Discover the basics about electric cars, how they work and their roadmap to the future. The question today isn’t really if cars will be all electric in the future, but when they will become the mainstream standard? Many countries around the world seem to be getting on that road. For example, French authorities recently announced that they will no longer allow sales of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. The stage is set for an electrifying future: governments are supporting the move to electric cars, to reduce C02 emissions and lower pollution and the automotive industry is developing a wide range of cars and trucks that are either available or about to launch in mainstream markets.
Electric cars aren’t a new trend
Few people know this, but electrically-powered cars appeared as early as the mid 19th century and were in fact more popular than fossil-fuel cars until the early 20th century, when the internal combustion engine became more powerful and safe enough. Electric cars (EVs) were never adopted on a mass scale in the 20th century for many reasons, including the abundance of petroleum and limitations in electrical storage systems and engine power.
This has obviously changed, with today’s advanced technology making it possible to drive faster over longer distances at a reasonable cost. Formula-E Grand Prix races have showcased this potential in recent years.
Prices have also been coming down constantly, since EVs were first introduced to the market by several major carmakers, starting in the 1990s. They’re now available at prices starting under $20,000 (€16,000), often spurred on by government tax rebates. High-end cars, offering all the comfort, convenience and power of gasoline cars, are now selling at prices of up to $100,000 and more. To date, it’s estimated that well over 1 million hybrid cars and EVs have been sold or leased worldwide. Growth of hybrid cars and EVs has been practically doubling every year in the last decade, and it is forecast that by 2030, there could be as many as 20 million hybrids and EVs on the road, representing 10% or more of cars in the world.
So, let’s take a closer look at how electrical technology works, its advantages, where it’s headed and how silicone is contributing to its progress.
Powering up an electric car
Electric cars are powered by three essential components: a rechargeable battery, a controller and an electrical motor. The controller is at the center of the process. It takes power stored in the battery and transfers it to the motor in a measured way, depending on how much the driver steps on the accelerator.
First-generation modern EVs mainly used nickel-metal hydride batteries (NiMH), which have an energy density of 30-80 Wh/kg, far higher than previous generation lead-acid batteries. NiMH batteries offer exceptionally long life cycles, with some of them having already operated up to 100,000 miles (160,000 km) over a decade of service. However, their power efficiency is not optimal, with high self-discharge losses, long recharging cycles and lower performance in cold weather. Improvements have been made, many under patents which have limited their widespread use, and NiMH technology is now mature but has probably reached its limits.
While many other technologies have been tested, lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion) and related lithium polymer batteries are now at the forefront of development. They are of course used in laptops and mobiles and benefit from a wide industrial manufacturing base.They yield an impressive 200+ Wh/kg energy density, which makes them lighter than MiMH batteries for the equivalent power output and feature 80 to 90% charge/discharge efficiency. However, they have not yet proven their lifespan endurance capabilities, deteriorating relatively quickly compared to NiMH. They also pose a potential fire safety risk, if damaged or improperly charged, and they are very sensitive to cold weather conditions.
Most EVs now use a variety of lithium-ion technologies to find a compromise between energy and power density, fire resistance, environmental friendliness, faster charging times and longer life cycles. Silicon nanowires and nanoparticles are among the new technologies also being explored.
So, all things considered, EVs offer a large number of advantages compared to gasoline or diesel-powered cars. Obviously, they are better for the environment: an EV produces an average of 15 tons of CO2 per year, while a conventional car generates about 10 times more, i.e.160 tons. In many places, EVs are allowed to drive in the carpool or public transport lanes, giving them a real lead in congested urban areas. They are also becoming the vehicles of choice for “last-mile” deliveries in city centers.
Finally, EVs save people money over time, in what economists call TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). Depending on the country, the cost per km or mile is at least twice as cheap as fossil fuels. Cost of maintenance is also lower (usually estimated as being 35% cheaper) because there is no need to change engine oil or filters, for example. And electrical motors generally last longer because they run at lower temperatures and suffer less from vibrations.
The trend to an all-electric future
Although the current purchase price of EVs is still higher than conventional cars, they are not out of reach and, in the future, prices will drop as electric batteries become more efficient and are mass-produced. And, of course, their range is increasing every year. Governments are also subsidizing electric cars purchases. All these factors, plus the fact that people want to drive cleaner vehicles, is accelerating the growth.
Silicones will be a key contributor to the growth and improvement of EVs. To begin with, silicones have excellent dielectric properties (insulating power), which means they reduce energy loss and efficiently protect other metal parts in the engine. Elkem Silicones provides efficient and cost-effective products that ensure electrical integrity and performance: adhesives, insulation, sealing, bonding, and potting of parts, as well as fire resistance). Specially designed for a wide range of applications, silicones are a key driving force in the automotive industry’s transition to an all-electric future. The cars of the future will be powered by electricity and built and protected with silicones!