The race to zero-carbon motoring


The recent stay at home orders has highlighted the positive effects of less motoring on the roads around the world. That realisation has heightened pressure on the automotive community to accelerate the drive to a low carbon future. Connected Energy Solutions looks at the competing technologies, their opportunities, and challenges.

Late last year the European Commission fired the starting gun on the race to emission free motoring with a set of new policy documents. These called for 30 million zero emission cars by 2030 to enable the bloc to hit its climate targets. As part of its strategy the commission will support low and zero emission vehicles through greater carbon pricing and suggested that this year, they might include road transport in the EU’s emission trading system. This is in addition to revised EU laws on taxation, road charging, and rules on weights and dimensions of heavy-duty vehicles. Another strand of the policy will see the EU promoting the commercialisation and rapid deployment of sustainable, renewable, and low-carbon fuels.

Although hybrid cars are currently fashionable, championing the use of electric power to augment the traditional internal combustion engine, they are not a long-term solution; some would even argue their adoption is slowing down the route to emission free motoring, the future would appear to be electric or hydrogen based.

There is a growing clamour for the benefits of hydrogen, but electric vehicles have a lengthy head start and are well on the road to a tipping point. “More charging stations are being rolled out, in key locations still partly with governmental funding but increasingly by the private sector,” Richard Kotter of Northumbria University says. “New charging stations are typically more advanced with smarter functions around charging protocols and flexibility, but there will need to be an ongoing programme of retro-fitting or replacing older EV charging infrastructure, and ongoing maintenance.

Kotter argues that although electricity costs may be variable and recently increased, they should decrease over time. “One also needs to put that in relation to other fuel sources,” he adds. “Petrol prices have gone up and may stay there with geopolitical uncertainties of production and hydrogen is – and will for some time due to challenges of storage and distribution networks – remain expensive other than where it is an industrial by-product.”

A portfolio approach

Each mobility sector faces its own unique challenges which require different technical solutions to deliver the desired attributes. One thing in common is the need for this to be clean and efficient for a truly sustainable future. The decarbonisation of transport requires a multi-faceted approach: a complex system of systems.  Sustainable solutions will be achieved by optimising the many complex interactions between all aspects of zero net carbon energy supply, storage, distribution, and use, together with materials, infrastructure, vehicle technology and, of course, people.

Adrian Greaney, director technology and digital, Ricardo explains that for all transport sectors, energy vectors, and technologies, improving efficiency in the use of energy and materials is essential and a key driver for innovation at Ricardo and across the transportation sector.  “As we move to electrification, improving efficiency can also enable more economically viable propulsion, as reducing energy usage means battery size can be reduced for the same range,” he says. “In turn, reducing battery size reduces mass and therefore the power and energy required to achieve a given vehicle performance.”

Achieving net zero carbon also requires consideration of full life impacts. From a life cycle carbon perspective, electrified propulsion is attractive considering the rapid shift to renewable electricity sources.  “However, progress still needs to be made in reducing the embedded carbon in production, extending second-life applications of batteries, and efficient recyclability of the materials used,” Greaney adds. “The present limited energy density of batteries means pure electrified propulsion will not meet all mobility needs. The development of a green hydrogen economy in parallel to electrification is one of the essential elements to enable defossilisation of high energy mobility sectors such as commercial vehicles, shipping, and aviation. Effective hydrogen energy storage can enable optimised use of variable renewable electricity sources such as solar and wind.  For transportation, hydrogen will be used in many ways, depending on the sector and application.  This will include fuel cells and internal combustion engines using hydrogen or de-fossilised fuels including e-fuels and ammonia which use hydrogen as a feedstock.”

When it comes to determining the clean, efficient propulsion solutions for different transport sectors and vehicles, the Ricardo view is that a technology will be chosen that provides the best solution in the application. What this will continue to mean in practice is the use of a portfolio of different technologies including battery electric, fuel cells and internal combustion engines using hydrogen or de-fossilised fuels.

