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Will electric cars of the future ditch batteries for ultracapacitors?

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The EV rush

Electric vehicles are hogging the spotlight these days with their ability to operate without producing carbon emissions or the use of expensive fuel. EVs have come a long way in terms of popularity recently. While the use of electricity as a means of propulsion predates cars running on internal combustion engines, the journey has been arduous at best. Nevertheless, these eco friendly vehicles have recently seen a rush of buyers as fuel grows more expensive and concern for the environment is heightened. Now, automakers, who earlier focused on producing only conventional vehicles are rolling out electric models with sleek designs and improved performance. Brands like BMW, Toyota and GM have latched onto the rush for EVs, fueling the craze even more.

Ultracapacitor electric vehicle

Need for change

Most would think that electric vehicles are the answer to the problem of sustainable transport. But it’s surprising to know that all’s not right with the world of EVs. While they produce no emissions and use no gas or diesel, the battery technology they utilize is under heavy strain. If small devices like iPods, cellphones and laptops can sap their batteries in a couple of hours, you can well imagine the burden placed on those who use EVs. The batteries of today are no match for conventional cars running on a full tank of gas as a full battery charge can run an EV only for a relatively short distance. Since not all places have charging stations, EVs aren’t always viable. Thus, despite their benefits to the environment, it will take a while before they can fully replace conventional cars.

Ultracapacitors: Fast and efficient

There’s an alternative to batteries which may just change the way EVs are operated. Called ultracapacitors, they’re energy storage devices, but unlike batteries, they can store high amounts of energy. They can also withstand a heavy amounts of charge and discharge cycles without degrading. This means that they have a longer life so they don’t need to be replaced as often. When used in automobiles, ultracapacitors capture as well as store electrical energy that’s generated when a driver brakes and released when he accelerates.

Ultracapacitors are increasingly being developed to act as replacements for batteries and the EV segment is looking to utilizing them on a much larger scale. If they can be successfully applied, electric vehicles may soon be running on them, giving proponents of green cars something to rejoice about.

Trends

Already, the military and transport departments of various countries are making use of ultracapacitors on a larger scale.

Ultracapacitors for hybrid military vehicles

Ultracapacitors for hybrid military vehicles

Who would have ever thought the Humvee would go green? These rugged and gas guzzling giants are set to undergo a makeover when ADA Technologies completes building an electrochemical ultracapacitor for these military vehicles. The company, which will take the help of Maxwell Technologies, had signed a $70,000 contract drafted by the US Army for such a purpose. The ultracapacitor will be used to meet the energy and power demands of Humvees when undertaking military operations, significantly reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Sinautec’s forty-one seat Ultracap Buses

Sinautec's forty-one seat Ultracap Buses

Sinautec, with the help of Shanghai Aowei, is testing ultracapacitors in its electric buses. The experiment appears to be very successful barring the fact that the routes will need more charging stations. Sinautec’s executive director, Dan Ye, says that the solution is to convert the bus stops along the designated routes into charging stations. The Ultracap Buses will recharge every two to three miles through a collector installed on the buses’ tops, which comes into contact with an overhead charge line. The energy collected is stored in ultracapacitor banks located under the buses’ seats.

Cameo all-electric minibus

Cameo all-electric minibus

Auto designer Martin Pres has come up with a concept called Cameo, which relies on ultracapacitors. The public bus, which can accommodate 32 passengers, will charge at any station in a matter of seconds. The entrance of the bus is designed to allow wheelchairs accessibility. Since the bus isn’t overly large, it is lighter and uses less energy.

Zeus: an all electric super sports car

Zeus

In view of the poor aesthetics of green vehicles, Portuguese designer Joao Miguel Dias has conceived a concept car that seeks to combine looks with functionality. Dubbed as the Zeus, the car runs on ultracapacitors. To make the car as green as possible, Dias envisioned covering the body in carbon nanomaterial capable of storing large amounts of energy. Incidentally, all the materials used to create the concept car can be recycled.

The benefits

1. Economical power source: Since ultracapacitors store energy electrostatically instead of producing it through a chemical reaction, the overall cost of producing a car running on ultracapacitors is significantly reduced. If combined with batteries, such cars will guarantee better performance and a longer range before needing to be recharged.

2. Increases fuel efficiency: Lighter vehicles mean better fuel efficiency. Since ultracapacitors are far lighter than conventional battery packs, cars utilizing them will be able to achieve better efficiency.

3. Longer life span: Ultracapacitors have a longer life span than batteries since they can better withstand the pressures of charge/discharge cycles. This means that users won’t need to spend a lot of money for maintenance.

4. Less charging time: Unlike batteries, ultracapacitors take a lot less time to recharge.

The lowdown

1. High cost: The cost of producing ultracapacitors can be high as the raw materials required are expensive.

2. Higher self-discharge rate: Ultracapacitors discharge energy themselves faster and since they have a low internal resistance, a short can result in a spark hazard like any other capacitor.

3. Less storage: Ultracaps store less energy per unit of weight compared to their electrochemical battery counterparts.

The bottom line

Researchers are trying to improve the overall performance and capacity of ultracaps so that they can be applied to EVs on a larger scale. Despite their drawbacks, they have better potential than the batteries used in today’s EVs. Since they’re already being used in many applications, they’re being increasingly considered as replacements for batteries in hybrid vehicles. They can also function well in very low temperatures, which comes as a boon to those living in arctic conditions. It’s just a matter of time before we’ll see EVs of the future relying largely on ultracaps, compelling the masses to switch to greener forms of transport.

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