Swapping Peak Oil for Peak Lithium?

The automotive world appears well on its way to a lithium-powered future. The rock star of electric vehicles, the Tesla Roadster, relies solely on lithium ion batteries. GM’s Volt and Toyota’s plug-in Prius both will carry lithium battery packs when they appear on the market in a of couple years. Nissan, Mitsubishi, Ford, Chrysler and others all tout lithium as the battery of choice in the near future.

As the future of lithium continues to get brighter, some skeptics are presenting concerns that might give pause to those who see this metal as the ideal path towards petroleum-free transportation.

What Is Lithium?

“Could we not be swapping dependence on one depleting natural resource, oil, for another? Analysis shows that a world dependent on lithium for its vehicles could soon face even tighter resource constraints than we face today with oil.”

William Tahil
research director, Meridian International Research

First, a bit about lithium. It is one of the most common elements on earth, but does not appear alone and usually appears in relatively low concentrations, so it must be mined or “harvested” and separated from the other minerals with which it occurs. While abundant as an element, commercial quantities of lithium are found in relatively few places, with current lithium production coming primarily from China and Argentina, but expected to begin in volume in China, Australia, and Russia, as well as the US. Because of a limited number of sources for processed lithium, the potential for market disruption or manipulation is greater even than what is seen with oil and OPEC, according to some observers.

While the supply of processed lithium is limited and might be challenged by rapid adoption of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles using lithium batteries, other researchers have faith—not unlike that expressed by the petroleum industry in talks about “peak oil”—that rising prices caused by limited supply would ultimately increase the lithium supply exponentially. Recent estimates of lithium supply have been going up.

One could envision a situation like the one the photovoltaic industry has experienced during the past few years, where a shortage of processed polysilicon held up production and raised prices on solar energy materials. That issue appears to be on its way to resolution as new plants come online, but prices will take a while to react to the changes in the market and, in the interim, higher prices limit the market.

Recycling Lithium

Finally, lithium has another issue that goes back to its essence. Lithium is a corrosive substance and in batteries has the potential to short circuit and catch fire, which has led to strict regulations for shipping.

Recycling is another challenge for automotive-scale lithium batteries. One manufacturer admitted that they needed to “develop innovative recycling ideas that will allow at least 50 percent of the content of lithium ion cells to be recycled.”

In Australia, the prospect of Toyota beginning production of the next generation Camry Hybrid was greeted by some with concern that the model would include lithium ion batteries. As was noted by one of the country’s opposition leaders, the island continent has no capabilities to recycle lithium batteries. At present, smaller lithium ion batteries are shipped to overseas recycling operations in Europe and Asia.

Lithium ion batteries present great opportunities for cleaner and greener cars—but they also present challenges that must be overcome, or addressed by even newer technologies.


  • Will S

    A sobering reminder…

  • John K.

    While these concerns may be legit, they may be moot if EEstor’s ultracap is “commercialized” — as it is supposed to be — by the end of this year. IIRC, it does not depend upon Li. If they are successful, it will be a “game-changer.”

    fyi I keep on my Palm a timeline of when different things are supposed to happen related to hybrids, PHEVs, and EVs. I suggest all who read this site do the same.

    Some “big changes” headed our way:
    1) commercialization of the EEstor ultracap before the end of this year.
    2) actual delivery of the EEstor ultracaps sometime next summer followed by the sale of the cityZenn EV with the EEStor ultracaps and the (Li ion?) Prius PHEV in Nov. ’09.
    3) Nov. ’10 for the Volt and the Vue Li ion PHEVs.
    4) I *guess* we’ll see Flybrid Systems (twice the efficiency of battery brake regen) in cars sometime before ’12.

    There are other things that will happen along the way, but they are minor by comparison (release of the Aptera, Ford Fusion hybrid, a new Prius, new Insight, etc.). For me, only the EEstor ultracap and plug-in tech (incl Li ion) will be game-changers. Put them together and you can go straight to EVs w/o an ICE. OPEC, go (choke) yourself with your filthy crude oil!

