Electric vehicles have been around since the late 1800s following the development of rechargeable batteries in the middle of the same century. At the time, the world’s greatest minds were inspired to move people around without the cumbersome, heavy steam engines or the requirement of an organism which although was tamed, fed and bathed, would refuse to budge out of its stable if temperatures fell below its comfort zone.

All things considered, both Ferdinand Porsche and Thomas Edison – the latter of whom, is known to you and me as the inventor of the lightbulb, started dabbling in electric as well as hybrid (electric-steam) vehicles.

By the turn of the century, things would however take a rather curious turn as the Ford Motor Company announced the innovation of the century – the Model T, a petrol powered car selling at a third of the price of a similar electric roadster. This would deal a blow to the electric car, which was so profound that a century had to pass for the underdog to even start showing up anywhere on the market again.

The David and Goliath story does however end with Goliath defeated. The end of the 20th century saw the world’s CO2 production move to centre stage with the global climate crisis, which called for the development of carbon free processes, machines and vehicles and David’s stone was swiftly heading towards Goliath’s head.

The commercialisation of the NiMH batteries in 1989 and the Li-ion battery in 1991, concurrent with the start of research into ZEBRA (Zero Emissions Battery Research Activities) batteries in 1985, meant that electric vehicles could be manufactured without the deleterious effect of lead, from lead acid batteries, on human health. The new batteries had higher specific energies and higher energy densities. This meant that the same amount of energy could be stored in a lightweight, smaller battery, which was exactly what the electric car innovators were looking for.

Although other batteries were and still are being considered, the Li-ion battery stole the show for electric car makers powering the BMW i3, Tesla Model 3, Nissan Leaf and others. However, Li-ion technology does fall short in the requirements of elongated charging times, lifespan and certain reliability issues.

This research field is extremely competitive”

Research into better, faster charging, more energy efficient, longer lasting reliable batteries thus continues with vigour to this day. This research field is extremely competitive with scientists publishing their latest cutting-edge discoveries in top scientific journals.

One battery which is making a statement for itself is the Ni-H2 battery which can be cycled (charged and discharged) up to 40,000 times with an efficiency of around 80 to 90 per cent and has a very high tolerance to overcharge and discharge. Its only Achilles’ heel is its cost and rather large volume to energy ratio.

Research must therefore focus on bringing both values down as it did with our cosy television set. Might we here consider the box which until 60 years ago, used to cost a fortune and occupy a third of our living room, showing us rough black and white images, to our now affordable 4K UHD, less than 30mm thick full colour panel.

Motors for electric cars have also come a long way, from the brushed DC motors of the first cars to the AC induction motor patented by Nikola Tesla in 1888, these cars have seen them all. These days Toyota and Tesla motors are pushing the efficiency of the AC induction motor even further, calling it a ‘IPMSynRM’ (Internal Permanent Magnet – Synchronous Reluctance Motor), by mating a modified version of the induction motor with its cousin – the permanent magnet motor. All in all, this technology allows efficiencies of up to 96 per cent without the problems associated with the cooling of traditional induction motors.

In Malta, MCAST looks to become the leader in electric vehicle technology, investing in state-of-the-art laboratories and workshops which will train the technicians of the future to be able to service your electric vehicle. MCAST has also initiated partnerships, both with local and international partner universities and automotive companies allowing the development of research into the cutting-edge field of electric vehicle component augmentation and servicing.

Through these initiatives, MCAST aims at becoming Malta’s leader and eventually a player on the world’s stage concerning research in applied electric vehicle design whilst also providing the skillset required to train automotive mechanics and engineers working on electric vehicles.

A team dedicated to this aim has come together, setting in motion a diversity of projects aimed at achieving excellence in the field of electric vehicle technology research. At MCAST, we truly believe that the future of personal transport lies with the electric car, powered by clean sources of energy. It is for this reason that the team focuses, not only on the technology making up the electric car itself, but the infrastructure required to support the release of this new, exciting technology into the mainstream market - infrastructure which is built on the solid foundation of reliability and sustainability for a better Malta and a better world.

Dr Ing. Malcolm Caligari Conti, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Engineering and Transport at MCAST

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