In January 2007, a member of our Design News staff claimed responsibility for a murder; see “I Killed the Electric Car” by Chuck Murray. Chuck’s article presented simple calculations to illustrate that for standard American drivers, conventional electric cars make no sense due to long charge time and low mileage-per-charge. Nonetheless, Chuck elicited some angry reader feedback including a post, “What about the Chevy Volt, Chuck!?”, by our Editor-In-Chief, John Dodge, who apparently likes to wait 6 hours every time he needs to fuel his car.
After almost a year of staring one another down from their respective cubicles and periodically firing ethanol and bio-diesel spitballs at each other across the office, Chuck and John can finally put their debate to rest.
Advances in battery technology originally aimed at lap top computers piggybacked atop zero-emission vehicle regulations established to entice development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may be breathing new life into the electric car.
“Who’s Resurrecting the Electric Car?” by David Schneider appeared in the October edition of American Scientist Magazine. According to this article, lithium-ion batteries first used in lap top computers are now being successfully integrated into street-legal cars such as the high-end Roadster by Tesla Motors. Powered by computer batteries, this car boasts the performance, speed, and range of its gas-fired sports car cousins. While consumers may need to take out a second mortgage to buy a Tesla Roadster (base price $98,000 before upgrades), the company has already filled all available reservations for the 2008 model year, and they will soon be taking orders for their 2009 model. While a cursory search failed to reveal any data on this company’s financial viability, Tesla’s growing product wait list seems to denote a company in no danger of going under.
When Chuck Murray killed the electric car in January 2007, his calculations considered the time required to traverse various distances in excess of the EV1’s 70- to 100-mile-per-charge range. Key to this analysis was the inconvenient five-hour charge time associated with lead-acid or nickel-metal-hydride batteries. With four charge stops at five hours per stop between Chicago and Detroit, Chuck’s regular 5-hour jaunt increased to a 25 hour exercise in patience.
To eliminate long charge times, the new generation of electric vehicles will be powered by lithium-based batteries related to the cells used to power laptops, but with a twist. Historically, the challenge with scaling-up lithium batteries was their tendency to release oxygen if they overheated, causing fires and explosions. However, by switching the battery’s carbon chemistry for titante nano-particles, the fire hazard is eliminated. Although this switch reduces energy density with respect to carbon-based lithium-ion batteries, it enables scale-up of lithium technology competent for safe use in electric cars.
Nano-titanate-based lithium batteries have greater energy density than the lead-acid or nickel-metal-hydride batteries of the old EV1. Plus, they have an even more desirable attribute: the ability to recharge in about 10 minutes as opposed to hours. For rapid charging, the Altairnano lithium titanate battery is the leading power source for automotive applications. The uncanny 10-minute recharge time is enabled by nano-materials that dramatically reduce ion travel distance while increasing the surface area available to the ions.
Another startup electric car manufacturer, Phoenix Motorcars, is using this new battery technology in their zero-emission fleet vehicles. Rapid recharge time and 100+ mile range may qualify vehicles from Phoenix Motorcars for the highest zero emission vehicle category established by the California Air Resources Board. This category, originally slated for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, may provide Phoenix substantial credit for each vehicle they put on the road.
Driving a Phoenix automobile powered by Altairnano batteries, even Chuck Murray, the great murder of electric vehicles, could comfortably get from Chicago to Detroit in about 5 hours and 30 minutes without burning a drop of gasoline. John Dodge could make it in 5.5 hours too, if he was willing to give up those six-hour pit stops.