Why using carbon fibre for energy storage can help an EV revolution

Using conductive carbon fibre for electric vehicle bodies could help extend their range and support an EV revolution. (Pic source: Mikes Photos via Pexels)

Using conductive carbon fibre for electric vehicle bodies could help extend their range and support an EV revolution. (Pic source: Mikes Photos via Pexels)

BY RICHARD HEAP:

For those of us in the UK, winter is almost upon us. And, if your car is anything like mine, the combination of dark evenings and plummeting temperatures would leave you playing Russian roulette with the battery. Has it run out? Will I ever get home?

So it was interesting to read last week that a university in Sweden has been looking at whether using carbon fibre for car bodies could help them to store electricity.

Researchers from the Chalmers University of Technology wanted to find out whether they could combine carbon fibre’s properties as a structural material and the ability of carbon-fibre-based electrodes to store more electricity than lithium-ion electrodes.

EV weight loss potential

It’s an interesting idea with great commercial potential. Leif Asp, professor of material and computational mechanics at Chalmers University of Technology said such materials could help to significantly cut the weight of electric vehicles, from cars to planes, and enable them to travel much further on one battery charge.

He said this means the body of the vehicle could act as a battery, not solely a load-bearing material.

“It will also be possible to use the carbon fibre for other purposes such as harvesting kinetic energy, for sensors or for conductors of both energy and data,” he said, and that it could cut the weight of a vehicle by up to 50%.

In short, the researchers have been studying the microstructure of different types of carbon fibres that are available commercially, particularly the microscopic crystals of carbon that are bonded together to make up the carbon fibre.

They found that some of the carbon fibres are very stiff but not conductive enough for use in batteries, and that others less stiff but good electrochemical properties. Getting the balance is key. If you’re scientifically-minded, then you can find the research here.

For the market, this looks like another exciting step.

We are seeing huge interest in electric vehicles from governments. Just last week, a group of members of the UK Parliament called for a clear government target to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032, and the likes of China and France are also moving towards full bans of combustion engines too. This will take time, but is the show of support that companies in the electric vehicles sector need to keep investing.

Consumers are also starting to get on board too. Admittedly, I didn’t even consider an electric vehicle when I replaced my car four years ago, but more now are – and predictions from the likes of Bloomberg New Energy Finance are that the size of the market will grow rapidly over the coming decades. There are now more than 1million electric vehicles on the road in Europe but this will grow rapidly.

Innovating for a revolution

In fact, if research about the support for renewable energy is a good guide, it shows that the public cares more about these issues than even their political leaders think. If the cost of electric vehicles comes down, and the distance they can travel on one charge keeps increasing, then a car revolution could happen very quickly indeed. If people see more charging points on their streets then it will also look more attractive.

And there is plenty of technical innovation in this sector.

In China, for example, we are seeing Chinese car maker Nio using an idea that involves replacing batteries that are going flat, rather than charging them in the car. Essentially, the driver goes to the ‘petrol station’ and their drained battery is replaced with a fully-charge one. This cuts out the worry that drivers will have to sit around while their battery is re-charging.

There are a large number of elements you need in place to forment a revolution such as this – but it appears that the electric vehicles sector has a lot of these. We see the political will in some pioneering countries; interest from vehicle buyers; investment in ideas by the likes of Nio; and scientific research from the likes of Chalmers.

Yes, the world is still at the early days of a widespread move to electric vehicles, and no doubt there will be plenty of vested interests to contend with in the coming years. Those of us with experience of writing about wind and solar see this every day – and we should never let ourselves believe that the battle of public opinion is won.

But the demand is there and, as long as we keep seeing progress on the technical side of electric vehicles, we’ve got every reason we could see a revolution happen in my lifetime. If advances in energy storage can give me a car where I don’t have to play Russian roulette with the battery on every winter drive, I’m all for it.

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