Together in Electric Dreams

The 2020s will see the rapid electrification of the car industry. Could electric planes also take off?

Behind two layers of protective glass, in a corridor outside a laboratory at Oxford University, there exists a scientific wonder. The ‘Oxford Electric Bell’ is an experimental battery: a current from the chemicals moving through wires and gently encouraging a metal sphere to move between 2 adjacent copper bells to produce a ring.

So what? Well, unlike a 2-year-old iPhone, it continues to perform the intended task and has done so since 1840, with an astonishing 10 billion rings issued since the experiment was started 180 years ago.

The electrification of the transport industry is desperately needed given the damage it causes the environment. A decade ago, the electricity to power our transport network would have come from coal and gas, but the decarbonisation agenda pursued in the UK, the US and elsewhere is playing an increasingly vital role in helping the world meet emissions targets. 

There are many impediments to the adoption of electric cars – the cost, the range, the charging infrastructure – but the battery technology is the one which is at the forefront of the issues the industry faces. 

The main problem is the energy density of the best current technology, the lithium ion battery. Petrol is up to fifty times denser, which means a litre of fuel needs to be replaced with 50 kilos of battery. This means that a car with a 300 mile range needs a battery weighing in at 1,000 kilos and a power equivalent to 15,000 iPhone batteries.

“The main problem is the energy density of the best current technology, the lithium ion battery. Petrol is up to fifty times denser, which means a litre of fuel needs to be replaced with 50 kilos of battery.”

Then there is the cost – whilst they do not release the exact numbers, analysts suspect the battery is between 25 to 30 percent of the price of a Tesla. These lithium ion batteries have been with us for over 30 years and the improvements have been largely incremental. Their relatively low energy density is a huge barrier to the electrification of other forms of transport, especially planes. Scientists across the globe, including those at sustainable technologies company Johnson Matthey, are seeking to improve the technology. Some solutions appear to be in the materials for the cathodes and the anodes, or for the electrolyte itself.

For now, analysts think that improvements in battery technology will continue to be incremental, but even these will reduce the price of the battery by around 10% a year due to mass production and advances in materials. For the car industry, this means that sometime in the next 5 years (and certainly in the next 10 years) the total cost of owning an electric car will be cheaper than a combustion one. Just as ‘mobile phones’ are now simply ‘phones’, so ‘electric cars’ will become mundane ‘cars’.

For air transport, things are more complex. Frank Whittle’s invention, the jet engine, delivers astonishing thrust incredibly efficiently, allowing huge planes to fly thousands of miles non-stop. Air transport CO² emissions, as a percentage of the global total, have remained constant at around 2.5%, with the growth in traffic volumes being offset by improvements to engine efficiency.

However, emissions from the industry could rise sharply relative to other sources, as ground transport goes electric and as the number of flights continues to rise.

Flying is now in the spotlight as consumers become more aware of these environmental issues and, indeed, a new word has entered the vocabulary from Sweden – ‘Flygskam’. Not the latest Ikea bookcase but ‘flying shame’. Swedish airports reported 9% fewer domestic passengers in 2019 compared to the year before seemingly as a result of increasing ‘Flygskam’.

Companies such as Rolls Royce are well advanced in their ability to make electric fan engines; however, the issue is once again the batteries. The weight of the fuel in a fully laden Boeing 787 is 125,000 kilos – this can carry you 9,000 miles. To replace this with current battery technology you would need up to 50 times this weight, an idea that literally ‘won’t fly’. This could also need days to charge, wasting valuable usage time.

However, as the energy density of batteries improves, new markets should open up. In the next few years, we should start to see flying taxis in major cities – effectively a cross between a helicopter and a battery powered drone – and research house Citi report over 100 companies conducting trials. Within the next decade, replacements for smaller propeller driven planes should emerge; however, longer flights will be much more difficult to electrify, and we could be well past 2030 before we see them.

Any breakthroughs in battery density will accelerate this, of course. We just hope these new technologies prove as reliable and enduring as the Oxford Electric Bell.

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