Throughout the history of the automobile there has been a competition between the internal combustion engine, or ICE, and the electric motor. In the past the electric motor has never played a serious role in the industry and it has been the internal combustion engine that has been the power plant of choice around the world. Lately there have been several large advances in electric automobile technology such as new battery designs, extremely high efficient motors and lighter construction materials.
There have also been several environmental issues such as pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels as well as the inevitable shortage of the supply of fossil fuels. These recent developments in the automotive industry have brought the electric powered car into the spotlight along with its cousin the hydrogen fuel cell powered car. It is clear that sometime in my generation there will be a major switch and our dependence on fossil fuels will be ended whether we are ready for it or not.
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Currently there are several hybrid cars that are available to the consumer. A hybrid car is one that is powered by both an electric as well as a high efficiency internal combustion engine. The Insight, which is manufactured by Honda and the Prius, which is manufactured by Toyota are two examples of hybrid cars that are currently available. Both of these vehicles employ similar technology for their gas and electric power. In city driving or whenever speeds are low the vehicles are powered by the electric motor but when on the highway or under heavy acceleration, the vehicle is powered by the gas motor. Both vehicles also employ a “regenerative braking” system, this set up helps to recharge the batteries whenever the car is braking. The batteries are also being recharged whenever the gas motor is running and this means that the car never needs to be plugged in, so the car recharges itself. I believe it is this approach that will most easily wean us off our copious consumption of fossil fuels.
In the past, electric vehicles have always had a problem with weight because batteries are extremely heavy and until recently one would need a lot of batteries or a very large battery to attain a reasonable range from the vehicle. Recent technological advances have not really lightened the batteries at all, merely they have made the batteries capable of holding a larger charge so the same range can be attained with a smaller battery, thus less weight (Hamilton, William Electric Automobiles 1984, page 171). Nearly all car batteries are based on the lead-acid battery, this is a reliable battery and will hold a charge for quite some time but the charge that it does hold is comparatively small to newer batteries such as a nickel-cadmium battery. Ford’s sodium-sulphur battery is comparable to the nickel cadmium battery and is capable of holding up to five times the amount of charge as a traditional lead-acid battery of the same weight. These new batteries are capable of extending an electric cars range from the sixty to eighty kilometres such as they were in the seventies and eighties, to several hundred kilometres end even upwards of four hundred kilometres (Ayres, Robert. Alternatives To The Internal Combustion Engine 1989 page 209 and Wakefield, Ernest History of the Electric Car 1994 page 357).
Possibly the largest problem with electric cars is the inconvenience of charging them, with a gas powered car filling the gas tank is as simple as driving down to the corner gas station and filling up. With an electric car this is a lot more complicated. Even the smaller batteries take upwards of twenty minutes or even half an hour to recharge and this makes the concept of an electricity station that operates similar to a gas station extremely unfeasible. One idea that has been suggested is that of a battery rental station, at one of theses stations one would merely swap out the spent batteries in exchange for fully charged ones. This process would take much less time than charging the batteries assuming that there was a universal battery system and the cars were set up for this (Ayres, Robert. Alternatives To The Internal Combustion Engine 1989 page 207). The easiest way to charge the batteries of your electric car would be to plug it in over night but this is not applicable to all households. In single-family residences this would be very easy, all you would have to do is plug the car into an electrical outlet in the garage and let it sit overnight. There is a problem that arises when you look at multi family residences such as apartment buildings or anywhere else where cars are regularly parked outside, in situations like these it is very hard to keep track of who is using how much electricity. The concept of metered electricity next to the road or in large parking facilities, similar to parking metres in which one pays a certain amount of money and receives a certain amount of electricity, has been deemed highly unfeasible (Hamilton, William Electric Automobiles 1984, page 174).
Another alternative to the internal combustion engine that has only recently been pushed into the spotlight is the hydrogen fuel cell powered car. A hydrogen fuel cell is a device that uses hydrogen as a fuel to create electricity as a power source for an electric motor to propel the car. The theory of how a hydrogen fuel cell, or any other fuel cell for that matter is fairly simple. Refer to the following diagram throughout the explanation.
The hydrogen fuel is fed in from the left and comes in contact with the anode, here the hydrogen gas molecule is separated into an electron ( e- ) and a hydrogen ion ( H+ ). The hydrogen ion is permitted to pass through the polymer electrolyte membrane but the electrons are not permitted to pass through the membrane and are forced through the electric circuit, which powers the motor in the car. Both the electron and the hydrogen ion reach the cathode where they come in contact with oxygen in the air to form water (H2O). The exhaust of a car that operates using a fuel cell is nothing more than ordinary water.
Implementing a worldwide network of hydrogen filling stations would be much easier then a worldwide network of electricity stations or battery change stations, however the handling of the hydrogen gas is a problem. Hydrogen gas is one of the most volatile substances on earth, this brings up safety issues for filling stations, transferring the gas as well as how to keep cars safe from hydrogen leaks after accidents and such (Broge, Jean. “GM’s driveable fuel-cell lab.” Automotive Engineering International 110.7 32). Across North America and around the world there are many cities that have already successfully implemented hydrogen fuel cell powered buses. Just recently, California revealed it’s first hydrogen-powered bus called the “ThunderPower Bus”. Trans-Perth, a bus agency in Australia has just announced that it will start using a fuel cell powered bus that was built by the Daimler-Chrysler Corporation and right here in our own back yard. Ballard Industries has been using hydrogen fuel cell powered buses in both Chicago and in Vancouver since 1996.
Besides having no dependence of fossil fuels there is one great advantage to using either an electric car or a car that implements fuel cell technology, which is the emissions that the car produces. The biggest problem with the internal combustion engine is the amount of pollutants that it releases. Both nitrogen oxide gas and carbon monoxide gas are by-products of burning fossil fuels. Nitrogen oxide is a poisonous gas that contributes to the brown haze that can be seen over almost all major urban centres across the globe, carbon monoxide is possibly the most potent of the greenhouse gasses and nearly all of said gas that is in the atmosphere is a result of the burning of fossil fuels. A car that runs on batteries will have no emissions at all other than a small amount of heat that is produced by the batteries and motor while driving, vehicles that utilize a fuel cell system will have no emissions other than water vapour and heat from the motor and electronics. The environmental impact of a switch to either electric cars or fuel cell powered cars would be astronomical.
It is projected that within my lifetime, the earths supply of fossil fuels will begin to dry up and get to the point where the supply will not be able to sustain worldwide demand. A switch will have to be made from the internal combustion engine to another means of power, that will more than likely be the electric powered car, the fuel cell powered car or both. There will obviously have to be major changes to the infrastructure of the world to make fuel or electricity readily available but theses changes are clearly inevitable. I think that the sooner that this change happens and the sooner we are weaned of our dependence on fossil fuels, the sooner the earth can begin recovering from the pollutants that we have put into the atmosphere. So whether we are anticipating this change and ready for it or not it will happen, as it is an inevitability, so we better start working on an alternative now so we are ready.
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