The world’s press got very excited last week by a letter published in ‘Nature’ magazine by two researchers from MIT. They have been looking into enhancing lithium iron phosphate electrodes in order to improve charging times for batteries, and talk about the potential for Li-ion batteries (used in mobile phones, but also in the Tesla electric supercar) that could charge fully in seconds.
Clearly this would be good for mobile phone and laptop users, but just imagine what it would do for electric cars, where probably the biggest barrier to entry apart from how long they last is how long it takes to charge their batteries. Theoretically, our MIT heroes suggest, and the media emphasises, this could mean electric cars that are chargeable in under 10 minutes.
This truly would be an amazing development, although a quick surf around the more intelligent parts of the blogosphere suggests that things aren’t as simple as all that: fast charge batteries may not be capable of providing the same level of power, and the fast-charge process itself could require far more power than today’s typical batter-charge process. And anyway, this is a discovery in its early days…
Still, it does make you think - well, it makes me think at any rate. If I go back to the piece I wrote on Lord Stern’s analysis of what green technologies we should be investing in right now, he pushed the development of efficient batteries right down the scale. I said I didn’t agree then, and I repeat it now. Whilst I fully realise that batteries need to get their power from somewhere, I still think that electric power needs to play a major role in transport before we manage to develop other more efficient, safe solutions such as hydrogen power and maybe one day fusion on an industrial basis.
Electric power already delivers, if you work within its limitations. The Tesla will travel up to 220 miles between charges, and at high speeds, but its hugely expensive. Smaller electric cars such as the Nice Mega City are far more affordable, but with a typical range of 60 miles at 40 mph and only 2 seats. The Vectrix scooter will travel over 60 miles at an average of 40 mph with a 2 hour charge time. Other day to day cars and scooters are arriving on the market that will travel up to 100 miles per charge, even if at limited speeds. As a commuter solution, electric vehicles already work, but they could take far more of the transport market if the challenges of range, power and charge time were improved still further.
To me, the development of fast-charge batteries is one crucial step for electric vehicles, as it takes the pressure off the need for greater range - although this remains important. Also, if you think laterally, it brings into play other potential solutions. If a battery can be charged easier and faster, couldn’t it be charged by green energy in this way? Surely a fast-charge battery would be ideal for a hybrid car, enabling it to take even more weight off the petrol side of the bargain?
So I at least am going to watch this space closely, whilst I continue to save up for my Vectrix, or whatever is the best solution by the time I hit my budget target. I’m convinced that this is the future (or one of the futures) of private and public transport.