A few years ago the popular BBC television show ‘Top Gear’ compared the fuel efficiency of a diesel powered car to a popular hybrid powered model such as the Toyota Prius. The Prius lost the contest. Indeed, in Europe diesel cars have never been more popular as gasoline prices remain at all time highs. In North America, the price difference between diesel fuel and regular gasoline is minimal and the European success of the diesel powered automobile has failed to repeat itself on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, yet, even in North America, diesel cars are sold on their merits for fuel efficiency, long range and environmental sustainability and they have proven to be tough competitors for hybrid and full electric vehicle (EV) alternatives. Nevertheless, the competition may soon skew in favor of hybrids and EV’s. Indeed, improved battery technology and faster recharging times have contributed to a much improved efficiency and practicality for EV’s as a recently published World Health Organization (WHO) report states that the exhaust from diesel powered engines can cause deadly forms of cancer. These findings are sure to attract a lot of attention – negative attention in the case of many popular diesel vehicles. One of the main effects of the WHO report will be to increase demand for alternative energy sources and, therefore, graphite.
The WHO, now, officially categorizes diesel exhaust, heavy is sulfates and soot, as a carcinogen. Although, modern diesels are much cleaner burning thanks to computer controlled engine management systems and the use of special materials in the catalytic exhaust systems (including rare metals), the WHO report has dealt a virtual ‘black eye’ blow to diesel’s clean and ‘green’ image. The implications of the WHO report are even greater in the developing world, where car ownerships is growing fastest and where environmental regulations are far looser than in the OECD countries. These markets could indeed fast-track their transportation evolution toward electric vehicles. In addition, diesel engines dominate heavy transportation; they are used in trucks, ships and train locomotives. The variety of diesel fuel used in the latter is typically much dirtier than what is available at the local pump; it is heavy unfiltered bunker fuel and it is very rich in toxic materials.
The formalization of diesel fuel exhaust as a carcinogen will doubtless lead to stricter regulations, aiming both toward the use of advanced technology to reduce the amount of cancer causing materials and toward the adoption of alternative propulsion, more than likely based on batteries, in hybrid or pure electricity platforms. The world can expect a significant boost for battery power technologies, aided also by the fact that the technology for much faster charging systems and longer lasting more efficient batteries is already available. Hybrid and fully electric trucks will be rolling down the highways making the Detroit Diesel powered giants a thing of the past. Hybrid powered cruise ships have already docked at your favorite Mediterranean port: Mega Crown International Cruise Lines, LLP, launched the ‘Ibrido’ a hybrid powered cruise ship, incorporating both diesel and electrically powered engines. Nissan has unveiled a hybrid -electric solar powered cargo ship and even the US military has warmed to the idea (for strategic reasons: more efficiency means more time at sea and in action) with a hybrid aircrfat carrier.
These technological developments, all of which ‘around the corner’, will necessarily rely on abundant sources of high quality graphite. Electric vehicles are no longer limited by the range of its battery and by battery charging times, which has delayed the establishment of battery recharging infrastructure. Technology can sometimes accelerate progress beyond our most optimistic expectations. In the case of electric vehicles, there have been radical changes to Li-ion battery technology, which is one of the driving forces behind the sustained demand for graphite and why graphite has been placed on the strategic resource list by governments in the United States and the European Union. Some of the world’s largest automotive companies, including Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Daimler, Fiat, Ford, General Motors, Porsche, and Volkswagen are ready to unveil the DC-fast charging with a Combined Charging System, which uses a universal vehicle inlet integrating one-phase AC-charging, fast three-phase AC-charging, DC-charging, and ultra-fast DC-charging. The system is capable of recharging an electric car with current battery technology in 20 minutes – some say 15 minutes. Hydro Quebec is preparing to unveil fast charging systems that rival the time needed to fill a car at the pump – five minutes!
The prospect of convenient re-charging times, which may drop to the amount of time required to fill up a tank with gasoline in a gas powered engine will further boost battery evolution and demand for graphite, especially the high purity varieties from jumbo flake to the rare vein or Sri-Lankan variety. Indeed, battery chemistry will determine the feasibility of frequent recharging. Apart from the new battery ‘technology’ side of graphite utilization, there are still the more traditional sectors that will contribute to less polluting transportation thanks to graphite, which has been already used in steel manufacturing, to lubricants and composite materials – increasingly used by the aerospace and automobile industry to reduce weight in all structural and mechanical components.