For this weeks technical article, I thought that it would be good to cover the current and ongoing trend for hybrids. Nearly every time I talk technology I start with a comment that the subject is not new. Well, guess what – hybrid cars aren’t new and are certainly not 21st century vehicles.
Back in 1901 the famous engineer, Ferdinand Porsche designed and drove a prototype with a small Daimler engine turning a generator that charged batteries that drove some electric hubs. A concept that has come full circle and is used on some current production cars. The first production hybrid in 1915 had an electric motor that ran at low speeds and then a petrol motor kicked in when the speed rose and this also recharged the batteries. It was the Dual Power by Woods and made in Chicago. This is also a base concept for range extender cars today.
The petrol motor became dominant from the 1920s onwards and during the 1960s, some engineers were tinkering with the hybrid concept, but it was the first oil crisis in the 1970s that was the wake up call to revisit the old technologies and apply modern materials to the ideas. General Motors was one of the first to fit a hybrid into a Buick and late in the decade an Opel GT was a guinea pig in Europe.
In 1989 Audi released it’s Duo – very similar to the Woods car 70 years earlier. Only this had a small electric motor powering the rear wheels and a full sized petrol motor on the front. The idea was to use petrol on the open road and the electric motor in the city and it was based on the Audi 100 model so it was a normal family car and therefore didn’t have the odd “futuristic” design that so many hybrids and electric cars appear to have.
Hybrids started to get the public’s imagination with the release of the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight. The first Prius, like Porsche’s prototype was a series hybrid in that the electric engine is the only power source for the wheels, with a petrol motor running a generator to feed the electric motor. The first Insight was a parallel hybrid – the wheels are either powered by the electric or petrol motors. Honda have also released hybrid versions of the Civic and Accord models. Toyota too used their knowledge to market many hybrids including some Lexus models.
Another type of hybrid is the plug-in hybrid. These use batteries and a plug so that an owner can recharge overnight and only use the petrol motor when out on a longer journey rather than a quick commute where the batteries can cope with the amount of power needed.
Today virtually all of the major manufacturers have a hybrid in production or as a prototype, however they are not well marketed. Even though the cars have been on the market for well over 10 years, there is very little advertising for the capabilities of a hybrid car. I think that the manufacturers need to start pushing harder – Toyota for example, built a hybrid Camry in Australia, however they only committed to build 10,000 and most of those appear to have ended up in Government fleets. Now with no local manufacturing in the country, we are back to importing cars and if the manufacturers or importers don’t see a profit, then very few hybrids will come in.
During my research I discovered that electric and hybrid cars have another single point of failure. I have written a few articles about the availability of Lithium for the batteries, however there is another raw material which is tightly controlled that is required – certainly today – by electric cars. The material is Dysprosium and was used in compact discs and DVDs as well as some medical applications. Electric drive motors use about 100 grams to help with the flow of electricity in their magnets.
It is extracted from raw materials that are found mostly in southern China, although other much smaller deposits have been found in Australia and Canada. If hybrids and electric cars finally take off before a substitute can be found, then the world will run out Dysprosium quite quickly. Clearly, as the hybrid gets more popular, so does the demand for Dysprosium and the price will rise as the countries with the deposits maximise the opportunity to make cash. Hopefully other materials will reduce in price to compensate for the increased costs of Lithium and Dysprosium.
With the current move by various Governments to ban petrol and diesel cars within the next 20 years, the hybrid concept may well die out unless bio fuels can be encouraged to be used for the current carbon based motor.