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The road ahead for electric vehicles

Three key challenges to the widespread use of EVs — and ideas for overcoming them.

Canada has potential to be an electric vehicle powerhouse. With a domestic battery supply chain in the works, $1.7 billion in consumer purchase incentives and a federal mandate for all new vehicle sales to be electric by 2035, you’d think we’d have it in the bag. But, according to a recent survey, 66 percent of Canadian drivers are not planning to go electric for their next vehicle.

One of the key concerns is the upfront costs of EVs. “I can get a pretty decent car for $25,000, but the cheapest electric car is around $40,000,” says Carmine Pizzurro, a former battery plant manager at General Motors. While EVs at the lower end of the cost spectrum are eligible for a $5,000 rebate from the federal government, Pizzurro believes more extensive incentives may be needed to tempt consumers.

But there are other practical problems that also need addressing. Here are three of the biggest challenges facing EVs — and how Canadian scientists and engineers are playing a part in addressing them.

Helping EVs rove farther and faster

Despite rapid increases in the range of EVs, having to charge them frequently is still cited as a major concern among potential buyers. You wouldn’t expect reducing the size of the battery to be the best way of solving the problem, but this is one possible direction the automotive industry could take.

Sarnia-based startup AlumaPower has created a device called a “galvanic generator” that charges the car while you drive, effectively improving range. The generator runs on scrap aluminum, which is easier and cheaper to procure than the lithium that’s used in conventional batteries. Rob Alexander, AlumaPower’s CEO, says that the technology will enable manufacturers to “make the lithium-ion battery much smaller.”

Another key issue is how long it takes to charge an EV — a trip from Toronto to Montreal might take five hours by gas guzzler, but it could stretch to six or more if you have to stop and juice up a battery. Many companies are trying to cut charging times, but Ottawa-based GBatteries thinks it has found a way to charge an EV as fast as filling a tank of gas. The company uses artificial intelligence to manage the power flow and protect the battery from the usual degradation that comes from fast charging.

Getting the grid ready

The federal government is investing $500 million to add 50,000 charging stations across Canada. But it’s not as simple as installing one and hooking it up to the grid. Pizzurro says that while we have enough energy production to meet the demand, “we don’t have it where we need it.” Areas with older grid infrastructure, such as the Trans-Canada highway, will be challenging. Pizzurro is now president of fast-charging company eCAMION, which he believes has developed a solution: an energy-storage unit that collects power during off-peak hours and then delivers it to cars through the company’s Jule fast chargers. The firm says its chargers can deliver 150 kW of charge with only 30 kW from the grid.

Other companies are developing systems that help charging networks operate efficiently. Etobicoke-based ChargeLab, for instance, has developed open software that works with most chargers and optimizes their charging for grid capacity and cost-effectiveness.

Dealing with dead batteries

If projections of EV sales pan out as expected, we’ll have millions of spent batteries on our hands within a decade. The quandary facing the industry is what to do with all that waste. Li-Cycle, a Toronto-based company, is scaling quickly and creating a network of battery-recycling centres around the world to help solve the problem. The company uses a hydrometallurgical method to recoup up to 95 percent of materials in spent batteries for re-use in new ones. A recent $375-million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy is helping propel its expansion, along with a partnership with warehouse equipment company KION, which will provide Li-Cycle with used batteries from forklifts.

But battery recycling, a chemically-intensive process, isn’t the only way. Some engineers prefer to keep the batteries whole. Batteries considered spent for EV purposes can still have upwards of 70 percent charge, which is plenty of juice for lower-energy demands. A Vancouver-based company called Moment Energy is pioneering the repurposing of old EV batteries in off-grid locations, or in buildings where energy can be stored for use during high-cost peak hours. The company’s batteries — which come from Mercedes-Benz and Nissan — are currently in use in several buildings in Western Canada and in a scuba school in British Columbia.

Image source: iStock

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