National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: A Breakthrough?

For many months, U.S. Energy Secretary Chu, the guy with the Nobel Prize in physics, has been running around the country telling audiences that big breakthroughs were coming for electric vehicles. Well, this week the other shoe dropped when an announcement was made of an advance in battery technology that has the potential to change the motor vehicle industry as we know it. The announcement was made at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects-Energy conference by a California startup called Envia that has received funding from DOE, the California Energy Commission, and General Motors among others.

The gist of the announcement was that Envia has developed a technology which will allow batteries to store energy at a density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram as compared to the compared to a density of 100-150 w-h/kg in existing electric vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt or the Nissan Leaf. The best news, however, is that the new batteries are expected to cost less than half ($125/Kwh) that of the batteries currently being used in electric cars. This development means that within a few years, cars with a 300 mile range could come on the market at a price range comparable to current internal combustion cars.

Another important aspect of the announcement is that in contrast with the skepticism over claims that energy from cold fusion is imminent, the new battery technology comes with impeccable credentials having been vouched for by the Department of Energy and General Motors, and thoroughly tested to verify the company’s claims by a U.S. Navy power systems laboratory. Some of the technology in the new battery was licensed from the Argonne National Laboratory. Envia says that while its technology is complex, the new batteries can be made using simple reactors already found in the biotech industry or furnaces used to make ceramics.

General Motors, which invested in Envia just last year, has already made an agreement with the company allowing GM to use the battery technology in future products. This has already led some observers to note that GM might have a jump on its competitors in bringing the next generation of electric vehicles to market. Envia and outside observers note that given the advanced state of this new battery technology’s development and that fact that nearly every major automobile manufacturer already has an all electric vehicle under development, any number of vehicles using this technology could reach the market in three or four years.

So what does all this mean for our futures? First, this breakthrough seems to overcome the principal consumer objections to electric cars — too expensive and insufficient range. While lengthy recharging times and facilities would still be a problem, the many years required to get these vehicles into widespread use should provide plenty of opportunity to overcome this problem. Consumer reluctance to consider the current crop of electric cars does not take into consideration the high, and likely to get much higher, costs of gasoline that we shall all be confronting in the coming decades.

Switching from internal combustion to electric vehicles will not be easy no matter how attractive they may become in an era of very high gas prices. There are currently about 1 billion cars and light trucks running around the world worth trillions of dollars. At the current rate of automobile production, especially in Asia, there could be another billion or so in the next decade, although the rate of oil depletion and declining oil exports makes these projections less likely. Finding the money and materials to replace all the fossil fuel powered vehicles in a resource restricted world during the next few decades will not be easy and may prove impossible. Perhaps conversion of some existing vehicles to electric power may make economic sense as the cost of conventional fuels become unaffordable.

The question of whether there will be enough electricity to power a billion+ electric vehicles is a good one. For the near-term, studies have shown that there probably is enough power generation capacity in the developed world as most electric vehicles can be recharged during periods of low demand for electricity. Moreover, smart grids, smart recharging strategies, and various forms of renewables can probably be put into place quickly enough in the advanced countries, but for the underdeveloped world, which is already suffering from serious shortages of electric power, the question is problematic for the next decade or so.

Meanwhile, the “cold fusion” saga continues to bubble along. There has not yet been any outside verification that the claims made by the two companies that say they have nickel-powdered heat generating devices about ready for production are for real. However, neither has there been any evidence that they are not real. Last week the Greek cold fusion company, Defkalion, invited in “high level” inspectors from the Greek government to test a prototype of the device. The company says the results were positive. There is no word from the Greek government as yet, but a series of other outside testers are due to test the Defkalion device shortly.

The Italian-American company, Leonardo Corporation, which also has not yet had its claims of energy production from the nickel-hydrogen reaction verified by independent scientists, says it is now working with the German electrical giant Siemens AG to add an electricity-generating capability to the device they claim to have under development. The company’s CEO also says his device currently is being tested by Underwriters Laboratory for a safety certificate. If UL does grant a certificate, we should all be impressed, for it is difficult to imagine UL certifying the safety of a heat-producing device that does not make heat.

If all this “emerging technology” works out as claimed, and we can power our electric cars with a thimbleful or two of powdered nickel, we will have witnessed a great paradigm shift. We just may be living in the proverbial “interesting times!”


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.