MORE

Black Sheep on the Head of a Pin

Toward the end of summer in the first year of the millennium, Bill Dubé did a thing they said couldn’t be done: He gunned an all-electric-powered motorcycle to 152 mph on a quarter-mile track in just under 10 seconds. The KillaCycle, a custom drag bike with two traction motors, broke the world record for electric motorcycles that day at the Woodburn Dragstrip in Woodburn, Oregon. The record still holds — no electric cycle has come close to it since. When you ask Dubé how he did it, he offers a simple answer: “It’s the batteries, stupid.”

Specifically, Bolder Technologies Thin Metal Film (TMF) batteries, tiny lead-acid models that stood 4 inches high, weighed one-sixth of a pound each and put out more than a thousand amps (to compare, your car battery weighs about 40 pounds and puts out, at best, 1,800 amps.). When EV racing enthusiasts dream about batteries, they typically imagine loading their vehicles with lithium-ion or nickel metal hydride (NiMH) — batteries with significantly better “specific energy,” as mechanics and engineers call a battery’s watt hour–to–weight ratio, than your average deep-cycle lead battery. But the Bolder Technologies batteries contained not even the lightest dusting of lithium. Instead, they were made of paper-thin sheets of lead, wound in a spiral. Rich Rudman of Manzanita Micro, which makes battery chargers, calls them “nitromethane batteries” — the lead equivalent of rocket fuel. They worked, he explains, because “Battery power is directly proportional to the surface on the plates, so you had a lot of active material spread over a large area. They were little firecrackers.”

They weren’t the kind of batteries you’d want in your street car, or your puttering neighborhood electric vehicle, just the way you wouldn’t fill your Mini Cooper’s gas tank with nitromethane. They were also high maintenance, and they didn’t last long. (Dubé likens them to thoroughbred horses: “You can’t just shut them up in the stall and throw them some food. You have to baby them.”) But for drag racing, says Rudman, “they were the thing.”

Bolder wouldn’t sell its batteries. Instead, it sponsored EV racers, handing them the batteries they needed for free. It wasn’t much of a way to run a business, according to Dubé, and exactly a year after he scored his speed record, Bolder filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. Johnson Controls, one of the largest battery manufacturers in the country, licensed the TMF technology and briefly offered a heavier, less powerful variant called the Inspira, which National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA) champ Dennis Berube used in his legendary Current Eliminator dragster a few years ago. Later, Johnson inked a contract with Snap-on Tools to supply TMF technology to consumer products where surge would count — jump-starters the size of a flashlight, Jet Skis, hybrid turbo drives. But it soon discovered there wasn’t much of a market for flashlight-sized jump-starters — people would rather buy the big ones — and the turbo segment of the hybrid market got shelved. The Inspira went missing.

And so the most affordable battery technology in terms of pure power ever produced on the planet went the way of slant-six passenger vehicles and trolley cars. EV drag racing has never been the same.

 

So it is that the technology and marketing of the batteries so essential to electric vehicles has become a boondoggle so frustrating it has spawned many a tale of collusion between the auto industry and its petroleum-company brethren, of company takeovers to short-circuit science, and even of Detroit mobsters issuing stern warnings to overanxious Japanese engineers. At a NEDRA race in January, one EV hobbyist confided to me that he’d almost figured out a way to build an engine that produced more power than you put into it — a concept known as “overunity” — but he had to keep it secret or the government would shut him down.

Yet even when the stories approach the apocryphal, they frequently have a basis in truth. According to Michael Shnayerson’s The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM’s Revolutionary EV, the EV1 project ran aground in part because General Motors equipped the first vehicles off the line with 26 lead acid batteries, the cheapest battery with the shortest range. Later, GM upgraded the EV1 to carry a NiMH pack instead, but the public relations damage was done: The car-buying public now thinks of EVs as sluggish machines that crap out after 80 miles. (It’s believed that every last EV1 leased has been recalled and crushed.)

Remy Chevalier, a longtime EV activist and editor-at-large with Electrifying Times magazine (www.electrifyingtimes.com), suspects GM did that on purpose. “They spent a billion dollars to prove to the world that electric cars were not practical,” Chevalier says. He cites as evidence Shnayerson’s account of Stanford Ovshinsky, the self-taught inventor behind both thin-film solar panels and NiMH technology. Ovshinsky outfitted James Worden’s Solectria car with an Ovonic NiMH pack way back in 1994 for the 214-mile Tour del Sol race from Manhattan to Philadelphia. Worden completed the race at 60 miles per hour on a single charge, winning his category. But the U.S. Battery Consortium was incensed at Ovshinsky’s audacity, and GM, which had recently signed a joint-venture deal with Ovshinsky’s company, Energy Conversion Devices (ECD), “blew its lid,” Chevalier says.

By the time NiMH batteries made it into the second-generation EV1 in 1999, technology had already moved on: Lithium-ion batteries were available, as well as batteries made of polymer and batteries incorporating nanotechnology. Not that you’d know it: Few in the EV tuner market can afford to buy, let alone maintain, an EV-sized lithium-ion battery pack, which would cost $30,000 to $60,000 per vehicle and could catch fire if it wasn’t charged just right. “If something happens in the charging system, run,” warns Manzanita Micro’s Rich Rudman. “Never put them on a wooden bench and walk away from them.” And battery manufacturers have their hands full supplying the laptop and camera markets.

Besides, “lithium-ion isn’t even state of the art right now,” Chevalier insists. “It’s just where the battery companies stopped in terms of their investment. If you have a company that spends a certain amount of money developing a certain kind of technology, they have to stick with that technology until they recoup their costs. But I’m telling you, the amount of electricity you can hold on the head of a pin these days would blow you away.”

By the way, Chevron-Texaco bought GM’s share of ECD in October of 2000 and now produces all of its NiMH batteries.

 

“One of these days,” says Chevalier, “a black sheep is going to escape from the pack and change everything” — presumably a sheep with a fat bank account. In the meantime, the self-funded EV racing community continues experimenting with
the technology that is moving forward, such as motors and motor controllers (at the moment, EV mechanics hold Otmar Ebenhoech’s Zillas in the highest esteem). Spiral-wound “absorbed glass mat” batteries such as Exide Orbitals and Optima Yellow Tops, the latter produced by Johnson Controls, remain at the front of the affordable battery pack. “In a lot of ways the EV tuner and racing community is driving technology in Detroit,” says Ryan Chuckle, spokesperson for Optima. “I know it’s a recreation sort of thing, but the stuff they’re doing is actually pretty realistic in terms of what people will see in the consumer market over the next few years.”

Some enthusiasts, like Dubé, have dropped out of racing during the lull; others, such as Roderick Wilde, whose renovation of a 1983 Grumann-Olson postal van has been featured in a Discovery Channel special, still refine their cars while the batteries catch up. As always, rumors abound. One urban legend suggests that there’s a former EV1 engineer tooling around Detroit in that last extant EV1 loaded with lithium-ions, but nobody can say for sure. Another says that a British company has gone into the TMF business. “If that’s true, I’d be back on the track tomorrow,” says Dubé. “The new bike would go into the deep eights. I could break 200 mph in a year.”