  • Bryce

    eestor’s delivery of its power packs have been delayed till next year due to financing issues sadly. : (

    O, and lithium is one of the most abundant things on Earth, and, like oil, more will be found and new techniques of extraction will be developed as it is demanded more. That is again assuming that li-ion is the battery forever. We switch between different sources for batteries all the time it seems. Who knows what the next big thing will be. : )

  • Scott

    Lets hope the next big thing will be energy diversity. I think we all have seen how devastating depending on one energy resource can be. I applaud the reemergence of the electric automobile now lets hear more from the folks developing hydrogen, natural gas and, compressed air systems.

  • Will S

    Scott said:

    >Lets hope the next big thing will be energy diversity

    Yes, combined with greatly improved energy efficiency, ala the types of approaches seen with Aptera, Loremo, VW 1 liter, etc. Also add better land use planning and mass transit.

  • John K.

    Bryce said:
    >eestor’s delivery of its power packs have been delayed till next >year due to financing issues sadly. : (

    Yes, I read somewhere recently that “commercialization” had been delayed, but only from Dec ’08 to Jan/Feb ’09. Prdxn was still set to begin in summer ’09.

    What have you heard and could you post a link to it?

    Thanks.

  • John K.

    Will S said:

    >Scott said:

    >>Lets hope the next big thing will be energy diversity

    >Yes, combined with greatly improved energy efficiency, ala the >types of approaches seen with Aptera, Loremo, VW 1 liter, etc.

    Honda is positioned to do this RIGHT NOW! They produce their Civic hybrid and they produce their Civic GX that runs on CGN. All they need to do is to combine those into one car and “Bingo!” — you’ve got a car that you refuel at home from your natural gas line (used to heat water and homes), that is also very fuel efficient (and therefore enviro friendly). Then we would be free of OPEC w/o having to wait 20 years for affordable fuel cells and a hydrogen distribution infrastructure to be built. We’ll achieve energy independence AS we invent/improve things to the point where EVs are practical for everyone!

    Next step after that is to make it a PHEV w/more kW hours on board by using Li ion batts, making it even more “green.” Honda could offer this NEXT November. They MAY be able to modify a Li ion powered version of their IMA so that it can run part-time just on electricity, just like a Prius.

    The next step after that is for some combination of ultracaps, EEstor, flywheel regen, hydraulic regen (for heavy trucks), Li ion, NiMH, and/or other tech to take us to pure EVs. Once we have EVs, why even mess w/fuel cells and hydrogen? Talk about a real boondoggle! Speaking of which . . .

    That’s why I’m voting “Yes!” on Prop. 10 and why I support the Picken’s Plan (www.pickensplan.com). The antis say that Pickens will make a bundle. So what if the Plan also gives us what we need and want? The antis say CGN is not renewable and is a greenhouse gas. So what if we only plan to be on it for, oh, less than the 20 yrs that it takes to go to true EVs. Plus, as I pointed out, by combining it w/hybrid tech NOW and PHEV tech in the NEXT YEAR OR TWO (w/Li ion), it will be a heck of a lot cleaner than just plain CGN. The anti-Pickens people’s arguments fail.

    Vote “Yes!” on Prop. 10 and go to http://www.pickensplan.com to support it on the national level (as does Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money”).

  • Samie

    I think Bryce’s first comments say it best “We switch between different sources for batteries all the time it seems. Who knows what the next big thing will be”. I feel some get complacent around the issue of Lithium batteries. I agree their will be different competing battery technologies that in all likely hood will leap frog current Lithium batteries.

    Sorry to pick on John K’s comments but how does CNG get us to energy independence???? Questions of domestic resources, imports, markets, and what, fuel for fuel??? I guess I have to respectfully disagree with that idea. Should have been something we explored in the 1970′s.

  • Bryce

    i read the info on gm-volt.com

    It made me a bit sad, but it will probably just be delayed by a few months, 6 at the max I wouldk anticipate. Their CEO said they were still funded fine to produce the packs, just with more money, they could have done it faster apparently. Don’t worry, we will have our electric cars soon enough. : )

    http://gm-volt.com/2008/10/27/update-from-eestor-ceo-richard-weir-no-eesu-delivery-in-2008/

  • Samie

    Sorry to hear :(
    On the bright side Tesla could produce maybe 5-6?… more EV’s in that time with a grand total of what? a couple hundred EV’s sold…

    I still don’t understand why can’t the government back cheap loans to keep this on pace? I can relate to those who don’t like “big” government but we can look at foreign governments pumping billions annually into their automakers so why shouldn’t we invest in the future of the industry now. Cars like the Cruze are so badly needed but the concerns I have maybe addressed in a “bailout” package.

