16 Jan

Mobility is redefining how we think of Energy, the opportunities that lie within

If you are too lazy to read this whole thing, watch this! 

The Energy Wars

Electricity was a grand novelty in the late 1880's. Thomas Alva Edison, one of the veritable geniuses of his time thought that Alternating Current (AC) was unsafe. To prove his point, he went to the extent of electrocuting animals in public including dogs and horses. We may never know if he truly believed that AC was unsafe or if he was just worried about losing out the royalty payments that he was getting from his patents involving Direct Current (DC).

Nikola Tesla started out as an apprentice at Edison's company. Later, he left Edison’s side to work on his own when he found that Edison dismissed the ideas that he had put forward. It was Tesla who proposed using AC instead of DC. Thus began the war of currents.

There were fundamental technical issues surrounding DC which did not allow for it to be stepped up or down unlike AC. This would restrict the distance to which electricity could be transmitted. Eventually AC won out as evidenced by the wall socket next to you.

There is another DC battle brewing. But before we turn to that, let us get down to the basics.


Batteries are all about chemistry. Batteries are treated as stores of electricity. Electric current is the movement of electrons through any conducting material. What we try to accomplish in a battery is establish the flow of electrons across an electrolyte between a cathode and an anode. 

The last 250 years have been spent trying to optimise the cathode, anode as well as the electrolyte to produce the most efficient battery. The version that we most commonly find in use today was invented back in the 1970's. It uses Lithium compounds combined with a whole host of other elements including Manganese, Cobalt, Nickel and Aluminium. The Lithium compounds act as the cathode. In most of the cases in commercial use today, Carbon is used as anode.

The fact that we do not use pure Lithium and instead use compounds of it with other rare metals makes recycling difficult. It is essential that we break down the compound into its constituent elements for proper recycling to take place.


Fuel Cells

Fuel Cells are a little different from batteries, in that they use a fuel and combine it with oxygen to produce energy. The consequent chemical reaction causes the fuel to undergo reaction and produce energy. It happens to be setup much like a battery with an anode, a cathode and an electrolyte, but consumes the fuel in order to produce electricity or the constant stream of electrons. Fuel cell technology has been around since the beginning of 1800's and has been constantly refined over the years. 

The byproduct of running a fuel cell is water or carbon-dioxide depending on the chemicals that are being used in the fuel cell. The fuel cell that is most preferred is the Hydrogen fuel cell that uses Hydrogen in combination with oxygen to produce energy while producing water vapour as the exhaust.

Basic Difference between a battery and a fuel cell

Battery operated cars

Battery operated cars or cars that run on electricity have been around for more than a century now. It was never considered practical or fast enough to be used for mainstream purposes and hence always remained a mere curiosity rather than a serious pursuit. Many of us would have travelled on electric buggies in Airports, Golf Courses, Resorts and other large campuses often. These vehicles never reached any serious speeds and were well suited for closed circuit campus usage alone.

In 2003 two entrepreneurs decided that instead of using DC motors with DC batteries, they would use AC motors to drive a car. The problem with DC was that it produces constant power. This power output tends to be quite high for a large battery. It would take a huge inverter to turn DC into AC, perhaps larger than the battery itself.  AC can be better controlled and hence allows for gradual scaling of power.

They decided to firstly break the battery down into a set of battery packs. Also, more importantly they decided to embed the inversion process within the motor itself. They broke the rotation into several phases and assigned each of the phase to a different battery pack. This made it possible to run an AC motor with batteries (DC), in turn making the car incredibly powerful.

Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, the founders of the company, went on to raise a series A round for their company that was led by Mr. Elon Musk. That company as you would have guessed is called Tesla.

Tesla changed the way electric cars were viewed and since they were expensive, these were often sold to discerning customers with the capacity to buy.

Elon Musk effectively inherited the company. He did not have a lot of choice in terms of the technology that they chose to use. He had invested in a company and now he needed for his investment to do well.


Across the Atlantic and the Pacific

Companies such as Mercedes and Audi in Germany as well as companies in Japan such as Honda and Toyota have been developing hydrogen fuel cell based vehicles since the dawn of this millennium. There have been some impressive demonstrations undertaken as well.

While a considerable amount of research has been undertaken and limited public release for these cars have also been made, the vast majority of the vehicles were only available on lease and not sold to the end customer.

The trouble with enabling a wider adoption of the car has been the lack of refueling infrastructure for the cars. Most countries tend to have very few Hydrogen refueling stations. Germany and Japan have the most number of these stations and have aggressive plans to scale up these refueling stations. Even the US has about 50 Hydrogen refueling stations across the country, many concentrated in the state of California. 

