Could ultra-thin solar cells be the answer to supporting the electricity grid as the electric vehicle market grows?

25 years after the first practical electric car was developed, the electric vehicle (EV) market is booming. January 2019 saw the number of EVs sold in the UK increase 110% from the previous year, and Ireland saw a 500% growth. UK-based Nextgen Nano says its nanotechnology could facilitate the surging demand for power for EVs.

In 1884, inventor Thomas Parker had already overseen the electrification of the London underground and tramways in other areas of Britain to combat pollution from coal-powered machinery and transportation.

Drawing from this knowledge and interest in fuel efficiency, as well as his concerns about London’s air pollution, Parker set about inventing and developing the first practical electric car.

It was effectively a horseless carriage, but it was the important first step on the journey of EVs. 125 years on, the technology has developed but the story remains almost unchanged. We may not be sitting in clouds of smoke in London, but pollution is still one of the most pressing problems of modern times. However, the adoption of EV technology has surged in recent years.

The surge

In January 2019, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) revealed that 1,334 electric cars were sold in the UK, a significant increase from 635 in January 2018. Alongside this, registrations of traditional diesel and petrol cars have started to decrease year on year.

There is a caveat to this, however. One of the concerns around the growth in the EV market has been the pressure these new vehicles will add to existing electrical infrastructure. More cars necessitate more charging points, which requires more power from the national electrical grid.

“By nature, many drivers will choose to recharge their EVs during or following the early evening drivetime period which is expected to cause problems,” says Franky So, chief technology officer at Nextgen Nano. “The electrical infrastructure is not robust enough to handle a sudden spike in demand, which would lead to power outages and electrical issues like harmonic currents that damage electrical and electronic components. This would have the most significant impact on local infrastructure in areas with a high concentration of EVs.”

To mitigate this risk, the UK’s energy regulation body, Ofgem, has called for incentives to encourage drivers to charge EVs outside of peak hours. So responds that this isn’t convenient for drivers and that another solution is needed.

Power for the road

“At Nextgen Nano, we believe the solution is to rethink how EVs can charge,” So explains. “Instead of just plugging into charging points connected to the grid, we have the potential to facilitate charging through solar panels contained on the car itself, which enhances convenience for drivers and complements charging points.”

So says this can be achieved using Nextgen Nano’s PolyPower organic solar cell technology. PolyPower combines nanotechnology, biopolymer materials and organic polymer solar cells (PSCs) to offer a robust, flexible, sheet-like photovoltaic product that can be easily incorporated into the design of EVs.

“This technology means that EVs can be decentralised and, as long as there is sufficient sunlight for the cells to harvest, the vehicle’s battery can be recharged on-the-go,” explains So. “This complements the existing charging infrastructure, alleviates the strain on the grid and allows EV manufacturers to extend the range of their vehicles.

“What’s more, the use of nanotechnology in developing PolyPower means that it remains incredibly thin, so automotive designers can incorporate it onto the exterior of the vehicle, without compromising on vehicle aesthetics.”

It’s not just the electrical infrastructure that would benefit from this design choice, So says. Consumers get the benefit of recharging becoming a convenient process that fits their lifestyle, while the technology itself has the potential to be low-cost and will therefore keep the price of the vehicle low.

Likewise, the technology means that EV manufacturers can produce solar-powered cars that boast much higher ranges than their competitors, at a competitive price. And because solar is a renewable energy source, EV brands can also ensure vehicles can run on entirely sustainable power.

Nextgen Nano’s technology could alleviate some of the expected burden on electrical grids, but today’s charging infrastructure needs to be overhauled to ensure a completely smooth transition to EVs. For example, So says charging systems should contain electrical components such as power filters that are designed to keep electrical distortion controlled and mitigate the risk of component damage to either EVs or the network infrastructure itself.

“Just as the EV market is becoming increasingly mature and prevalent, so too is the charging technology underpinning it,” says So. “If automotive manufacturers invest in the right technology, there is no reason why EVs can’t become the standard in the years ahead. And after 125 years, it’s about time.”

UK SMEs lukewarm about electric future

UK SMEs remain to be convinced that EVs are the future of motorised transport in the UK, despite many being convinced by their environmental benefits, according to the latest data from Close Brothers Asset Finance.

The survey of 900 firms conducted in April 2019 shows that while 41% think EVs will become ubiquitous over time, for 36% it’s ‘too early to tell’ and for the remaining 23% it’s a definite ‘no’.

“The recent report by the Transport Research Laboratory stated that only one in four people would consider buying a fully electric car in the next five years,” said Neil Davies, CEO, Close Brothers Asset Finance. “Our research shows that while only 30% of those polled had ever driven an electric car, the majority (59%) would consider purchasing an EV if more incentives were available; this figure rises to 73% for London business owners, where the Ultra-Low Emissions Zones were recently implemented.”

Inhibiting factors

‘Range anxiety’ is often cited as the primary reason for lack of EV uptake and, while important, both the lack of public charging points and the cost of vehicles rank higher in respondents’ list of concerns.