  • Zero X owner

    I already have my lithium power pack vehicle that I use as my daily commuter. It’s 100% wind powered, thanks to a subscription plan from my local power company, at rates cheaper than coal in many states. I’ve already made arrangements to sell my swappable (in seconds) power pack at a profit for use as power storage and load smoothing when I’m ready to upgrade to the next generation power pack. After that, it gets recycled, which I’ve also already made arrangements for as a benefit to the future buyer and part of the deal.

    Most of the information in this article seems badly out of date or incomplete.

    The author might consider taking a chemistry or medical course, to learn that we give some crazy people a lithium compound to eat, which can help them think sanely, one our earliest medical science successes that is still in effective use.

    That lithium occurs in concentrations is a good thing – that makes it easier to collect with minimal interactions with local environments. That it’s common and an energy carrier rather than an energy source is even better, as less extraction is required in the long term. Perhaps take fundamental physics and natural resource economics courses as well?

    The limited supply of lithium claimed must explain why we don’t have any laptop computers and will never be able to build more than few, as we know that quantity supplied is never affected by changes in demand (sorry for the sarcasm). As lithium demand increases, quantity supplied will increase to meet the demand at a market clearing price. If the price goes up, that will encourage more suppliers, so the industry will benefit from increased returns to larger scale production and supplier competition will increase, both of which will lower the price to end consumers. That’s just conservative neo-classical economics – the basic LAWS of supply and demand – pretty unavoidable.

    Please remember that lithium based power packs are extremely efficient energy CARRIERS that indeed can mostly be recycled and that no lithium (a simple element) is ever permanently lost, while liquid fuel is an energy source, with the liquid fuel forever used up in creating heat, carbon and toxic wastes (and a tiny portion into movement).

  • Zero X owner

    Cordless power tools are maybe a better comparison that laptops. They use more modern, stable lithium chemistries and have a great track record in rugged use and environments.

    See Killacycle – the biggest issue is that the power packs are so efficient that they max out even extremely powerful motors easily.

    Making sure to use quality (super car level) gear and motor combinations and having good power management and controllers in an electric vehicle that can handle the high performance of modern, stable lithium power packs is obviously more of an issue to our future transportation than anything to do with the power packs. How about we prioritize the issues. Lithium supply would be near the bottom of my list.

    It appears that it takes more effort to make an majority electric drive vehicle not perform at supercar levels than it does to make a supercar compatible one, as I know which is in production now (a supercar level electric vehicle). Clearly, competent marketing is a huge factor as well.

  • John K.

    Bryce said:
    >i read the info on gm-volt.com

    >It made me a bit sad,

    Yes, I’m sorry to hear that too. Confirms what I read elsewhere. Note that the CEO just says it won’t be ready in ’08. He doesn’t even hint as to when it will be ready. Hopefully before the end of ’09. The thing to watch is ZENN to see if they make an announcement re when their cityZENN (that will use the EEStor ultracaps) will be released.

    Oh well, there are still plenty of other people pushing ahead w/other energy storage technologies.

    Ain’t free market competition great? You don’t need to “put all your eggs in one basket.”

  • John K.

    Samie said:
    >Sorry to pick on John K’s comments but how does CNG get us to energy >independence???? Questions of domestic resources, imports, markets, and >what, fuel for fuel??? I guess I have to respectfully disagree with that idea.

    Disagreeing, when done politefully, doesn’t require an excuse. We all have the same goals (i.e., energy independence, reduced pollution, renewable energy), we’re just debating the best way to get there.

    Read “The Plan” at:
    http://www.pickensplan.com/theplan/
    Scroll just past halfway down to “A cheap new replacement for foreign oil” and “The Mechanics.”
    Also scroll 2/3rds the way down at: http://www.pickensplan.com/didyouknow/ to read the section titled, “…that we have plenty of natural gas to do this?”

    Even if the Plan is implemented, remember, only a small fraction of all cars on US roads will be replaced in any one year, so neither the risk of using up all our NG too fast or the fear of long lines at the relatively few CNG filling stations (for those who don’t/can’t install a PHIL unit), is not realistic.