“Identifying clean, efficient propulsion solutions depends on understanding the pros and cons of the various technologies in relation to key criteria: emissions legislation; the amount of carbon dioxide per kilometre (the tank to wheel ratio); local air quality; existing infrastructure; filling time; and range,” Greaney continues. “Cost is also a significant determining factor, either the purchase price or total cost of ownership.”

Against these criteria, the most likely mainstream approach for passenger cars is battery electric. It rates highly for its carbon dioxide per kilometre and for its impact on local air quality. The existing charging infrastructure is becoming established internationally and is continuing to be developed; and technology advances are improving charging times and extending range significantly. Against the same criteria, it seems likely that fuel cell technology is the most likely mainstream solution for the most demanding duty cycles in commercial vehicles such as long-haul trucks, off-highway machines, and buses, because the energy density of hydrogen provides long range, zero emissions, fast refuelling, and competitive total cost of ownership.

“Yet, there are pros and cons for batteries and fuel cells for both passenger cars and commercial vehicles alike,” Greaney says. “This is evidenced by the fact that well-known brands such as Tesla and Daimler are investing heavily in developing battery electric trucks, while marques such as Toyota, BMW, and Hyundai see a future in fuel cells for passenger cars.

“It is why a portfolio approach is necessary because the technology landscape is constantly evolving. Technology matures creating improved efficiency and performance, and lower costs, and ultimately legislation drives technological advance and implementation. Thus, the most likely mainstream technology solutions today will certainly be different in the future.

The cost of hydrogen fuel cells, which is extremely high currently, will come down. Efficiency improvements will allow vehicles to travel further, have smaller batteries and lower the overall energy demand on the grid.”

Upheavals ahead for automotive sector

We are facing an era of manufacturing disruption, as the UK’s net-zero ambitions drive the shift towards decarbonising transport. Electrification is one of, if not the most important determinant of how quickly and effectively the country becomes carbon neutral. Demand for the crucial lithium-ion battery component will continue its upwards curve, with the ban on new petrol and diesel car sales less than a decade away. The discussion now turns to diversifying the onshore manufacturing supply chain to realise the full scale of this potential.

“A growing choice of electric and plug-in hybrid models, and interest from consumers to improve the environment for less, has seen motorists’ commitment to an electric future skyrocket,” Kevin Brundish, CEO of AMTE Power, says. “Last year was the best year on record for Electric Vehicle (EV) sales, accounting for more than one in ten registrations, up from one in thirty the previous year. Indeed, the UK is world-renowned for its excellence in battery innovation. However, a plan is needed to support manufacturers in retaining existing capabilities and ensuring they are part of a flourishing supply chain.”

AMTE Power is one of five commercial battery cell manufacturers in the UK, and has government-backed plans in development to build a new British Gigafactory. The new plant will have an initial capacity of 2.5 GWh per annum, increasing to 10 GWh by 2030, and will be purpose-built to help the UK cope with the transition to EVs. “This will help combat a significant issue in the manufacturing supply chain, brought into sharper focus by COVID-19, in that there is an overreliance on offshore capabilities,” Brundish adds. “The Faraday Institute estimates seven 20GWh Gigafactories will be needed in the UK by 2040 to sustainably meet growing demand for EV batteries. This reinforces the urgent shift away from OEMs overseas and towards producing batteries domestically to preserve the UK automotive industry.

“As demand swells, an ongoing task within the automotive industry is optimising existing lithium-ion cell chemistries. As carmakers develop the next generation of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV), they will implement new cell materials that produce improvements in energy density and thermal performance. To help customers overcome range anxiety, manufacturers are turning to breakthrough concepts, such as using alternative metal-ion chemistries and reducing vehicle and battery pack mass. Such advances will only create incremental improvements in drive range over time, and pave the way to safer, cheaper, and faster-charging vehicles.

“The next few years will prove crucial in giving consumers the confidence to take the leap into adopting EV technologies, but also supporting manufacturers at the centre of the migration. The government has already taken significant strides in supporting the market, but there is a long road ahead to achieving a totally electric fleet in the UK. For a sustainable transition and to establish the UK’s position as global manufacturing competitor, a robust industrial strategy must work in tandem to retain and grow engineering talent and attract new investment to scaling Gigafactories.”

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