ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
The recent tragedy in Afghanistan has thrown an interesting factor into the news, one that has given various commentators cause for concern given that its potential future use is considered to be of paramount importance to the motor industry. The supply of Lithium is, purportedly, one material essential to the future of manufacturing electric vehicles, and Afghanistan is said to have large resources of the material. “Lost and gone forever” as far as most of the pundits are concerned. China will get the lot!
Well, perhaps that will be no bad thing. A country heavily invested in another will not want the outlay to be compromised by constant civil war, as it probably will be in Afghanistan. Mr Biden has done his best to make sure it will be, inadvertently or no. As for the future of motoring, fear not, for every cloud has a lithium lining - and perhaps something a little more enticing hiding in the garage.
Firstly, China is estimated to have about 4.5 million metric tons of Lithium buried in its soil, but by contrast the America’s have an estimated 50 million metric tons, so it’s not exactly a disaster. Far from it. Even Australia has about 6.3 million metric tons, and when everyone starts looking for this mineral, no doubt there will be others countries to share in the bonanza. Like the United Kingdom for example!
Britain has abundant reserves of Lithium in Cornwall, and conversely, its extraction may not have to spoil the landscape. Lithium can be obtained by the sensible process of extracting low carbon Lithium from sea water. Samples taken from up to 3.2 miles from the shore show the highest chemical quality ever found in geothermal waters, suggesting 4000 tons of Lithium extraction per year.
So, it’s unlikely that the progress of battery driven electric vehicles in the UK will be stalled by a shortage of this ‘rare earth material’. However, given this welcome news, taking one’s eyes off the considerable problems associated with this adjustment to the nations means of transport should not be overlooked just yet.
Fifty percent of an electric car is the battery so this is no small matter. Lithium, weighing in at c.17lb is not quite the heaviest component in its construction. Cobalt at c.30lb and Nickel at c.45 lb, ensures it’s no lightweight. However, perhaps the simplest comparison between the weight of a conventional vehicle’s battery and that of an electric car is 40lb in a petrol driven vehicle and 1000lb in an electric one. That represents half a ton of battery to lug around! One shouldn’t be too quick to take this out of context. In an electric car the battery is virtually the engine, which in a conventional vehicle is no small matter if you’ve ever had to remove one. However, the weight of the vehicle is not the greatest problem that has to be surmounted.
Unlike petrol, the obtaining which for your present vehicle may be no longer than a ten-minute affair, that for an electric vehicle demands discipline on the part of the driver. It takes about half an hour if a ‘rapid charger’ is used, which is not much use if you’re in a hurry and the chicken’s burning in the oven, while eight hours plus may be needed if you’ve been neglectful and let the battery run too low. This is apparently not advisable, as a completely discharged battery cannot be recharged. At c. £3700 - £4500 a battery this could well be a disaster too far! Whether or not repeatedly ‘rapid charging’ the battery will suffer damage has also not yet been fully established, and may depend on the chemical characteristics of the battery. There is also the problem of the weather, as efficiency deteriorates as the temperature drops. A night trip in the depths of winter may not have to be very far with the headlights on, a heater blower at full blast, and the screen wipers trading blows with the rain or snow!
There are other problems. No one has yet seen fit to consider how multiple electric car owner living in an apartment block exiting onto a street pavement will keep his vehicle charged. An in-depth study on the problem of vehicle charging has yet to surface. Placing a few points at the local Super Store won’t be good enough. The work place may provide a possibility, but not everyone has a static job, or works for a firm with few employees! In such a situation charging your vehicle may become something of a bun fight. The disaster of running out of volts on a deserted road at night does not bear thinking about. How over 1.5 million cars in the UK will be kept charged is something of a conundrum, as no one has seen fit to resolve the problem of where all this extra energy is to come from. Don’t even consider mentioning windmills. The advantage of charging your vehicle while you sleep, when there is plenty of spare energy lying idle, presupposes that there really will be enough volts to go round. I don’t think that’s been considered either, as volt guzzling HGV’s will surely soon be a factor hiding under the nearest bushel!
After all, there’s no sense of fair play in penalising private vehicles, which are very efficient these days, and ignoring the worst polluters, something no one seems to have addressed.
Worse may still be to come. Have you ever heard an electric car? Their very attractive ‘silence’ is also a dangerous disadvantage to the footbound public. “Looking where you’re going” will never have been so critical a warning. It is estimated that sometime around the year 2050 virtually every car coming onto the UK market will be electric. It is also estimated that there will be 44 million of them on the road world-wide. In 2020 there were 26000 accidents so we can expect that to rise by 25% given there are 31 million cars today. That raises a frightening prospect. Lithium batteries ignite when exposed to oxygen. In a petrol/diesel driven vehicle the battery is c.12” square while that of an electric vehicle is 50% of the car. In an accident the battery of a conventional vehicle will likely be undamaged. That may not be so in an electric version with so vulnerable an element. Problematically, traditional fire extinguishers are ineffective against a lithium fire. In the United States where electric cars are already numerous this factor has just recently become apparent with local fire brigades unable to extinguish a burning vehicle. Dry powder extinguishers do exist, adding yet another expense to the fire brigade’s armoury, but no one seems to know how much powder they’ll have to carry around.
On the bright side, humans are ingenious, and no doubt their creative skills may well ultimately resolve all the problems associated with this form of transport. The worrying aspect is that it will only be when evolution reaches the point of critical mass that governments will, too late, address the myriad problems presented by this technology.
But incredibly, an option does exist before their very eyes, and Boris is, wonder of wonders, pumping money into its development. The real candidates for future private transport rests with Hydrogen Fuel cells. If you haven’t heard of any vehicles powered in this way then you should take a look at the Japanese Toyota and Honda companies who have massive government backing for its development that is already very advanced, especially with sales in the United States where they have reached the point of needing to make Hydrogen available at the pumps. They are not without issues similar to battery driven vehicles, but they have enormous advantages over their competitors. Firstly, they are very similar to a petrol driven vehicle with extended ranges of over 300 miles on a tank full of hydrogen. That’s a healthy sign. They can be refuelled in a number of minutes from a local station. It is also considerably cheaper per mile than a petrol vehicle. Using a highly modified combustion engine they are very efficient, but suffer from emitting Nitrogen Oxide which is not good at cutting down pollution. So back to ingenuity. Where there’s a will there’s a way, especially if there’s a jingle of money, and the same industries have turned to developing Hydrogen Fuel Cells that can drive electric motors instead of a combustion engine. Wonderful! An electric car that doesn’t need to be charged from the mains. The really good news is that the UK is also advanced in this technology, and where Boris is spending that money. JCB, the company that famously manufactures mini diggers and large earth moving equipment, fortunately required something more robust than a puny electric car battery, so they’re into developing and producing super-efficient hydrogen motors. As they’ve proved to be reliable, it will only be a matter of time before they’re downsized. In which case the public will have a vehicle that has all the benefits of no pollution with all the advantages of present combustion driven vehicles.
Now that’s a direction worth travelling in!