    If you buy a Honda NGV today, you are practically “energy independent” from OPEC right now! If the entire nation were to do that, the US would be practically energy independent. (I say “practically” since there are some things we’ll still need crude and its products for, like making plastics.) Using hybrid CGVs — esp if they are PHEVs in a year or two — will help that NG last even longer and reduce greenhouse gases even more.

    As the US transitions from hybrids to PHEV/EREVs to pure EVs, all those windmills cranking out all those electrons will come handy. CGN could, in my Wild A** Guess, be a transition fuel between 2010 and 2030, overlapping w/pure *mainstream* EVs (i.e., non-Aptera, non-ZENN), which I *guess* will start being offered around 2012 (depending upon EEstor and some other batt/ultracap types not quite as developed). This transitioning is important because it will allow various sources of electricity time to “ramp up” to meet the ever growing demand (this includes new types of PVs, esp for home use) and allow the upgrading of the grid to a smart grid.

    Around 2015-2020, I would expect demand for NGVs and gasoline vehicles to start to wane. They will still be sold and used, they’ll just become a progressively smaller part of the market. Demand for crude will similarly become progressively less in the developed parts of the world (w/grids, esp smart grids).

    But we have to act NOW to make these changes. Big markets (autos, CNG, Li batts, ultracaps) are like big ships — it takes a lot of time for them to change directions and/or get up to speed.

    >Should have been something we explored in the 1970′s.

    fyi I used to drive a CGN powered forklift back in the 1970s!

  • Dave P

    “Sorry to pick on John K’s comments but how does CNG get us to energy independence???? Questions of domestic resources, imports, markets, and what, fuel for fuel??? I guess I have to respectfully disagree with that idea. Should have been something we explored in the 1970′s.”

    CNG gets us to energy independence because CNG is produced in the
    US of A!! Oil is primarily produced in foreign countries. Is that hard to understand?

    CNG has been used in vehicles for many years. Honda currently produces a CNG powered model. Not only is natural gas (CNG = compressed natural gas) produced in the US, it’s cleaner burning than
    gasoline.

  • Sparky1

    Another alternative from Tom Blees “Prescription for the Planet”. Boron powered vehicles. Its an interesting read. Check it out.

  • Samie

    Not sure I get the point of John K’s response you say that CNG should be a short term solution to help transition to EV’s in what 20-30 years? Man that’s extremely conservative thinking considering how fast technology can move. I’m sure it is not an excuse to disagree is it??? Not disagreeing allows the type of thinking that would have made us have corn ethanol in most of our cars so please don’t say that taking a step back from all the green (bad word) is not bad! As I said this is short term thinking and you seem convinced we will be able to transition from this to EVs? If I were a business investing in CNG why would I invest huge amounts of money in production and infrastructure only to see my investment end in say 20 years to EV’s which by the way is a developing market today.

    As for Prop 10 large amounts of the money directed towards this legislation goes to CNG rebates. This is not just for delivery trucks or say city buses but also for consumer cars. By looking at this it clearly spells CNG that is looking at $$$ distributed. Also why give rebates to cars that get 46mpg’s? Why not say plugin cars, or more even rebates with EV’s or clean diesel? Clearly this is for special interests.

    Ok Dave P see if you can follow this don’t get too confused.
    Lets also talk econ like a earlier commenter. You have a new market and increasing dependence on natural gas right, in that market you could have barriers of entry or not. If say you don’t let foreign CNG in to the market you have a handful of producers yes you get lack of competition which can lead to Monopolies and higher prices and seasonal spikes. In all likely hood this will happen you have a new market for CNG if the U.S producers can’t produce CNG cheap enough cheaper foreign supplies flood the market. You end up empowering counties like Russia and also Iran. This type of situation is no different from the petro markets. Also do you really think people like Pickens wants to stop at a few trucks or cars on CNG? No he does not he is a business man and wants to maximize his investments. So here you go CNG reaches a mass market say 20-30% do you really think the CNG lobbyist want to give that up for EV’s? You end up like the big oil companies fighting to protect their investments and delaying technology that could supersede their products. Lets move forward if you really want CNG you should use it for freight trucks and compete with diesel and use it until we can move past fuels for those vehicles that need the extra torque. Let’s get beyond short-term ideas.

  • John K.

