The electric motor was invented in 1832 well before the gasoline engine in 1872, but the latter has gained predominance in the transportation sector. Why? Besides being simpler, smaller and lighter, the electric motor requires no supporting systems to operate such as ignition, exhaust, cooling, camshaft and transmission. It also requires no maintenance like regular oil change and engine tune-ups. Why has the gasoline engine become so popular despite being so inefficient and dirty? There exist two big obstacles for the electric motor to overcome:
To propel the vehicle, the electric motor is fueled by electricity stored in a battery. Due to the slow advancement of its technology, the battery is large and heavy, and cannot supply enough electricity for both acceleration and range of travel. Furthermore, it takes a long time to recharge. On the other hand, the explosive development of the fossil fuel industry has produced different grades of refined gasoline that burns to propel vehicles ranging from autos to supersonic aircraft. The big advantage of gasoline lies in its being a liquid fuel lighter than water that can be stored in the vehicle’s fuel tank and conveniently refilled from a network of gasoline stations wherever one travels.
The second reason is the cost factor. Theoretically, the market guarantees winner for the product of least cost. However, the most important cost that is always ignored is the subtle costs of a polluted environment and a lower quality of health as a result. The gasoline engine wins because it provides great short-term benefits for transportation without regard for long-term environmental costs. After more than a century of dominance, the environmental costs of the gasoline engine due to its greenhouse gas emissions have finally caught up with reality known as global warming or climate change. This is a form of Mother Nature’s delayed revenge on a global scale for which there is no solution except switching to the electric motor if we don’t want to go back to horse carriages.
Can the electric motor replace the gasoline engine? Of course, the bullet train is an excellent example, backed up in recent years by the brisk acceleration of a Tesla automobile. Hybrid aircraft is in the works at Boeing and Airbus where a big passenger plane takes off and lands using jet engines while cruises on electric-powered ducted fans. The only limit is supersonic speed where the electric fans cannot physically achieve.
Given its simple design, the electric motor still offers room for delivering more power with both hardware rearrangement and software fine-tuning. Extra power can be generated by using a permanent magnet in the rotor and putting the electric windings on the stator instead. The traditional electric motor with unreliable mechanical switching featuring “brushes” is on its way out because the current in the windings can now be controlled electronically via a programmable microchip.
Most importantly, battery technology is now taking off with the invention of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Since a battery involves electrochemical reaction between two electrodes immersed in an electrolyte, advancement must occur in material science that will create better compounds to enhance the battery in the following aspects: lighter weight, stronger current, bigger storage, faster recharge and better safety. A breakthrough in battery technology will quicken the replacement of the gasoline engine. We are now in the middle of this process. Like all other scientific development, a breakthrough will come, hopefully sooner.
The other important factor is the infrastructure for recharging car batteries. It is difficult for the infrastructure to precede the electric car. Both must proceed simultaneously. Since most electric cars are now recharged in the home, many of which are solar-powered, a better infrastructure will develop as the car market expands, and vice versa. When the number of electric cars reaches a critical mass, which we may have already achieved, a self-reinforcing virtuous circle will develop in the refueling infrastructure, just like what has happened before with the gasoline car. Finally, electricity carries a magical wonder. If a breakthrough occurs in wireless recharging of automobiles while they are running on the road, we may not even need a network of recharging stations in the future. When that happens, electrics will truly surpass the gasoline cars because they don’t even have to stop for refueling.