Queen’s Relectric: Combatting the Current Limitations of EVs.
February 8th, 2024
New federal regulations mandate that by 2035, all vehicles for sale in Canada must be zero-emission. But the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is accompanied by its own set of challenges. Young innovators across the country are working passionately behind the scenes to address legitimate concerns about the limitations of current EV technology and infrastructure – to protect the planet, and their future.
The transport sector was the second largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada in 2021, according to the Government of Canada. Unsurprising given that the vast majority of vehicles on the road today have internal combustion engines, and so burn fuel and emit GHGs. Emissions intensify a naturally occurring, heat trapping process, and the result is climate change. The global average surface temperature of the Earth has risen by over 1°c since preindustrial times due to human activity, reported the IPCC in 2023. The dire consequences of climate change will continue to be felt worldwide unless emissions are greatly (and quickly) reduced.
With zero tailpipe emissions, EVs are the proposed emissions-reducing substitute for conventional engine cars. Approximately 20% of global emissions would be cut if every single car on the road was electric, wrote Peter Newman, the coordinating lead author for the UN’s IPCC on transport, in 2022. The other emissions-reducing alternative would be to switch to shared or non-motorised transport, but experts say that transitioning entirely away from private automotive transport is not feasible in a geographically large and sparsely populated country like Canada. The transition to EVs is necessary if we are to reduce emissions while simultaneously retaining the freedom that cars afford us.
But even proponents of EVs concede that while EVs have the potential to produce tremendous positive impact, they are not without problems. Battery-expert Dr. Robert Armstrong, who leads the Faraday Institution’s sodium-ion battery project, NEXGENNA, listed longevity, ethics, cost, efficiency, driving range, lack of infrastructure, and supply chain issues as areas within the EV industry which should be improved upon. Each challenge represents an opportunity for innovation and the exploration of potential solutions.
Dr. Armstrong said that it is critical that young people and students mobilize either through academia or industry to pursue these improvements. His lab is a case in point. He and his students work on sodium batteries as a potential cheaper, and more ethical and effective, alternative to the standard nickel cobalt manganese EV battery.
Relectric, a team of 115 undergraduate students from Queen’s University, in Ontario, Canada, is working to tackle a different challenge: the environmental cost of disposing of conventional engine cars and manufacturing new EVs. Manufacturing a new EV is more carbon intensive than manufacturing a conventional engine car. An EV would have to be driven at least 21,000km to reach carbon neutrality, reported a Reuters analysis.
The team explores a relatively new niche of the industry, EV conversions, as a potential “stepping stone” between gas and electric cars. EV conversions involve replacing the combustion engine of a gas or diesel car with a battery. Jack Carnahan, Relectric’s Assembly Lead, said that “With conversions, we’re starting with a car that already exists. All the systems, the brakes, suspensions, safety systems, they’re already there. So we’re repurposing something meant to be scrapped, which has a positive environmental impact.”
Relectric is currently retrofitting a 1997 Jeep with an EV system. Team Captain, Brandon Lewis, explained that Relectric’s goal is to produce modular developments for the Jeep that can be implemented across different model ranges. “If we do another Jeep in the future, we’ll already have the component made. The more vehicles we do, the easier and quicker it is to manufacture these parts,” said Lewis. He suggested that lowering the upfront manufacturing time would help drive down the cost of EV conversions.
“Not all of the innovations might get used, but we’re putting stuff out there and just as importantly, we’re letting our team members learn,” said Lewis. Youth-led innovation groups, like Relectric, strengthen the EV industry beyond producing creative solutions – these groups are also educational spaces that inspire young people to participate long-term in the world of electrification. Despite the growing demand for EVs, encouraged in part by government mandates, the EV industry is still very much an evolving work in progress. It is vital that young people take the lead in shaping this evolution.