    Samie said:
    Not sure I get the point of John K’s response you say that CNG should be a short term solution to help transition to EV’s in what 20-30 years? Man that’s extremely conservative thinking considering how fast technology can move. I’m sure it is not an excuse to disagree is it??? Not disagreeing allows the type of thinking that would have made us have corn ethanol in most of our cars so please don’t say that taking a step back from all the green (bad word) is not bad! As I said this is short term thinking and you seem convinced we will be able to transition from this to EVs? If I were a business investing in CNG why would I invest huge amounts of money in production and infrastructure only to see my investment end in say 20 years to EV’s which by the way is a developing market today.

    As for Prop 10 large amounts of the money directed towards this legislation goes to CNG rebates. This is not just for delivery trucks or say city buses but also for consumer cars. By looking at this it clearly spells CNG that is looking at $$$ distributed. Also why give rebates to cars that get 46mpg’s? Why not say plugin cars, or more even rebates with EV’s or clean diesel? Clearly this is for special interests.

    *****

    Samie, I’m not sure I’m understanding your Q, but assuming I do . . .

    The reason why it will take so long to transition to pure electric is because, acc to one of the videos that I linked above, the average car that is bought today will be on the road for 17 yrs. Thus, once we start having mainstream electric cars, *even if everybody who bought a new car that year and every year after bought an EV*, it would be at least 17 yrs — ’29 if I’m right re mainstream, practical electric cars being available in ’12 — before all the cars on the road were all EVs (and w/”average” you really need to think “bell-curve”). Plus, just because electric cars may be available in ’12 doesn’t mean every new car buyer will stop buying gas or gas hybrids and go for the electrical one instead. That will extend the time gasoling/CNG cars are on the road even further into the future.

    Plus, heavy-duty vehicles (semi rigs, tractors, etc.) are unlikely to go to electrical for quite some time, if ever. The batteries they’d need to haul those heavy loads would be a load in themselves and charging them would be equivalent to the electrical needs of a small neighborhood (plus the time involved). This is pointed out in the Pickens Plan at:
    http://www.pickensplan.com/didyouknow/

    Re NG infrastructure: most of it is already in place. (Unlike the infrastructure for hydrogen.) Most homes, offices, businesses, and factories use gas for either central heating, water heating or cooking.

    Prop 10: Why not plug-ins? Because we don’t have any plugins right now and probably won’t until 2011 at best and practical EVs are even further down the line whereas NGVs are being sold around the world by Ford, Honda and others RIGHT NOW. This will give them an incentive to bring them to America. The Honda NGV is the cleanest car on the planet!

    I hope people would just read the info about the Pickens Plan at those links I provided before they dismiss it.

  • John K.

    Addendum:
    Re. those heavy-duty vehicles and batteries: the Chevy Volt requires 400 lbs of Li ion batteries to go the distance it could w/just 1 gal of gasoline. Now imagine how many tons of batteries an all electric semi rig would need. As Pickens says on his website, CNG is the best way to get heavy-duty vehicles off of gasoline/diesel (both come from crude oil whose availability is largely controlled by OPEC — “Support Islamic Terrorists, Drive a Gas Guzzler”).

    Personally, I’d like to see Honda release a hybrid version of their Civic NGV (and Ford offer a CNG version of their new hybrid Fusion) — even less polluting, even longer before refills, and even cheaper to operate. In a year or two, offer them as a plug-ins w/Li ion batts/other.

  • AP

    This sort of issue points out the dangers of the government singling out any one way (such as EV or hybrid mandates). This is picking (or even appointing) the winners in the technology, and distorting the natural pricing that would occur if the most logical solutions were picked by the automakers and their suppliers. We need to have policies in place that encourage production of economical vehicles and judicious use of them, regardless of whether they are hybrids, or just light and efficient.

    Today’s laws are a patchwork of rules that are pieced together to try to encourage the right behavior, but don’t make good policy together.

    The only long term solution is a tax-shift: a revenue-neutral tax on hydrocarbon fuels (ramped in over 7 years, say, for a total of $2/gallon) that is offset by returning it to taxpayers in an income tax credit. They could use this to pay the higher fuel tax, but could better apply it toward ANY more energy-efficient car (hybrid or otherwise), which will cost more to produce (if it is to perform the same otherwise).

