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November 2009 Trail Head - Editorial

Posted in Features on November 1, 2009
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Now that burning fossil fuels has been likened to throwing a sack of kittens into a pond, let's take a closer look at the presently-accepted "green" alternative. Is an electric Jeep really in your future?

I'll be the first to admit that I love the sound and performance of a rappy V-8. Now I'm not saying that we all need to stick to big-blocks and fossil fuels (although I'll likely be one of the last hold outs). And I'll admit I've even personally converted nitro gas-engine RC cars over to lithium batteries and brushless electric motors with better-than-stock performance results. But I believe lithium-battery hybrids and lithium-battery electric cars are merely a stepping stone to the next technology. I typically keep vehicles a long time and drive them into the ground. So I'm a little reluctant to jump on a short-term-solution bandwagon. Ultimately, no current energy source is the long-term solution to an age-old question. And none of them appear to be truly "green."
-John Cappa

There are some obvious roadblocks that can be overcome and some not so obvious ones that we may not get past. One concern expressed even by Toyota is that there is almost no infrastructure in place or planned for the construction of the required recharging stations in parking lots or along the highways. Not to mention that the current power generation plants and electrical grids can barely keep up with the existing demands in many states. Plus the individuals trained to work on these new electric and hybrid vehicles will almost need to be engineers (rather than mechanics) to safely work on the potentially dangerous high-voltage systems. And current battery performance limitations will curb cross-country and other long distance trips on 100-percent electrically-powered vehicles. Sure, most of these problems can be solved in time, but we've only just scratched the surface.

Lithium batteries are already used in laptop computers and mobile phones. They are the battery of choice because they allow more energy to be stored in a lighter, smaller space than most alternatives. And as the auto industry rushes to produce new fuel efficient cars, it too is turning to lithium batteries as its first choice to power the new models. But the lithium batteries used in these electric and hybrid vehicles are not exactly problem-free or "green."

Just as is the case with fossil fuels, lithium is a limited natural resource. More than half of the world's lithium reserves are located in a remote corner of Bolivia. Mitsubishi, which plans to release its own electric car, estimates that the demand for lithium will outstrip the supply by 2015 unless new sources are found. It's believed that the demand for lithium will not only double, but rather will increase by five times in the near future.

Another problem is that Bolivia is not known to be friendly to foreign industry. Raw materials have been stripped from the country since the 15th century for the industrialization of the west. Gold, silver, tin, oil, and gas have all been found and exported from Bolivia, yet the country remains the poorest in the region. Bolivia's current socialist president, Evo Morales, is not planning on repeating this history. Even the local communities are reluctant to allow commercial mining by foreign countries, yet they don't have the expertise or technology to keep up with potential demand. So without new sources and new production, the price of lithium will likely rise prohibitively and put us in a similar position to where we are now with the oil-producing countries. Not to mention that the manufacturing of lithium (like the burning of fossil fuels) produces pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, which is known to cause acid rain. And we haven't even begun to consider the disposal of these batteries. Sure, they will be required to last a minimum of 100,000 miles by the U.S. government, since they are considered part of the emissions equipment, but what then? Do we throw away the whole vehicle when the battery goes bad, or buy an expensive new battery?

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