserves due to global nationalization and cartelization. Communist experiments (e.g. U.S.S.R., China, Yugoslavia) serve as real world economic examples.

    Why worry about carbon? It is the natural lifecycle of the earth. I looked at the AGW debate and realized it was junk science. Btw, the oceans release more carbon as they warm, that is why carbon rises lag temperature rises by 800 years (Gore obscured this in the scale of his charts).

    * Inconvenient deception
    * 31,000 scientists, including 9,000 PhDs disagree.
    * Junk science
    * AGW fraud comedy show

    My reductionalist (deconstructionist or generative theory) view is that fundamentally China has pollution problems because for decades they were running a non-market command economy (centralization and loss of free market entropic optimization), and thus they fell way behind and now have a huge aging population (demographic induced economic collapse by 2030 or so, due to 1 child policy), and they tried to catch up in 1 - 2 decades causing massive environmental destruction. Also causing them to misallocate resources on a massive scale. Do you know they build new skyscapers then demolish and rebuild in order to keep their nominal GDP growth high (then they then lie about real GDP growth, as is the USA).

    My review of data suggested to me that electric cars are not economic (on a relative ROI opportunity cost analysis, the world is speeding up not slowing down, ROI is evolution at work), neither are solar panels. These are subsidized markets due to the pumping of debt into the bankrupt western economies, thus rewarding uneconomic behavior. A probable timing for the inescapable global debt collapse is end of 2015. The banks have been busy off loading all their debts on to the governments (and thus the middle class), now we head into the inflationary crack up boom as the govts try to print away the intractable problem.

    Perhaps research into safe Thorium nuclear power and safe solid salt cooled uranium reactors (Toshiba), has been thwarted by whoever (insert your favorite conspiracy theory) desires for plutonium for their weapons.

    I haven't time to do the necessary research to determine if this claim of cold fusion from water cavitation is plausible. It has the usual signs of being a fraud (no peer review, asking for $5 million funding, soliciting empathy with a tale about how NST gave them radiation poisoning on purpose).

    From the discussion in the Future blog, I think we may already be harvesting anti-matter. Energy is about changing the perceived order of matter. I am thinking that when we shift our perceptions (virtual reality) into the information domain, then we are tapping anti-matter, e.g. we already make copies for free, do teleportation, having simultaneous existence (via copies), etc..

    1. Energy density is a really trending topic these days. You have hit on several issues in this interesting area.

      The density of hydrogen fuel, even at 700 bars, is significantly less when measured as bulk (kilojoules per liter) than gasoline. This makes it hard to make a car that uses hydrogen unless you want to stop for "gas" every 80 miles.

      The same can be said for CNG (compressed natural gas, which has large reserves and is thus promising). Somethig like 4X the bulk of gasoline.

      As I mentioned, batteries have a ways to go (maybe 10X) to be comparable, if you take the efficiency of the engine into account, which is a very important fact most people outside Tesla motors ignore.

      Safe Thorium is an interesting case, ad I have read some about it. There are alternative neutron absorbing technologies like liquid Sodium. But you probably don't want to have highly caustic 800 degree liquid sodium around, as the US found out when a liquid metal reactor went out in one of our submarines (The USS Seawolf). Yipes!

      Other technologies can make nuclear reactors safer. Particularly standardization and the interchangeable training programs and thus personnel.

      The US ought to solicit maybe five good reactor designs for future implementation. Then choose one and bless it so they can be made by all the reactor companies. This will promote standardization in a field that sorely needs it.

      Water-cooled reactors are generally better because the cavitation that happens when the water starts to boil actually causes the neutrons to slow down and thus controls the reaction automatically.

      This is something you don't usually read about, but which makes reactors inherently safer. Which we need, it appears.

      The real problem, as we found out in Fukushima, is that when the reactor vessel becomes broken and water can't be pumped in to replenish the leaking water supply, you get runaway reactions that can lead to meltdown. So a lot of reactors depend upon running rivers that come downhill and consequently are always present for free. This helps when your external power supply fails.

      Would that Fukushima was designed with such a free and available cooling source!

      I seriously doubt that color fusion will pan out. But hey, once it is replicated by several external sites, I will start to listen.

      I will think about your antimatter comments.

      As for electric cars, I agree that ROI is not where it needs to be. But just wait until oil is at $200/barrel. Then the proposition will be a bit different. And it's not necessarily scarcity that leads to higher prices.

      When demand goes down because we are using more alternative energy methods in cars, then prices of oil will come down as well. This has been well-demonstrated by the Prius and the softness of oil as that car reached peak levels. This may be the best reason of all to move to electrics.

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