    This would stabilize fuel prices to around $4/gallon by making it mostly based on a predictable tax, not based on speculators, natural disasters, or refinery outages.

    Not only would it encourage fuel-efficient vehicles, but it would
    1) Provide better energy security by reducing reliance on foreign sources
    2) Less money goes out of the country to the Middle East and other unstable areas, like Venezuela, reducing their political power and increasing ours,
    3) Further reduce CO2 emissions by reduced driving of new and existing cars,
    4) Put the domestic automakers on the same page with TYPICAL consumers, who have been very fickle with respect to demanding fuel efficiency (they’ve been a moving target for 30 years),
    5) Reduce urban sprawl by providing more incentive to drive less far to work.

    Call it the “Energy Security Tax Shift” (the ESTS), unless you can find a better acronym. Republicans should like it because there is no increased tax, and Democrats should like it because the tax credit cancels out the burden on lower income people. Other details would have to be resolved, like tax deductibility for construction and farming.

    What do you say?

  • Samie

    John K. we do agree with one thing that you wrote “Plus, heavy-duty vehicles (semi rigs, tractors, etc.) are unlikely to go to electrical for quite some time, if ever.” Along with diesel CNG could be used for trucks but I’m not sure that’s the best way to go for normal cars and Suv’s. I understand your point about a bell curve but in reality EV’s only need to reach a point of mass market. I don’t remember but I think it is 30-40% before they are viable. My point above to Dave P was that you don’t even have to have limited resources to increase prices or have more imported CNG into the U.S. That’s just markets so I guess I don’t believe that this will only last until we transition to another energy form like EV’s. CNG would linger past any projected ending date you could argue that special interests would be a large factor in this. So instead of say 20-30 years we would have CNG around (that is in mass market form) for maybe 50-70 years. You create the same market conditions that you talk about with OPEC.

    As for Prop 10 still wonder why it does not give a rebate to say plugins? Plugin cars will be out there in what 2-3 years, sounds silly to me that the they raise 30 year gov bonds for funding but can’t look just a few years into the future to help solve problems. Also with this the Honda CNG car has been produced in very small numbers so its not like the CNG rebates for cars is reaching a large market but helping develop a market and that is somewhat ignoring the developing markets of the plugin and EV’s.

    I’m not sure even in the largest economy of one state, California should this type of bill happen. We really need federal long term energy strategies first, which states like California could build off of but to me the CNG crowd wants to build off California in hopes of taking this to a nation level. This is the wrong way to go and somewhat dangerous if you ask me. If we reached a point where no more efficency could be maximized in traditional diesiel or gasoline engines I would agree with you but we are not at that point for say cars and some SUV’s eg switching V8′s to diesel, hybrid tech, efficient engines, or turbo engines. Again CNG in trucks but better efficiency and replacing V8s seems to be a better approach until pure Ev’s become viable and hopefully hydrogen or water vapor cars after that. This (for cars) and other alternatives in my view often distract the normal average joe and takes away viable resources including government tools for any long term solutions.

  • Samie

    Man I’m not even going to get into the artificial tax. Good intentions but misdirected if you ask me. Stop and consider economic activity, the distribution of the policy (eg. who does this hurt more folks that spend more of their disposable income on food and gasoline or those who can afford BMW’s?) Also think about the political consequences of this the word Tax is like showing your middle finger to everyone, no way would a politician dare support this idea. Even if it became law don’t you think that there would be opposition? Opposition would gain and control legislation that often appeases those who love less regulation.

  • AP

    Samie,

    I’ve had the same concerns with an outright tax increase. That’s why I think it should be a tax SHIFT, to tax fuel more heavily and return it to people on their federal income tax. This should neutralize the detriment to lower income earners.

    Make it revenue-neutral and people won’t howl as much.

  • Zero X owner

    I think the best evidence that lithium supply is a non-issue is that almost all the comments here are wildly off topic. Next…

  • Bryce

    lol good point. : )

  • Will S

    AP, your proposal sounds solid and well thought out. I’ve discussed something similar with a friend, and don’t be surprised if something like this becomes policy if Obama wins.

