If you had to pick which technology most defined the 20th century, you could do worse than choosing the internal combustion engine (ICE). Flight, construction, shipping, personal mobility – none would be possible in a recognisable way without it.
Even so, while hydrocarbon engines have allowed us to travel further faster and build bigger, they have some very well-known drawbacks which need not be repeated. As a result, industry and consumers have increasingly sought alternatives as the 21st century progressed.
At present, the consensus seems to be that electric drivetrains are the inevitable replacement for internal combustion as we prioritise more sustainable travel, at least where personal mobility is concerned. The concept is not new – electric vehicles have existed since the 1830s – but a consensus on how to power them has proven more elusive.
The emergence of lithium-ion personal transport
Current industry momentum seems to be with lithium-ion technology. Long associated with eccentric short-range vehicles like the Renault Twizy or G-Wiz, lithium-ion EVs have become mainstream surprisingly quickly. In fact, the Tesla Model 3 topped European model rankings in September 2021, marking both the first time that an EV has led the market and the first time that a vehicle manufactured outside of Europe has occupied the top spot.
The emergence of Tesla as a major force in the global auto market towards the end of the 2010s put established players like VW, Nissan, and Ford on notice. Up to that point, most of the world’s largest auto manufacturers had paid only lip service to the prospect of a full transition away from petrol or diesel-driven cars.
The success of Tesla changed that. This success was not instant, however. It took years to transition the company from manufacturing the limited-run curios like the Tesla Roadster to the mass-market Model S, X, 3, and Y. In the process, Tesla became the world’s most valuable car manufacturer and started revolution in car design, the impact of which is still being felt.
Still, while Tesla began the 2020s as the market leader in EVs, this advantage is unlikely to persist in perpetuity. Nearly every major automotive manufacturer has either begun production of its own EVs or has announced major plans to do so in the years to 2030 – and that is before we consider the market impact challenger brands like Rivian or Lucid Motors might have.
Publicly, Tesla CEO Elon Musk would say this is a good thing. More mainstream automakers entering the sector will increase investment in everything from battery technology to charging infrastructure. Privately, it’s safe to assume Musk is concerned his dominance of the EV market may come to an end before he can reach Mars.
Even so, it would be foolish to assume that the future dominance of lithium-ion technology is guaranteed.
A hydrogen-based future?
Lithium-ion technology has some major drawbacks its proponents conveniently ignore. Chief amongst these are the challenge of recycling batteries and sourcing the exotic raw materials required for battery production. Cobalt is an essential component of Tesla’s lithium-ion cathodes, being preferable to alternatives like manganese due to its higher relative energy density. Nevertheless, more than 70 per cent of the global supply of cobalt is sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Child labour, severe human rights violations, political instability, corruption, dangerous mining practices – all are commonplace in the country. Questions around supply-chain stability would normally be enough to worry investors when such a high proportion of a material has a single source. When combined with valid concerns around the wider situation in the DRC, the issue becomes critical.
In their defence, Tesla has worked hard to reduce the amount of cobalt it uses in its batteries. Nevertheless, it will be some time before the company completely removes the element from its supply-chain. Until then, the issue remains an awkward one for lithium-ion supporters.
Hydrogen fuel-cell technology has been proposed as an alternative to hydrocarbons for some time, with Toyota and Hyundai among the major manufacturers that offer consumer fuel-cell vehicles. The choice seems sensible; hydrogen is most abundant chemical substance in the universe. It is also non-toxic and, when produced using renewable energy, does not contribute to global warming.
Like lithium-ion technology, hydrogen fuel-cells generate electrical charge which in turn powers electric motors. One of the major advantages hydrogen fuel-cells have over battery tech, however, is that they can be refilled in minutes rather than hours. Further, hydrogen filling stations would make use of existing hydrocarbon infrastructure; replacing every car on the road with a lithium-ion alternative would require developing new land to match the increased demand for charging points. Battery technology is also less suitable in applications where weight is a primary consideration – like aviation.
Hydrogen comes with its own list of drawbacks, of course. It is highly flammable and is typically liquified for transport (although fuel-cells make use of compressed rather than liquid hydrogen). This makes transportation of hydrogen to filling stations a challenge, although stations are increasingly able to generate their own hydrogen on-site. Hydrogen is also less energy efficient than lithium-ion technology.
A non-hydrocarbon future
In November 2020, the UK government announced a ban on the sale of new petrol or diesel cars from 2030. Similar plans are being mooted around the world, and Japan has announced its intention to expand production and drive down the cost of hydrogen to about 1/3rd of its present price by 2030.
The writing is on the wall; the transition to electric personal transport has already begun. Even Dodge, the longstanding US manufacturer of V8 muscle, has unveiled what it terms ‘eMuscle’ – its first electric muscle cars. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume battery electric transport has arrived as the unchallenged successor to hydrocarbons. Hydrogen fuel-cell technology is increasingly emerging as a viable alternative.
It is not guaranteed either will prove victorious, however. Both solutions have their benefits. Lithium-ion technology is more efficient but heavier. Hydrogen fuel-cells are lighter but the gas itself is highly flammable.
In the near future, it may not be so unusual to hail an electric cab to the airport and board a hydrogen powered plane. Either way, it appears the hydrocarbon era is increasingly in our rear-view-mirror.