Does anyone know when the first electric vehicle or EV was produced? The Sacramento Area Regional Technological Alliance (SARTA) sponsored an event called the CleanStart Showcase last Monday, 22 October, which had a display of several EVs. One would get the idea that EVs are fairly new if you just going to showcases like CleanStart, or casually read “green” articles.
Not so! EVs were actually first invented before what is considered the “dawn” of the automotive age–1880s and 1890s. The actual first inventor is unknown, but did you know that Ányos Jedlik of Hungary made the first model in 1828, and that Professor Stratingh of Groningen, Holland with his assistant Christopher Becker, and also Robert Anderson of Scotland produced working models in the 1830s?
The 1880s did see a burgeoning of EV motor cars, trams, and buses. The accompanying slide show has a reconstruction of William Ayrton’s and John Perry’s electric motorized tricycle. It was built to advertise their electric wares in England in 1881. That same year, Charles Jeantaud and Camille Faure built and operated an EV in Paris. Faure also patented the first pasted plate battery. Gustave Trouvé built the first motorboat in August and demonstrated an electric tricycle at the International Exhibition of Electricity in November.
Electric motorcars were in competition with steam cars, flywheel power, compressed air, and internal combustion engines as possible power alternatives to the horse-drawn carriage until the 1920s when cheap petroleum, electric starters, mass production, and world wars gave petroleum-based internal combustion vehicles the edge. Nevertheless research continued, and golf carts and other like EVs were still made.
Modern motorcars and trucks are driven by gasoline or diesel, controlled mechanically or hydraulically, but instrumentation and gadgets are powered by a generating device called an alternator which is in turn driven by the internal combustion engine. The newest aircraft like the Boeing 787, the Airbus 300 series, and fighter jets are propelled by petroleum-fueled jet engines which also generate electricity for the flight control systems, heat, pressurization, and lights. These aircraft are controlled by electrical or “fly-by-wire” controls–meaning that the aircraft is controlled by electrical switches rather than mechanical, hydraulic, or pneumatic mechanisms.
Current United States Navy vessels are driven mechanically and hydraulically like motorcars on land. Diesel, diesel-electric or nuclear propulsion systems turn the “screws” (propellers), pushing the ship through water and generate power like an automobile’s alternator. The United States Navy and the British Royal Navy are studying the feasibility of making military ships more like airplanes: using a ship’s propulsion to push, power and control the vessel. Turbines would turn motors and generators: motors to turn the screws, and generators to provide electrical power for weapons systems, heat, lights, and control much like fly-by-wire on modern aircraft. The reason for this is because it is more efficient, cheaper, and safer to operate according to National Defense and Technology Magazine. Most cruise ships are already “electric ships.”
Hybrids are a relatively “new” class of vehicle combining an engine and a motor to push the vehicle. Hybrid motorcars use a gasoline engine and an electric motor; diesel electric trains use two diesel engines and a motor: one diesel drives an electric generator which powers the motor which pushes the train. The other acts like a motorcar’s alternator. These trains have been around for almost a century. A separate diesel engine provides electrical power. Hybrids use the electric motors to reduce the amount of fuel needed for the engine and they use the gasoline engine for performance, speed, and to recharge the batteries. Some hybrid cars also use the electric engines to brake the car, which also recharges the batteries.
Petroleum is no longer cheap and it is dirty, so pure EVs are drawing attention again. The main power source, batteries, has hampered EVs for a century. Early EVs were powered by messy, expensive batteries like the pasted plate battery pioneered by Faure. Early batteries were often disposed of once depleted. Batteries used by both hybrids and the EVs like those shown at CleanStart are now rechargeable but still expensive. Commercially available EVs such as the Ford, CODA, Tesla, Volt, Isuzu, Karma (plug-in hybrid), BMW, Nissan, and Honda cars at last week’s CleanStart are recharged at recharging stations and have a range of about 125 miles between charges (the Tesla Roadster gets 245)—the round-trip distance between Sacramento and Fairfield, or one-way to Reno with an eight hour charge time. Question: “What happens to the power grid when 25% of the motoring public is driving these kinds of cars?”
Maybe fuel cell technology will save the grid. A fuel cell contains separately stored liquid hydrogen and oxygen and a place to combine them. When combined, they generate electricity and water vapor. Fuel cell technology was used in the 1960s in manned orbital and moon-bound US spacecraft (the astronauts drank the water). Fuel cells generate their own electricity, so they do not impact the grid, but they are large, difficult to handle, expensive, and they require an infrastructure of “hydrogen stations.” Hydrogen, like gasoline, is extremely flammable. And water vapor, though not toxic like gasoline or diesel emissions, is still a greenhouse gas.
Solar energy is plentiful in parts of the country, renewable, and cheap. The current technology utilizes photo voltaic (PV) cells—space-age technology used on satellites and the International Space Station and on terrestrial buildings to generate electricity. This technology is limited by both weather and efficiency—most PV cells convert only 15% of the solar energy they receive into electricity. But the American Solar Challenge, and other events serve as technology laboratories to improve performance. A University of Michigan Solar Car Team’s car reached 105 miles per hour in time trials for a 1100 mile event.
So where do I plug in my EV? Only time will tell.