Electric vehicles have long been touted as the panacea that will fix transport emissions. Now why it's undoubtedly true that EVs have a vital role to play in getting us to tailpipe zero, there are still a few challenges that could get in the way: First, building enough battery-making factories to meet increased demand will be a challenge. Second, mining the cobalt, lithium, and nickel needed to make batteries is a quagmire of environmental, political, and logistical problems. And finally, China has a near-monopoly on refining these metals, which has a negative effect on supply chains and is also politically sensitive.
These issues have led some companies to rethink how high-tech, smart vehicles could be powered. Of course, that doesn't mean forgetting about battery-powered electric vehicles—but there might be other ways of complementing them to reach tailpipe zero.
What are the three types of traditional electric vehicles?
Fully electric vehicles
Fully electric vehicles are powered by a battery that is charged by plugging the vehicle into a power source. These vehicles can drive for an average of between 150 to 400 miles before they need to be recharged.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have an internal combustion engine as well as an electric motor that uses energy stored in a battery. They can be driven in full-electric mode, powered by a battery that charges by being plugged into an electric power source, with a range of up to 40 miles. However, they rely on petrol or diesel engines when the charge runs out.
Hybrid electric vehicles
Hybrid electric vehicles are powered by an internal combustion engine in addition to an electric motor using energy stored in a battery. The battery is charged through regenerative braking rather than by being plugged in.
EV alternative # 1 – self-charging cars
Dutch company Lightyear 0 has designed a car based on two big problems that traditional EV users face: First, the existing power grid is strained and cannot support the increasing demand for electric cars with clean electricity. And second, global charging infrastructure is still not ready for us all to go electric.
So, the company has reinvented the concept of charging cars. While traditional EVs are battery-powered from either clean energies or burning fossil fuels, the Lightyear car is charged directly by the sun. So, just going out in the car means it will charge itself, and it can gain up to 70 km of range per day from solar energy.
Although the car does have the capacity to be plugged in and charged, its design means that it has a high degree of grid independence. Driving is powered by being in the sun. Lightyear says that, depending on where you live, it helps yield between 6,000 to 11,000 km of free, effortless, and clean range every year.
Also, the Lightyear 0 relies less on sockets and cables as you can charge it from any wall outlet—not the specialist charging boxes that power other EVs. Plugging the car into any socket gives the car over 300 km of range from an overnight charge. With a combination of plug-in capacity and the car’s self-charging, the company claims that the car can drive 1,000 km between two charging moments.
Lightyear is, undoubtedly, the most ambitious self-driving project as the car can run almost completely on solar power; however, several other brands, including Hyundai, Mercedes, Tesla, and Toyota, are also using solar panels in their designs.
- Hyundai’s SONATA offers a solar roof panel that recharges its battery. It generates enough electric power to increase the driving range by 2 miles daily.
- Mercedes' newest electric car—the Vision EQXX—has a solar roof with 117 solar cells. It was developed with the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems—Europe's largest solar energy research institute. The company says that under ideal conditions, the roof can add up to 25 km of range on long-distance journeys per day.
- Tesla drivers can now buy a rooftop solar panel created by EV Solar Kits that are specially designed for different Tesla models. The kit comes with 500-600 watts of solar, an inverter and micro battery, and connection materials. For example, the kit designed for Tesla model 3 vehicles can provide between 16 to 25 miles of charge a day, depending on solar sunlight hours.
- Toyota’s bZ4X concept hosts solar panels on the car's roof, which will extend the range of the battery by approximately 8 km a day.
EV alternative # 2 – hydrogen-powered cars
Hydrogen is the most abundant resource in the universe—making up 70% of matter. So, using this element to power vehicles would seem logical. Hydrogen is locally available, and if it is made with renewable energy, it can be completely carbon-free. Traditional EVs are powered by batteries that store electricity; however, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles create electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell stack.
No harmful gases are emitted by hydrogen-powered cars, and they also solve the EV’s main problem: charging time. Refuelling with hydrogen takes about the same time as filling a car with diesel.
Hydrogen vehicles are sometimes compared to electric vehicles. Neither vehicle has an internal combustion engine, and they run on electricity, but they have different energy sources. Hydrogen vehicles produce the electricity they need, whereas EVs use energy supplied by an integrated battery.
Hydrogen is stored in a tank (inside the vehicle) and then fed into the fuel cell, providing electricity to power the vehicle. The only emission generated is water.
While car makers have been developing hydrogen fuel cell technology for many years, there are currently only two hydrogen-powered cars on the market in the UK—the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. This probably has to do with there being only 14 hydrogen refuelling stations across the whole country compared to more than 42,000 electric charge points.
EV alternative # 3 – nitrogen-powered cars
There are currently no commercially available nitrogen-powered cars; however, researchers at the University of Washington did create a model vehicle known as LN2000. The car’s engine worked like a steam engine, but instead of burning coal, it was powered by vaporising very cold liquid nitrogen. The nitrogen vapour turns an air motor to propel the car and then exits the exhaust.
Liquid nitrogen exhaust is harmless, and using it is more attractive than the toxic lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars. More importantly for the consumer, it’s estimated that nitrogen cars with similar range and performance would cost half the price of electric cars.
Although liquid nitrogen is not available in refuelling garages, it is conceivable that we could use the current petrol station model to deliver the substance into car tanks quickly and efficiently.
We have been driving cars with petrol engines for the past 150 years, so change will never be simple or quick. But designers are finding new ways to power our vehicles using efficient and climate-friendly methods. It would be sensible for the environmentally conscious driver to bet on all of these technologies as the future will probably see us less dependent on one energy source. Future cars that are packed with tech, making driving a far safer and more enjoyable experience, are likely to be powered by a mix of clean energies.