By Mehdi Seyedmahmoudian, Saad Mekhilef, Saeid Ghazizadeh and Alex Stojcevski, Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne
Picture the scene: you’re driving your electric car to the shops and notice that the battery is almost empty.
Do not worry. You park in an available spot and while you do some shopping and drink a cappuccino, your car charges. No cable, no worries. The whole process is automated.
Recent advances in wireless energy transfer research have made it possible to charge electric vehicles without the need for a cable, just like the wireless chargers already in use for smartphones.
This is the future of EVs. And it’s not far away.
Far from former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s fear that electric cars could “end the weekend”, beachside Christmas holidays could in the near future benefit from built-in wireless charging infrastructure on the highways you take to get there.
This allows you to charge your EV while you are on the road, also known as dynamic wireless charging.
Most electric cars today can travel more than 200 miles on a single charge – further than most people need for everyday use, but not far enough if you’re taking a longer trip.
But now that dynamic wireless charging technology has been integrated into the highway infrastructure, you no longer have to worry about range.
You also don’t need to buy a more expensive EV with a larger battery that can travel hundreds of miles – batteries are the most expensive part of an EV – if your average daily travel distance is only a few dozen miles.
The extensive list of EV benefits is quite attractive – not least how they can help reduce the world’s transport-related greenhouse gas emissions.
However, there is still a long way to go before we reach that utopia.
Despite their environmentally friendly facade, electric vehicles produce more CO2 emissions during the production phase than their combustion engine counterparts.
This is mainly attributed to the environmentally unfriendly production processes of the bulky batteries used in electric vehicles.
Maybe take an electric train instead of an EV?
Before a mid-size electric car even hits the road, one analysis estimates that it would have produced 8,100 kg of CO2. However, this is compensated over the life of the EV, thanks to the carbon-free propellant.
Whether charged via cable or wirelessly, the environmental impact of electric vehicles also depends on the carbon footprint of their energy source.
If the electricity used to charge it only comes from coal-fired power stations, a mid-size EV like the Tesla 3 would need to travel 75,000 miles to surpass the environmental performance of a gasoline-powered Toyota Corolla.
However, if the charging network is powered entirely by renewable sources, this breakeven point drops to below 14,000 km.
The electricity grid must be able to accommodate such a huge influx of electric vehicles and renewable energy sources.
EVs aren’t just like other things you have around the house. Charging an electric car can require up to 22 kilowatts of power – or 10 times the power used when ironing or using your hairdryer at maximum capacity.
Handling such a huge amount of energy at a national grid level, coupled with the unpredictable nature of renewable sources, requires a grid that is not only more intelligent, but also more sustainable and decentralized than current infrastructure.
The electricity grid must first be digitalized to keep up with the complex demands of the growing number of electric vehicles using it and the increasing presence of renewable energy sources.
What this means is that a future electricity grid is a data-driven, AI-integrated network that enables all energy entities – from consumers to distributed producers and renewables – to communicate digitally with each other and with the overall main grid.
The rise of artificial intelligence and its related applications offer promising opportunities to efficiently manage these highly advanced energy networks.
Another challenge to overcome is improving the batteries that power EVs themselves.
In addition to the fact that current batteries are expensive, bulky and difficult to produce sustainably, they can also be easily damaged.
For example, fast chargers for electric cars allow you to charge quickly, but they also inject a huge amount of energy into the battery in a very short time, increasing the value of the battery.
There is also the problem of what to do when the battery reaches the end of its usefulness in an EV, while research is underway to see if they can be repurposed for stationary use in solar or wind farms.
Researchers are developing a process to recycle EV batteries at the end of their life and break them down into their components, which produces only low emissions.
But EV batteries also have their advantages, such as their ability to return energy to the grid via bi-directional chargers and vehicle-to-grid technology.
Such a future is already here for some EV drivers in South Australia.
Imagine a different scene: you drive your electric car to the shops and the money you earn by feeding energy back into the grid while you’re shopping will easily cover the cost of your coffee and lunch.
Cosmos Debunks investigates all the myths about electric vehicles. Episode 1 below.
Associate Professor Mehdi Seyedmahmoudian is director of the Siemens Swinburne Energy Transition Hub and discipline coordinator of Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the School of Science, Computing and Engineering Technologies at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. His research interests include renewable energy systems, electric vehicles, microgrids, smart grids and AI-integrated energy systems.
Professor Saad Mekhilef is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Science, Computing and Engineering Technologies at Swinburne University of Technology and an Honorary Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Malaya. His research interests include energy conversion techniques, power converter control, maximum power point tracking, renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Saeid Ghazizadeh is a PhD student in the School of Science, Computing and Engineering Technologies at Swinburne University of Technology. His PhD research is on wireless charging technologies for electric vehicles.
Professor Alex Stojcevski is Dean of the School of Science, Computing and Engineering Technologies at Swinburne University of Technology. His research interests include advanced statistics and big data, stability and control of energy systems, smart grids and microgrids, electric vehicle research, artificial intelligence in manufacturing and stability and control of energy systems.
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