Hydrogen Fuel Cells have already been used for a wide range of application in transportation including buses, forklifts, bikes, airplanes, boats, submarines and trains. 


AC versus DC of the Modern World

The Hydrogen Fuel Cell versus Li-Ion battery, is the fork in the road that lies ahead of us so far as powering the future of transportation is concerned. 


Why can't we do both?

For starters the nature of infrastructure needed for both of them tend of be very different. In the case of vehicles driven by Li-Ion batteries it is important to have recharging stations where electricity supply is directly established. The cars would take 30-45 minutes to charge the battery packs and then depart. Hydrogen Fuel Cells require hydrogen fuel pumps just like petrol pumps where cars would refuel in a matter of a few minutes and depart. This would require a similar supply chain to be established akin to what petroleum companies possess and utilise today - Production, distribution truck and refueling stations.

While Elon Musk has been levelling charges against Hydrogen Fuel Cell because Hydrogen is a highly explosive gas and claiming that as the reason for his affinity to Li Ion batteries, we all know that he inherited a company that already used this technology and that he did not make a well thought out choice to go that way.

It is highly unlikely that we would establish two types of infrastructure at scale to power our mobility and eventually one would win out as a standard. This is precisely the reason why he opened up some of Tesla's patents. If most car companies pick the path that Tesla is following, the chances of the other approach surviving would be very bleak.



The current path of using petroleum products for our transportation is unsustainable for obvious reasons. First of all, we are going to run out of them soon. Second of all we will be put in a situation where we would have to survive the repercussions of burning those fossil fuels in the form of the climate change that it unleashes.

As George Carlin much eloquently put it - "The planet is not dying, we are! The planet has been around for Billions of years and would continue to be around for Billions more, we would all end up dead."

In the case of the Hydrogen Fuel Cell, the byproduct is water. Water! 75% of this planet is just that. If we are producing hydrogen gas through sustainable energy sources this would perhaps be the cleanest way to deal with the transportation needs that we have. Sure Hydrogen is a dangerous gas and needs careful handling but so are Petrol, Diesel, Natural Gas and other fossil fuels that we use today. We figured out ways and means by which to make them safe enough.

Li-Ion batteries have a limited lifespan of between 3 to 5 years depending on the number of times you charge them and put them through their charge cycles. Lithium batteries can also catch fire, but let’s not go there. Each car requires about a 10 Kg Li-Ion battery, which will be rendered useless after the said number of years and will have to be abandoned and replaced with a new battery pack. What do we do with all of the batteries that will get abandoned?

Recycling this becomes a huge priority from the perspective of avoiding another kind of catastrophe that might arrive due to the excessive supply of used batteries coming up for recycling.

This is the technological paradigm that we are operating in. There is also the policy paradigm that plays a huge role in how things would play out in the future and which technologies win out. Turning our gaze towards what the governments are envisaging and doing…


Goals by 2030

With the rise in the climate change and the environmental damage caused all over the world, countries have come forward to take a stand against this. Since fossil fuel powered vehicles are considered one of the biggest sources of pollution across the world. One of the steps taken towards this, is the initiative to replace fossil fuel powered vehicles with electric vehicles. Here are some of the countries that are going to ban fossil fuel powered vehicles in the course of time. 

India – By the year 2030 the Indian government has announced that all the vehicles sold will be electric powered. This will help curb pollution that is estimated to contribute to 1.2 million deaths per year. 

France – France being one of the major car producing country has decided to end the sale of gas and diesel powered cars by the year 2040. 

China – China is leading in the manufacturing of electric cars. Although they haven't set any fixed date, they intend to become free of carbon emissions by the year 2030. 

These are just to name a few. Several other countries such as The UK, Norway, Germany, Netherlands are working towards banning fossil fuel based vehicles. 


Dates committed by various countries to ban fossil fuel driven vehicles



Committed Year
















Source: Quartz.com 

The current state of air pollution in major Indian cities is due to the air pollution caused by vehicles and other sources. We signed the Paris Climate Agreement in December 2015. This agreement requires the member countries to make a commitment to curb the carbon dioxide (CO2) emission to keep the global average temperature from rising above 1.5oC as compared to the pre-industrial years. The biggest step taken by India towards this is switching to electric vehicles.  

"The idea is that by 2030 not a single petrol or diesel car should be sold in the country", former Power minister Piyush Goyal said while addressing the CII Annual Session 2017. The FAME ( Faster Adoption And Manufacture Of [Hybrid &] Electric Vehicles In India) scheme has been launched in support of this move. This push for EVs will create a significant change in India's energy priorities.

