In China, I was fascinated by the use of electric scooters everywhere. Students were zipping past me at considerable speed, with tires making the only sound. At night, walking across campus could be a challenge. Like phantoms, people on dark scooters crossed my path unexpectedly, making me jump aside. They were reluctant to turn their lights on because it would use some of the battery power that they needed for travel.
And there’s the problem. When you run low on gas, a 5-minute fill-up at a gas station will get you going again for a long time. Electric vehicles require a recharge, and depending on the kind of charger that’s used, it can take hours. Batteries for electric cars are improving significantly, though. The latest lithium-ion types provide a range of more than 200 miles.
For those of us who are planning to build their own electric car, there are some choices. One could make do with a 100-mile range, using 14 standard lead-acid batteries. This comes with a substantial amount of weight, although it eliminates the need for a fuel system, exhaust pipes, and a transmission. A high-grade lithium-ion battery will double the range. Prices have been dropping continuously, currently at $156 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. This means that if you want the latest 68 kWh battery pack like the one used in the 2020 Nissan Leaf Plus, you’ll still pay $10,000 for that part alone. The engine-less 1971 VW Beetle body I have waiting to be converted into an electric car will probably be more modest. Classic Beetles have traditionally been near-impossible to heat and air-condition anyway, so there’s no anticipation of electricity use by those two power-hungry consumers.
A new light on the horizon comes in the form of the quantum battery. This latest invention relies on quantum physics instead of chemical reactions like the current batteries. Essentially, the principle is based on the energy exchange between electrons and photons on the atomic scale. Quantum batteries don’t lose power over time. Companies working on this innovation, including Tesla, Panasonic and Toyota, are tight-lipped about details and current status of the project. Don’t expect to be able to buy a quantum battery at your local autoparts store soon. But it looks like a new, more powerful option for running electric vehicles may be coming.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.