It may not be just the technology that is holding up progress, rather its more likely the technology transfers between engineering skills that is a subtle and slowing effect.

There is a lot or research going on for batteries. There is a lot of development in automobile design racing to better products, too. The battery field is a chemical engineering field, while auto engineering is about mechanical and electrical skills.

The struggle for understanding has been under way for more than three decades, as computers have brought new electronics skills to the mechanical development. As you can imagine, the thought processes and disciplines and sometimes even the vocabulary from these fields simply do not match. Its obvious by looking at the variety from ultra practical to utterly beautiful engineering in the cars and trucks sold during this time to the nearly identical look of computers. OK, computers look a little different from each other now, but not by much. The engineering effort has been driven to better, faster, larger storage – all are internal performance criteria.

The blending or merging of these to engineering fields has yet a long way to go with most believing that the computer industry needs more TLC from the mechanical engineers and designers for better appearances and practical special uses. In the “West” no fusion has taken place between electronic and mechanical engineering while in the “East” with Japan in particular a fusion is just beginning to take place. Now factor in another engineering field.

Batteries are developed by electrochemistry engineers. The key to open the electric vehicle era lies in the fusion of electronics and electrochemistry, as well as mechanical engineering, but we are going to have to wait quite some time for this fusion to occur. It’s not even on the detectable “radar” as far as I can tell in the U.S. or Europe.

To illustrate one example – battery characteristics are provided from manufacturers in the form of charts instead mathematical models or equivalents in circuit models. That makes is very difficult to design the charge and discharge systems. Without that level and quality of communication, the time and variances due to uncertainty is much longer and efficiency suffers – by amounts that are almost as difficult for the electrochemistry engineers to figure as the charts were for the electrical and mechanical engineers.

See the problem?

The problem is the systems integration among the three engineering disciplines. It’s very important to get this right as missing it is a form of waste that begins when the first sheet of blank paper is pulled out for designing. It’s a puzzle that many of the best homebuilders and conversion engineers sense, solve and improve on with each project.

Ideally engineers would cross train to some extent in the symbiotic fields. Yet everyone is really busy in his or her rapidly changing fields and just grasping such distant specializations will test understanding. An example is the common matter of circuit designers puzzling over semiconductor engineering, while they can maximize the output of power devices, building a micro processor controller is way out of the career’s training and experience.

Yet marketing is driving better communication. Many semiconductor manufacturers now provide the equivalent circuit models of power devices, so it’s possible to know the operating margins, calorific values and changes in characteristics due to temperature increases of power devices by using a circuit simulator. This also can transfer for mechanical engineers so they too can fully utilize semiconductor devices by using the circuit simulator. That’s progress and should bring big cost reductions soon.

Going the other way into the batteries isn’t being done. Any competitive maker should create equivalent circuit models for batteries as soon as possible so that electronics engineers and mechanical engineers can handle batteries equally as well. Working for years as GM has done testing and experimenting for the Volt isn’t going to cut it in the future.

As for the battery technologies, nickel-metal hydride batteries have already been commercialized for automobiles, and electric vehicles incorporating lithium ion batteries are expected to debut within 2009. But these batteries are still low on the energy density scale.

Both technologies are incorporating new technology for the cathode and anodes. High performance models have added oxidizers for the cathodes and it really boosts the instantaneous output. But they are quite heavy and have a “rocket engine” sort of behavior. How this will come to be used in transport is yet to be seen.

In the other hand are metal-air batteries, which use zinc, magnesium, lithium, etc. These batteries lack the oxidizer, are lighter and lack the instantaneous boost. The boost can be added with capacitors saving weight. I do have hope for the metal air technology with capacitors, a more “jet engine” type of thing. Electric vehicles are in active development in the US, Europe and China using primarily zinc-air batteries.

The technology transfer from one engineering field to the next stage of product development needs some improvement. A much better flow of information and feedback needs encouraged and developed for the sake of any company trying to sell products that integrate across technologies.

I wonder sometimes – what would the effect be if the know how somehow was smoothly and seamlessly brought from the source of energy to the workload. I suspect the saving in product costs and running expenses would go down significantly – something we consumers need to pay increasingly closer attention to.


1 Comment so far

  1. Spinning My Web » Blog Archive » Quick scan of the net - oxidizer on April 9, 2009 11:02 AM

    […]…These batteries lack the oxidizer, are lighter and lack the instantaneous boost. The boost can be added with capacitors saving weight. I do have hope for the metal air technology with capacitors, a more “jet engine” type of thing. … […]

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