  • Poptech

    ‘Peak Oil’ is a Myth…

    Myth: The World is Running Out of Oil

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHD4U2q_p4c

  • hybridgreg

    I would like to add my two cents to the discussion. As an alternative fuel instructor and one who has been involved in alternative fuel vehicles for 30 years, beginning with propane trucks in the 1970s, I would like to suggest that several ideas about what will work should take into acount what has been tried and not accepted by the public. Diesel is not accepted in the USA because drivers do not want to drive them and it would take a new learning process to change their minds. All electric vehicles have been tried since the late 1990s and no model has sold more than the “teens” in thousands of units. The list is not short: EV1, EV Plus, Ford Ranger EV, Audi A4 Avant and others. Americans do not want to drive all electric vehicles. It will take a massive re-education program before all electric cars will be accepted. Everybody has had the experience of having your lithium ion battery powered laptop or cell phone run out of batteries at the worst possible time. The public is not going to chance that with their transportation to and from work.

    As far as CNG is concerned, there is a reason that you have never seen a TV commercial about the CNG Honda Civic. The reason is because they really do not want to sell them. Honda loses money on every unit they sell. And for those that would like to see us change to CNG vehicles in mass, keep this in mind…CNG is a low density fuel. It takes the equivilant of a CNG tank about the size of the trunk space in a Civic to equal about 3 gallons of gasoline. This means that with the present 3600 psi tanks, you would have to put two huge tanks on the roof to get the range of a gas engine. Now that works if you come home every night, but it is impractical to travel long distances (like LA to Las Vegas). Presently, there just aren’t many places to fill up. Oh, and the fill up time…about two hours for a full tank…think about that gas station wait time. Oh yes, you can try to fill up with a shorter time, but you will only get about 70-80 % full; decreasing your range between fill ups. This is the result of the friction of the gas moveing through the lines and into the tank. One solution proposed increasing the pressure in the tank to 10,000 psi. It is doable but, again, the public has to be sold on sitting on 10,000 psi of highly flammable gas. CNG producers do a good job of explaining that the gas is so light that it rises quickly, reducing the chance of fire or explosion but all people see is the Hindenburg in their minds and imagine a gas leak rolling around the headliner in their car.

    So, the fixes might seem very easy to casual observers, but the marketplace, and not the wishes of concerned citizens will provide the solutions. I hope that this did not sound negative, it only was used to drive home the fact that market forces will ultimately decide the practical solution. I am placing my bet on bio-diesel over electric hybrids using lithium ion or (soon) capacitors as storage devices that will get over 100 miles per gallon. That technology is available today. Remember, the old VW Rabbit got 50 miles per gallon with the hybrid part. Today’s computer controlled diesels are cleaner than the cleanest gas engines, quiet as gas engines and do not smell. They have been successful in europe and Asia.

    The medium and heavy truck market will shortly have Allison’s EV transmission which will give truckers a break until a new engine is released (6 – stroke anyone?). CNG or LNG has been tried (John Deere) in the heavy truck market, but only minor success.

    Yes, we need solutions and fast. The challenge is not to stray too far from the beaten path too quickly. Vehicle manufacturers are like giant aircraft carriers…they are very efficient, but can not turn on a dime. Imposing ficticious deadlines and unrealistic technology goals on auto manufacturers serves no one’s interest.

    My suggestion is to buy these new products. Encourage your friends and families to buy these new technologies. The rest will take care of itself.

    Good luck to all and I hope I have not offended anyone. The short answers might not have made some more comfortable with alternative fuels. I have devoted my work life to them. So, I am a true believer, too. We will get off of this foriegn oil problem. Let’s just not do it by substituting a small group of marketeers (i.e. OPEC) with one operating here at home. Our transportation future is bright and the best is yet to come, lets enjoy it by buying one today!

  • John Eaton

    This is one of the myriad “back stories” that illustrate the complexities of moving off oil.

    An excellent overview is contained in this Forbes article. Like oil, lithium is a non-renewable resource. We should be treading carefully on swapping an over-reliance on a known fuel source (for which we know the pitfalls and politics of supply) for a relatively unknown alternative.

    http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2008/1124/034.html

  • Shine

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  • Nicole Martinez

    “Lithium ion batteries present great opportunities for cleaner and greener cars—but they also present challenges that must be overcome, or addressed by even newer technologies.”
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    Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali metal group of chemical elements. It is represented by the symbol Li, and it has the atomic number 3.

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