2 Gamechangers That Could Seriously Affect EV Infrastructure

Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Here are 2 technologies on the horizon that could seriously affect how we’ll charge our vehicles in the near future.

1. Battery Swapping/Exchange

What is it?
Instead of taking the time to charge your vehicle’s battery, just swap it out with a fully charged one.  This would be similar to swapping out your grill's propane tank using rentable, prefilled tanks from tank exchange companies like www.bluerhino.com, but for an EV, it would be more like www.BetterPlace.com’s vision as seen in the video below. 

Gamechanging Advantages:
  • 3 Minute “Charges”…or how ever long it takes to swap the battery.  This is perfect for delivery fleets and other uses where vehicles are not in one place too long.
  • Easier upgrades to new battery technology.  Anyone that has owned a laptop knows how fast their new 6 hour battery becomes a 3 hour battery.  Battery swap services could keep you in the latest technology by turning their inventory.
  • Buy the car, rent/lease the battery…which could lower the initial cost of EVs.  This would work best for fleets, but it gets messy for consumers.

  • Design challenges.  To get economies of scale, several vehicle manufacturers would have to standardize on the same basic battery location, packaging, and technology.
  • Commoditizes Battery Technology Competitive Advantage.  Since battery technology is rapidly evolving and overcoming range anxiety is paramount, EV companies are likely to use battery technology as a competitive advantage. 
  • Inventory.  What if they are out of the battery that goes into your vehicle?  This is why economies of scale and standardization are so important to this model. 

2. UltraCapacitor

What is it?
Like batteries, capacitors store energy...however, capacitors typically only store energy on a very short term basis (second or less).  Because of their construction, capacitors have significant advantages and disadvantages from a battery (see below), but scientist and materials engineers are making good headway on delivering a capacitor that is better than a traditional battery.

The idea of using ultracapacitors for EVs is not new, but the idea is still valid and could at the very least help batteries handle large peak electrical conditions (charging and speed inc/decrease).  This NASA brief from 2000 outlined the benefits and possibilities of using them: UltraCapacitors Store Energy in a Hybrid Electric Vehicle  

The biggest development over the past two years has been within the walls of the mysterious EEStor company in Texas, which is working with Zenn Cars to power their vehicles using UltraCapacitors.  EEStor is operating in “stealth mode” and doesn’t have a website, but it does have a Wikipedia entry - make sure you check out the specs of their UltraCapacitor compared to batteries.  Another key UltraCapacitor manufacturer is Maxwell Technologies

Gamechanging Advantages:
  • They can soak up HUGE amounts of power VERY QUICKLY (3-6 min for full charge)...and it can give it back just as fast...much faster than a battery (3+ hours for full charge).  Ultra-Capacitors could replace or augment batteries...and to help soak up large charging currents from fast chargers (Level 3) or help make regenerative braking even better.  There are a few studies on this out in cyberspace (Google Search)
  • They work in the Cold, where batteries can be sluggish
  • Provide consistent performance over time
  • They are potentially MUCH cheaper to build than batteries, lighter, need no maintenance, and are not nearly as harmful to the environment when they are discarded.
  • Their big challenge for UltraCapacitors to create one that doesn’t leak (discharge to air) over time.  If EEstor delivers on its promises, they will create a UltraCapacitor that leaks less than a Lithium Ion battery!
  • Large Charging Currents.  While it’s an advantage that UltraCapacitors can suck up large amounts of energy, it could challenge charging infrastructure…enabling...and thus requiring Level 3 charging stations which are very expensive to purchase and “feed”.  This would be less of a problem for fleets that could benefit by fast charging vehicles and afford their cost.
  • Oh yeah, they’re not real…yet...