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December 3, 2019

Volume 2 Issue 49

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Surprises Could Yet Sway EV Adoption

ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands – Global electric vehicle sales have grown at high double-digit rates for the past several years, leading to forecasts of EVs becoming large portions of the worldwide car parc. Unexpected changes in technology and politics could speed up or slow the trend, hampering efforts to predict when such advances will occur, an industry insider said at a conference here.

Paul Kerwin, base oils account director in Multisol, applied the so called “black swan theory” of the Lebanese-American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb, to explain future technological developments and their impact on the automotive or lubricants industry. The theory is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect and is often rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

“Black swan theory explains how to predict real events beyond the realm of normal expectations in science, history or finance,” Kerwin told ACI’s European Base Oils and Lubricants conference held here Nov. 21. “People say there’s no such thing as black swan, and all of a sudden a black swan appears.” 

Multisol, part of the Germany-based chemical distributor Brenntag, produces or distributes fuel and lubricant additives, base oils and specialty chemicals. Kerwin is based in Multisol’s Daresbury, United Kingdom, office.

The automotive and lubricant industries have experienced black swans in the past, Kerwin said..

“Transition from horse carriages to internal combustion engines was swift – it happened over the course of four decades at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and a similar transition could well be envisaged for the electric vehicle technology, in moving from [internal combustion engines],” Kerwin said.

Climate change and increased carbon dioxide emissions are the main factors encouraging new technologies in the automotive industry, he said. Of course, climate change in general is not new, since the planet’s temperatures and other climate conditions have shifted continuously over the past 65 million years, he added. “But studies have shown that in the last 150 years, climate change coincided with the industrial revolution and has been exceptional, but definitely not natural.”

Legislation is the biggest black swan, according to Kerwin, and “politicians create rules in various regions that dictate the impact of a technology. For example, in countries like Norway there are significant incentives for adoption of electric vehicles, but after China rolled back incentives for purchase of electric vehicles in the country, we observe that sales of these vehicles fall back on a wider scale globally.”

Politics will ultimately have a huge impact on adoption of new technologies, he said.

“For example, an important political [factor] – besides various regulations on CO2 and sulfur reductions in the exhaust gases and fuels – could be the pricing of the CO2 emissions,” Kerwin said. “The European Union incentive of cap-and-trade scheme that is currently imposed only on the energy industry could well work for other countries and regions.”

Automobile emissions are not part of this scheme and are largely controlled by EU limits on manufacturers and personal taxation of car owners.

All-solid-state batteries are another black swan, according to Kerwin. 

“Modern lithium ‘wet’ batteries that use liquid electrolytes to move energy around have problems such as thermal overload that in some instances results in fire, and prolonged recharging time caused by the battery degradation,” he said.

Kerwin suggested that new solid-state batteries could charge much more effectively and be much more efficient in terms of charge density and extending the range of EVs.

Nickel-cobalt lithium is one solid state technology, but it faces obstacles that are difficult to overcome, he said.

“First, it is their recyclability, as there is a major gap in the life cycle of this technology,” he said. “Supply security is another problem. Congo controls over 60 percent of the world’s cobalt, while four countries – Australia, Chile, Argentina and China – control three quarters of the world’s lithium. The social element is that over 30,000 children are employed in lithium and cobalt extraction around the world today, and the social cost of the battery technology is not fully appreciated.”

He suggested that new lithium-ion solid-state batteries, which have solid electrolytes, can overcome the issues that dog current lithium-cobalt batteries. “These batteries are in development from companies such as Toyota, and they could certainly influence and revolutionize full electric vehicle transportation very soon,” he said.

Electricity is another key factor, according to Kerwin.

“Electricity demand grows in every sector,” he said. “Today, a lot of the electricity produced comes from coal power plants. The high carbon intensity to produce this electricity sometimes negates the effect of low or zero carbon dioxide emissions from electric vehicles.”

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor’s Tokamak project for a nuclear fusion reactor in Provance, southern France, could be a key solution for stepping away from carbon-intense production of electricity. ITER  is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject.

“Currently it is in a developing phase, but if finished, it can have a significant effect in creating abundant, low cost or even free power for electric vehicle transportation,” he said.

Hydrogen fuel reactors are another potential disruptor.

“Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles could be a big impactor in the near term,” he said. “They are zero-emission vehicles, producing water as part of the combustion process to generate electric power. The problem is the lack of hydrogen infrastructure to power these vehicles,” he said, adding that a big environmental obstacle for this technology is that more than 99 percent of the word’s hydrogen currently is produced by using fossil fuels.

Looking into the future, hydrogen produced by wind and solar electrolysis can power fuel cell electric vehicles, according to Kerwin.

“This technology is still in its infancy and quite expensive in terms of hydrogen production and its availability,” he said. “However, it could be a significant game changer in producing zero carbon transportation in the future.”

Finally, black swans such as direct CO2 air capture systems or homogenous charge compression ignition engines – a technology that combines characteristics of conventional gasoline and diesel engines – could still shift the ground for the current lubricant and automotive industries to different, unforeseen levels “that we can only imagine,” Kerwin concluded. Direct air capture refers to machines that remove CO2 from the ambient atmosphere.