Are electric cars back?

roadchaosDid you know that before Henry Ford developed the Model T Ford motorcar, the nearly 40% of automobiles on US roads were electric vehicles? I think we will be heading back in this direction if we are to have any hope of achieving reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. The implications for the national electricity grid of a major shift to plug-in cars would be very serious and has been the subject of several recent studies including a third year undergraduate dissertation that I have been supervising and from which came the opening factoid.

It is relatively easy, through not without obstacles, to envision a shift to all-electric cars; after all there are several models on the market now. However, an all-electric aircraft seems further in the future, if only because of the weight of the batteries required. Engineers would talk about the energy density, i.e. the amount of energy that can be extracted from a kilogram of kerosene compared to a kilogram battery. However, perhaps the future is not far away because the New Scientist reported earlier in the month [3rd May, 2014] that Airbus had completed the test flight of an electric plane, the E-fan. It is a two-seater plane with a pair of 65 kilogram lithium battery packs driving a pair of 30 kilowatt motors attached to the fans. The E-fan will cruise at 185 kilometres per hour and flies for an hour. Relative to a modern computer jet, this performance is similar to the early plug-in cars relative to their internal-combustion-engined rivals. But, it is an indication of bigger things to come. In the meantime, if you want an E-fan then a new division of Airbus called Voltair will be producing them by 2017.

I mentioned undergraduate dissertations because they have filled a sizeable chunk of my waking hours for a few weeks. This is an annual ritual in the UK during May when final-year undergraduate students are busy submitting and defending their dissertations. I had a pile of twelve dissertations to read and assess. Eight of them belonged to students that I have supervising in weekly one-to-one meetings since last October and the remainder were dissertations for which I was the assessor. All of the students that I supervised were studying either Mechanical or Aerospace Engineering and so the topics of their projects were associated mainly with energy and, or transportation. Some of these projects are provided by engineering companies (those with an asterisk in the list below), which guarantees their topicality and relevance, while others spin-out from my interests and research activities. So many of the topics in the list below will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog.

Dissertation projects supervised during 2013-14:

Investigation into a redesign of graphite re-entrant seals for a nuclear power station*

Conceptual design for a carbon sequestration system for automobiles

Recommendations for achieving a low carbon airline industry

Strain-based defect analysis of industrial pipe-work*

Investigation of random frequency excitation of an aerospace body panel

Assessment of preload control of threaded fasteners in motorcycle production*

Recommendations for technology-based approaches to reduced ecological footprints

Investigation of low carbon power for plug-in electric vehicles

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