On August 19, 2005, the New York Mercantile Exchange posted crude oil at $65.50 per barrel. According to the EIA, the U.S. average retail price for regular gasoline increased by 18.2 cents, the largest one-week increase on record, to 255.0 cents per gallon, the highest nominal price ever recorded. Retail diesel fuel prices also experienced the largest one-week run-up on record, rising 16.0 cents last week to 256.7 cents per gallon, an all-time high (not adjusted for inflation). These are the hot days of summer in the oil barrel and people are scrambling to find relief. Old technology may be coming back into vogue; the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).
There are two types of PHEVS; an all-electric vehicle or a gas-electric hybrid, both of which needs to be recharged from an external electrical outlet. According to don’tcrush.com, an electric car has no engine, no gas tank, no tailpipe, muffler, catalytic converter, no noise, and no emissions. California spurred the invention of electric vehicles, trying desperately to decrease emissions in a suffocating state. If one bought an electric car they were allowed to drive in the carpool lane as a solo passenger in California.
Charging time on a plug-in varies depending on how empty the battery is and how much energy the battery will hold (known in ICE language as to how big the tank is). On average it takes two to eight hours to recharge vehicles, usually done while most are sleeping, but if you’re shopping at Costco you can charge your car while you shop – for free. Dan Neil, the automotive journalist for the LA Times, drove around Los Angeles for 144 miles and used 7.092 kWh, which equals out to 68 cents of electricity and $2.50 worth of gasoline, working out to about 4 cents per mile.
The auto industry embraced this technology until the bills mounted and there was very little demand. The lack of demand stemmed from the range the car could go before needing to be recharged. Dave Barthmuss, General Motors spokesperson laments the end of the EV, “There is a great deal of technology that we have learned from the EV that is in the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. General Motors sees the hydrogen fuel cell as the ultimate vehicle and, unfortunately, the demand for the EV never panned out.” General Motors pulled the plug and sent the EV1s to metal heaven via a crushing machine. In an “only in California” moment, a mock funeral was held. There are people who have passed on to the next life that didn’t get the emotional send-off that the beleaguered GM EV1 received.
But there are uses for electric vehicles that are making it worthwhile for automakers to bring the plug-ins back. According to Nick Twork, powertrain, and technology spokesperson for Ford Motor Co., “The plug-ins were part of a Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate that was eventually replaced with the Partial Zero Emissions Ford is studying plug-ins for the future solution, but currently, there are technical problems.”
According to Nick Cappa, Daimler Chrysler is producing a plug-in hybrid built on the 15-passenger van platform of the Mercedes Sprinter. Daimler Chrysler is working with the Electric Power Research Institute of Palo Alto. The New York Power Authority is helping to fund the five-cylinder diesel cargo van that will allow the New York Times to deliver their papers without using a drop of diesel fuel for the first twenty miles. There is an “electric-only” switch inside the cargo van that can be turned on when one wants to use only electricity. According to Cappa, “Some cities don’t allow commercial vehicles because of their emissions. The electric car is less noisy and zero emissions, so it is the perfect vehicle to deliver the morning paper.”Pressure is mounting from different sources to consider plug-ins as a viable option. “Such development should have the highest research and development priority because it promises to revolutionize transportation economics and to have a dramatic effect on the problems caused by oil dependence,” wrote George Shultz, former U.S. secretary of state, and James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a June position paper on oil and U.S. national security. Woolsey just took a ride in a plug-in Prius yesterday, according to Greg Hanssen, of edrivesystems.com
According to Hanssen, of “the nickel-metal hydride (NimH) battery systems in today’s Prius aren’t powerful enough to make a plug-in hybrid practical. But moving to the more advanced and powerful lithium-ion battery allows us to change out Toyotas system and create a plug-in.”
The most significant issue in a Lithium-ion (Lion) battery is in heating. Lions are vulnerable to “thermal runaway” ” meaning they can heat up to 800 degrees Celsius, break in half and shoot flames out, resulting in batteries catching on fire or blowing up.
Valence says it has overcome this safety issue by altering the chemistry of lithium-ion systems. It uses batteries based on iron phosphate rather than cobalt, reducing temperatures in the case of a thermal runaway to less than 200 degrees Celsius.
The plug-in upgrade for the Prius is 6-7 months away from production, according to Hanssen. Clean-techs plug-in will take out the NiMH system in the Prius and install their system, utilizing a secret storage area in the rear to house the extra 180 pounds of weight that the Lion carries with it. The plug-in installation will start in Los Angeles, near LAX. Hanssen hopes to have the installation take only 24 hours.
The grassroots folks will buy the car just because it is the latest in technology towards cleaner running automobiles and it gets us closer to getting off the dependence of foreign oil. But next to sex, people think about money the most and there is a saving there. A regular Prius will get around 50 mpg and the average miles driven by a consumer is 50 miles. At almost $3.00 per gallon that is over $1,000 per year in gas for a Prius
According to Hanssen, the plug-in Prius gets between 100-150 mpg. Using the same calculation, adding in the electricity cost, the savings would only be a couple of hundred dollars. However, if you calculated the gas at $4.00 per gallon, or used the discount that the government gives on all-electric vehicles for electricity the savings could be up to $500 per year.
Hanssen acknowledges that the price doesn’t cover the savings, “the problem is the cost of the Lithium-Ion battery. They are expensive. If just one OEM would use lithium-ion it would have a dramatic effect on the cost of the battery and the plug-in Prius.”
The iron phosphate Lithium-Ion battery is what allows this installation to take place. Mark Kohler, business development manager of Valence Corporation says that Valence has already modified a Prius with its Saphion technology, giving it 18 times more usable energy and tripling its fuel economy. “We don’t have to worry about recycling the Saphion battery because there is nothing in the battery that is harmful to the environment and the material inside the battery
is not worth extracting.” Consider the lead-acid battery, lead is toxic and worth something once it is extracted, the same thing for nickel out of the NiMH and cobalt out of the cobalt lithium-ion. The Saphion battery is made with dirt and rust, neither of which are traded on the stock market as of yet. Wait till there are 300,000,000 vehicles running around with Saphion batteries, though, and then well talk. The other reason to use the Saphion battery instead of a cobalt battery is a thermal runaway. Kohler explains that cobalt will heat up and catch on fire, not something you want to have happen when you’re driving down the highway. Valences batteries are already being used in North Carolina in some of the hybrid, fuel-cell, plug-in electric ATVs supplied by clean-tech.
Dean Bogues of Valence says that Valence is having “dialog with OEMs worldwide. We are talking with manufacturers that want to use our batteries in 3-5 years and we are taking advantage of more immediate opportunities, such as European utility vehicles that are government-owned and want to replace them with hybrid-electric vehicles.
Valence has two manufacturing plants in Suzhou, China, the one country that isn’t beholden to the internal combustion engine. According to Bogus they have also hired a sales team in China and have a systems engineering group in Shanghai, China. Valence is a publicly held company in the United States (NASDAQ: VLNC) and a wholly-owned subsidiary in China (not a joint venture with a Chinese group like all the automobile manufacturers).
The grassroots folks that have embraced each technology as soon as they come out are to be applauded. Because of these consumers willing to pay extra for their beliefs the auto industry has been able to make strides toward better fuel economy, and hopefully someday, independence from foreign oil. The Nickel-Metal hydride hybrids will eventually be eclipsed by another technology. The auto industry is already looking at ways to keep these vehicles around. They don’t need another group of grassroots folks with signs pleading for the life of their Nickel Metal Hydride hybrid vehicle.
Electric vehicles have been around for many years and all of these vehicles are still able to go through the HOV carpool lanes for free in California;