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How nanotechnology can address the gaps in e-mobility

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Vaishnavi Desai
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Nanotechnology

Carbon dioxide emissions are one of the key reasons for global climate change and the transportation sector is one of the fastest-growing contributors to energy-related CO2 emissions. Rapid urbanization has resulted in economic growth but at the same time increased the demand for automobiles. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), it is estimated that by 2030 the CO2 emissions in South East Asia is expected to increase three-to-five-fold times. Significant measures need to be undertaken to reduce these emissions and develop sustainable and clean energy solutions. Efficient technologies, managing traffic, and use of sustainable fuel are some of the many energy-efficient measures that can be adopted.

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Electric Vehicles have become one of the key methods across the world for reducing carbon emissions from automobiles. The total number of electric cars in the world exceeded 7 million in 2019; with major sales contribution from China, US, and Europe, accounting for nearly 90%. Procurement of electric buses is on the rise in India, Europe, and Latin America.

Three types of electric vehicles include battery EVs (BEV), hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV). HEVs saw the global market in the 1990s, whereas BEVs and PHEVs came in a decade later. Battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are a significant part of EVs and have seen huge growth over the past decade.

Preethy V. Warrier, IEEE Senior Member, discusses nanotechnology to address gaps in e-mobility, its adoption in the automobile industry and the future of EVs.

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Nanotechnology to address the gaps in e-mobility

With batteries being the heart of electric vehicles, it is important to create safe, efficient, and long-lasting batteries that will not overheat or explode when used for long periods of time. Additionally, battery range and recharging time also limits the use of EVs. Nano particles can replace the internal structure of existing Li-ion batteries to increase the energy absorbing capacity and reduce the overall size. Battery performance can be improved by using nano particles and nano composite materials for the electrolytes. Carbon nano tubes can replace the existing graphite powder at the negative electrode of Li-ion batteries to improve the rate of removal/insertion of lithium and hence the battery capacity.

Significant research is being done on batteries made of aluminium-air, aluminium-graphite, and sodium-ion; using nano structured materials for the electrodes. Key issues with using nano materials include: the cost, commercial availability, and safety limitations. Most batteries are in early stages and will take time to expand to commercial scale.

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Adopting nanotechnology in the automobile industry

Using nanotechnology in the transportation sector can create clean, safe, and sustainable vehicles. In the automobile industry, nanotechnology brings several advantages including lighter, stronger materials, improved engine efficiency and fuel consumption, and improved electronic systems. Furthermore, nano materials and technologies can be applied and used in various parts of a vehicle. Light weight automobile chassis based on nano-materials improve flexibility, increase strength, and reduce the overall weight of the vehicle. Nano-coated paints improve flexibility and offer quick adhesion and resistance to corrosion. Nano sized soot particles in tires can improve durability and fuel efficiency and can reduce the inner friction resulting in better rolling. In a nutshell, the advantages of nanotechnology in cars include lighter, stronger materials, improved energy efficiency and fuel consumption (with the use of catalysts, fuel additives & lubricants), reduced environmental impact by using hydrogen and fuel-cells, improved miniaturized power electronic systems providing better control, longer service life, reduced component failures, and smart materials for self-repair.

Future of EVs and automobile industry

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The cost of electric vehicles is a major concern. Many car markets offer subsidies or tax reductions for purchasing electric cars. In South East Asia, Thailand is the first country to offer incentives for EV manufacturers and tax reductions on the sale of their cars. India has also set up policies to further expand electric vehicles including two-wheelers, fleet vehicles and buses. Batteries constitute a major part in the EV cost. Setting up more battery manufacturing units with expanded capacity in the coming decade will result in rapid cost reduction. Improved materials for charging should also be adopted to create longer lasting batteries that are safe, cheap and have improved energy capacity. The aggressive sustainable target set for 2030 will favour the promotion of more electric vehicles and to help develop them the world needs to have more renewable energy.

Indian EV Sector: Growth & Challenges

The Indian Electric Vehicle sector functions under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles in India Scheme (FAME India scheme). It is part of the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan to encourage EVs by providing subsidies and is monitored by the Department of Heavy Industry (DHI), the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises. The scheme has two phases:

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  • Phase I – started in April 2015 and was completed by March 31, 2019.
  • Phase II – Started in April 2019 and will be completed by March 31, 2022.

Phase II scheme is an extended version of Phase I with a focus on technology development, demand creation, pilot projects and charging infrastructure. It covers electric two-wheelers, three-wheelers including rickshaws and four-wheelers, buses, plug-in hybrid, and strong hybrid four-wheelers. Under Phase II of the scheme, 670 electric buses in the states of Gujarat, Chandigarh, Maharashtra, and Goa and 241 charging stations in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Port Blair have been sanctioned. The first electric internet SUV with a driving range of 340 km on a full charge was launched in January 2020 and in the following month; India’s first inter-city electric bus was inaugurated. India aims to deliver 30@30, which means ensuring 30% of vehicle sales are electric by 2030.

Rapid developments come with various challenges. Some of the main concerns in the Indian EV sector are:

  • Charging infrastructure: the country needs to have enough charging stations (both public and at homes) to power all the electric vehicles. As of 2018, India had only 650 charging stations.
  • Grid infrastructure: an increasing number of EVs will be accompanied by rising energy demand. Concerns will arise when charging stations are integrated with renewable energy sources and it will affect grid stability and resiliency in the grid-tie systems.
  • Affordability / upfront cost: batteries of EVs are expensive and require replacement at least once in their design lifetime. The capital cost of an electric car is high (about 2.5 times the conventional petrol/diesel powered cars) which makes it difficult for the average adult to afford.
  • Battery technologies: effective and improved battery technology needs to be incorporated to mitigate current issues like charging life, driving range, energy capacity, cost, and safety.
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