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Lights and electric cars

Is fuel-cell-based transportation the LED of car technology?

Technology is all around us, and always changing. Take the lights in my house, for example. We no longer have incandescent light bulbs (the old 60- & 100-watt lights), but we still have a few halogen pot lights. In other light sockets we have those twisty fluorescent bulbs. But in most fixtures, we have the newer light-emitting diodes (LEDs). These LEDs are more efficient and longer lasting. Incandescent lights use 1 watt of energy to produce 10-17 lumens of light; fluorescents produce about 60 lumens and LEDs about 200 lumens per watt.

For a while, everyone recommended replacing our incandescent bulbs with fluorescents for the three- to sixfold increase in energy efficiency. But fluorescents are environmentally tricky to dispose of since they contain toxic mercury. When LEDs became cheaper, everyone started replacing their lights with this new long-lasting, more efficient light source. They are so durable that in our kitchen we have an LED light that is a single fixture; the light source lasts as long as the rest of the unit. So the intermediate solution of fluorescents is being replaced by the LEDs.

The fluorescent bulbs of transportation?

Currently, there is a push for us to move from gas and diesel to electric cars. For environmental reasons, electric cars seem better. We are all aware of the harm the carbon dioxide produced by gas-burning engines causes to our climate, so using electric vehicles might be more environmentally friendly. Depending on how the electricity is made, this can result in a significant environmental benefit.

Yet electric cars come with some problems. First, charging the batteries takes considerably longer than filling a gas tank. Not a problem if you’re recharging overnight at home, but what if you park on the road? Or think of arriving at a busy service center on a major highway and needing a recharge. The best batteries right now are lithium-ion based and give cars a range of about 600 kilometers per charge when new. Range depends on many factors; for example, batteries are less efficient in cold temperatures. Faster charging stations may help address this problem, but currently, rapid charging reduces battery life.

Second, when we consider switching to electric cars, the total production-to-grave costs need to be considered, not just the driving cost per kilometer. Recycling electric lithium-ion batteries is particularly difficult. These batteries are complex and not well designed to be recycled. They contain many toxic materials and can be dangerous to take apart. This makes battery-based electric cars less appealing when we are trying to protect the environment.

Over time, some of these issues may be solved as the technology matures and stabilizes, or in the face of increasing government regulations.

The LED of transportation?

The other technology being explored as an alternative to gas is hydrogen fuel cells. Still in the development stage, it could be a game-changer if it becomes cost-effective. In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen from the air combine to produce electricity, with heat and water as the waste by-products. Depending on how the hydrogen is generated, this is a very clean technology. And recharging is easy; hydrogen can be pumped into a tank at a rate similar to gas.

Currently, like initially with LED bulbs, fuel-cell-based transportation is in its infancy and expensive. It’s too costly for cars (even if hydrogen availability was not a problem). Manufacturers are exploring the technology and engineers are working on reducing the cost of fuel cells. But this technology may already be coming into its own, particularly in long-use larger vehicles. Some cities in Canada are looking at using fuel cells for city buses.

In 10 years, these two technologies may look very different. As Christians, we are stewards of this world, and we must be committed to protecting it. We look to this technology with the hope that we can move from environmentally costly gas cars to something that will better reflect our Christian values

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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