As of March 2015 there are a total of 21 Crore registered motor vehicles on Indian roads. The industry is currently selling close to 1.7 Crore new two-wheelers every year, this has been rising at a rate greater than 10% year over year. Further, close to 30 Lac cars are sold every year. This represents the quantum of change that the government seems to be wanting to embark on. The conversion or the complete removal of fossil fuel driven vehicles in such numbers will be quite a task. 


Various efforts are being made in order to achieve this. Transportation minister Nitin Gadkari has asked carmakers to move to electric vehicles in order to meet the deadline of 2030. He also added that the National Democratic Alliance Government would put forward the policy for electric vehicles by the end of the year 2017.  Under the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 and FAME India Scheme the government aims to see 6 million electric and hybrid vehicles on the road by the year 2020.  

The government has decided to provide subsidies on electric and hybrid vehicles of up to Rs. 29,000 on two wheelers and Rs. 1.38 Lac for cars under FAME ( Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of [ Hybrid & ] Electric Vehicles) India Scheme. Currently cars have a GST  of 28%, whereas electric vehicles will be charged with only 12% GST in order to boost the sales. The government plans to open a battery plant by the end of 2018 and use the tax revenues from the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles to set up charging stations for electric vehicles. 

Moving a step closer to their goal, the government plans to buy 10,000 electric cars for the NCR (National Capital Region). This is part of our government's plan to put around 1 million electric three wheelers and 10,000 electric city buses on Indian roads by mid 2019. The tender to buy 10,000 e-cars for NCR has already attracted bids by 6 of the nation's leading car makers – Tata Motors, Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai, Renault, Nissan and Mahindra & Mahindra. 

In 2016, India went an extra mile when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the gigafactory. There is a possibility of a joint venture between Tesla and the Indian government. Mr. Gadkari has also invited Tesla to set up manufacturing plants in India. The US car maker is looking to enter India as a retailer and is in talks with the government about the import duties applied on the import of its high end electric cars. 


Catering to the demand

Sourcing and pricing

Lithium Mining

Source : reuters.com


The intention behind the bold move is all well and good, but speaking from a practical point of view there are two major hurdles the government will be faced with during its implementation. Infrastructure and import of battery. The cost of setting up a car charging station in India ranges from $500 to $25,000 depending on the charging speed, according to a 2016 report by online journal IOPscience. The success of electric cars in India largely depends on the charging network. If the charging network expands more people would be willing to buy electric cars. If the demand increases then manufacturers can also invest in the production of electric vehicles. 

In order to meet the ambitious goal by 2030, India needs a strategic plan to manufacture batteries. All of the raw materials for the batteries will need to be imported, If not the entire battery.


Import of battery

India does not have lithium production of its own, it will have to secure the lithium reserves globally to meet its ambitious goal of electric vehicles programme. Sources say that India has initiated dialogues with the so called “lithium triangle”. Lithium triangle is a group of countries comprising of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia. These sit on the world’s largest lithium deposits. They account to at least 75% of the world’s total reserves of lithium. And they are seeking investments from Indian businesses to build large mines. These three countries are a part of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), an initiative by PM Narendra Modi. This is expected to expand our business ties.


World’s largest lithium reserves as of 2016


Source : statista.com

How much lithium would India alone require?

Of all the lithium reserves that exist, India alone would require 2 Millions metric tonnes (assuming 10 Kgs for each of the 21 Crore motor vehicles on the road). Just for perspective, the global Lithium reserve capacity is estimated at 15 Million metric tonnes. The typical lifespan of a Li ion battery is between 3 and 5 years. After 5 years these useless batteries usually get dumped in landfills. If the 2030 goals were to reach fruition, we would have to consider the waste management surrounding Li Ion batteries as well.



The scaling of Lithium battery demand in India for Transporation

Source: Startups Club Research

   (Assuming todays level of vehicles sales in Electric by 2030.

    Sourced from here, here, and here) 

Lithium prices have been shooting up like a rocket. Over the past two years alone, Lithium prices have gone up 200%. We can only expect this to accelerate in the future as the demand for Lithium increases due to the variety of applications that batteries are coming to be used for.


What is the concern?

When you take a system that has a small problem and scale is up quickly. Those problems become incredibly big incredibly quickly.

The fossil fuel Armageddon took a 100 years to play out on us, the next one will arrive in a decade!

The reason to be worried is adoption rates.