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Friday, January 1, 2021

From Diesels To D-Cells :: The Electric Transportation Epoch Has Begun

Transportation is moving from Diesel trucks to D-cell trucks

Transportation is entering a new epoch #TheElectricEpoch

As we ring in the new year we're entering a new era of transportation and Diesel is the old acquaintance that should be forgotten and never brought to mind.

I must start this post with an apology for the title. I liked the "Diesels" to "D-cells" alliteration and ran with it. Obviously, D-cells are not going to be the battery cell of choice for the EV revolution, but they are familiar. The cells to 'drive' EVs are more likely to be pouch, prismatic, or cylindrical cells (like the 2170 or 4680). However, the D-cell is cylindrical so I guess you could call it the 3362 ☺

The Epochs of Transportation 

First, we walked, then we rode horses and carriages; next came the horseless carriage and those horseless carriages have been primarily powered by petroleum products for over 100 years. The decline of the petrol and diesel era has begun and now we're at the dawn of the electrically powered era. This new era will start with personal transportation, move to cargo short-haul, then longer and longer range cargo-hauling semi-trucks, the seas will be next, and finally air. Electric air travel will start with puddle jumper prop planes, expand to turboprops, and finally, a couple decades from now, electrified turbofans making trans-Pacific flights completes the transportation transition.

Are Electric Motors Up To The Task?

Diesel has been the fuel type and engine of choice for hauling and towing. Electric motors are more than up to the task of replacing the hauling and towing work of Diesel engines. In fact, some of the toughest hauling situations, like trains, use Diesel-electric drivetrains. Wait, that says "Diesel." In a Diesel-electric powertrain, the Diesel engine is used to power a dynamo (e.g., electrical generator). The dynamo generates electricity, this electricity is fed to an electric motor, the electric motor provides the traction force to move the train, pulling all the cargo laden boxcars up the mountain pass. This same basic drivetrain design is used for many freight ships often carrying thousands of cargo containers. These Diesel-electric traction systems behave more like a Chevy Volt in range-extended mode than like a Super Duty Diesel pickup. 

So the answer to the question, are electric motors up to the task is a solid 'Yes.' However, powering them with a Diesel generator does not move us to batteries (D-cells). This leads to the next question, are batteries up to the task? 

Are Batteries Up To The Task? 

The question was 'battery' but the topic should be broadened to "energy storage systems" to include ultracapacitors and hydrogen fuel cells. As we move to electrify land, sea, and air travel over the next couple of 

decades, each of these energy storage systems is likely to find at least a niche market. Although fuel cells will find niches, batteries will be the vanguard of the electric epoch, so let's start there. 

I've said it before and it's just as true now, batteries are the crux. The primary reasons that battery electric vehicles are not the dominant vehicle on the roadways today is battery energy density and cost. The good news is that both of these have been trending in the right direction.

These price reduction and technology improvement trends show no sign of stopping. There's more investment in battery research and manufacturing capacity today than we've ever seen before. With each year's advancement, electric cars become more affordable and more profitable. Tesla’s goal of bringing a $25,000 car to market largely rests on battery improvements that would halve the cost per kWh. Battery prices have dropped 90% over the last decade, prices will likely decline another 50% by 2025. Today batteries are about $150 per kWh, this trend places them at $75 per kWh. This means that the upfront cost of a battery-electric car will be about the same as an affordable gas-powered car in around 2022 and more affordable than an equivalent gas car by 2025. 

Cars "fueled" by electricity cost less than 50% per mile to drive and have far less maintenance costs. There are no fuel filters or spark plugs to change, the brake pads last far longer. Some people buy EVs today for environmental reasons, energy independence reasons, or performance reasons; these are the motivated early adopters. However, when battery-electric cars are cheaper to buy upfront and cheaper to operate, they will quickly move from early adopters to the majority of consumers. This will be the decade of the EV. More adoption will drive more investment, will drive more innovation, will drive more adoption, rinse and repeat. 

Lithium metal anodes, solid-state batteries, lithium air... there are many technologies under development that will open even more markets to battery-powered transportation.  

So to answer the question, are batteries up to the task? Today the answer is, for many applications, yes. For other applications, not yet, but the trend is in the right direction. 

The Genie Cannot Be Put Back In The Bottle

Bloomberg says your next car will be an electric truck. Market Watch says EV sales will grow 50% this year. These are just a couple examples of the expected growth for EVs in this decade. Once people own an EV, over 90% of them never want to own another petroleum-powered car again. This market growth will additionally be fueled by state and national restrictions on new gas-powered vehicle sales: 

  • China will aim for carbon neutrality by 2060 (link)
  • Sales of new gas-powered cars banned in California by 2035 (link
  • Biden wants to end gas car sales (link
More than 14 countries and over 20 cities around the world have proposed banning the sale of fossil-fuel-powered passenger vehicles at some future date.

What About Boats and Aircraft?

Electric tugboats have hit the waters in the Port of Tuzla in Istanbul and the ports of Auckland in New Zealand. The torque of the electric motor is perfect for this little boat that's a big powerhouse. Today's batteries are perfect for the short-ranges in which tugs operate. Using electric tugboats remove the particulate matter from the population areas near the ports. And once the boats they are towing are docked, they'll be plugged into shore power, using local grid power. 

As battery technology advances, the number and types of watercraft that are battery-powered will increase too. Just as electric cars started with niche vehicles like the original Tesla Roadster or short-range vehicles like the 2011 Nissan Leaf, electric watercraft will start with niche vehicles like tugboats and short-range personal vehicles like jet skis. And just like cars, the number and types of watercraft that can be electrified will start with a niche and slowly blossom into larger markets each year. Because of its higher energy demand, watercraft electrification will trail auto electric by 10 to 15 years. 

As for aircraft, these are a little more difficult than watercraft, but we're already seeing the first steps. The high reliability of electric motors makes them ideal for the safety requirements of a flight system. Today, there are training airplanes that are electrically powered. The small 2-seat planes and generally used for short student flights. This allows today's battery technology to fulfill this need. Flight schools using electric training planes have significant savings in fuel and maintenance costs. 

Just as with the other vehicles, as the battery tech improves, it will move up the aircraft food chain. When batteries cross the 400 Wh/kg mark, we should see aircraft with a range of over 1000 km. Each improvement in battery gravimetric energy density opens up new application opportunities. For those use cases that can't wait for batteries to improve, there are opportunities for ultracapacitors or hydrogen fuel cells to find their own niche. 

Today, private jets generally get less than the equivalent of 5 MPG, and a 747 flips this around and uses about 5 gallons per mile. Moving these to electrically powered systems 'fueled' by renewable energy sources will remove significant amounts of CO2 from our transportation system. 

The title is 'Diesels To D-Cells' and you might be surprised to learn that there have been aircraft diesel engines or aero diesels. They were used in aircraft in the late 1920s and 1930s, but never widely adopted. So for the sake of this title, I'll be generous and call that a transition from Diesels To D-Cells, albeit indirectly. 


The end of Diesel is coming. Anything Diesel engines can do, electric motors can do better. The current limitations of battery tech is the only reason that there is still a market for Diesel products. Advancements in battery tech are being made each year and there is no sign that this trend will slow-down. With each advancement, battery power vehicles become more and more capable. Personal transportation, freight hauling, watercraft, and flight will all become fully electrified over the next few decades. 

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