The Ergosphere
Monday, January 30, 2006

It only takes one

It all comes down to energy.  Early in the day of the automobile the electric car was the simple, clean, quiet and reliable choice.  It had more than sufficient power, but the batteries of the day could not store enough energy to compete with a tank-full of petroleum (or even alcohol).  This turned into a killer deficiency.  The electric was left driving short trips around town; gasoline offered range, all-day cruising, FREEDOM!  Despite the pathetic 14.9% average efficiency of the US gasoline-powered fleet, a 15-gallon tank of gas can be turned into a whopping 82 kilowatt-hours to the wheels, yet it weighs less than 100 pounds and refills in a few minutes.  A typical lead-acid battery pack for an EV weighs hundreds of pounds and holds less than 20 kWH, yet requires several hours to recharge.  Clearly, something had to change before battery-powered vehicles could compete on the same turf.

Ever since the first Li-ion powered tzero showed that electric vehicles could overcome the range barrier, it was obvious that some battery technology would eventually make the EV competitive.  The Li-ion battery with the lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) cathode clearly wasn't it; cobalt is too expensive, it charges too slowly, and it releases oxygen when overheated which leads to destructive and hazardous thermal runaway.  Besides, the $60,000 cost of a tzero full of 18650 cells was clearly beyond what the market will bear.

Several different chemistries are now vying for dominance.  Valence Technology's Saphion, based on doped lithium iron phosphate, is made from very inexpensive materials and has no thermal runaway problems.  Altair Nano has a number of products, some of which are meant for batteries; I understand that their lithium titanate is going into some fast-charging cells which also beat the thermal runaway issue and have excellent charging performance and cycle life.  A123 Systems is cagey about their exact technology, but they've announced some power tools powered by their cells.  Their cycle life is claimed to be good, and charge/discharge rate is stellar:  5 minute recharge, and discharge power almost up to 5 kW/kg.  One of these appears bound to kick NiMH out of conventional hybrid vehicles; after that, the drop of price with increased manufacturing volume will lead to more and energy storage aboard vehicles.  If this is combined with recharging from the grid, it will lead to less and less need for petroleum.  It only takes one technology to cross the finish line to make it all happen.

Enter a dark horse to the race.  a barium-titanate ultracapacitor.  EEStor claims a unit with the following characteristics:

Reading this at The Energy Blog was another "HOLY CRAP!" moment for me.  This is far cheaper than Li-ion batteries.  Its energy density is comparable, the cycle life is far beyond the needs of a vehicle, and the power density is astounding.  At a 10-minute discharge rate, I calculate the power output as up to 312 kilowatts.  That's more than FOUR HUNDRED HORSEPOWER from a 400-pound package!  If it can be drained in 200 seconds, it would out-power a Bugatti Veyron.

This product looks like it would make a killer EV all by itself, but it would also shine as the storage element of a GO-HEV.  Suppose you could get a third of the capacity for half price:  17 kWh for $1600, weighing 150 pounds.  It would drive a Prius+ about 60 miles, a somewhat larger car perhaps 45-50.  If it let you eliminate 80% of a 750 gallon/year gasoline habit and replace it with $600 of electricity, it would save you about $800 a year at the gasoline prices I see.

Would you buy it?  (You're reading this; do I really need to ask?)

If these things work as advertised, the first auto manufacturer to market them is going to see the fuel consumption of its products plummet.  It would constitute a suit for divorce from the oil industry and everything else it is associated with.  It could turn "electric" into synonyms for clean, quiet, safe, economical, and screaming performance.  And peak oil?  Who'd care?  Overnight, oil would cease to be relevant.

A technology and a manufacturer.  It only takes one.

I gassed my car two weeks ago. I was out of town for a few days. I get 300mi/15gal tankfull. Can you equal that?
This reminds me of a fantastic historic counterfactual; what if Faraday had come before James Watt? How would an electrical industrial revolution have panned out?
"If these things work as advertised"

That's a big if, unfortunately.

Here is a link about the most advanced research programme in electric vehicles (in french).
Not sure what you're getting at, Robert.  What are you asking for an equal to?  (Time between "fills", or miles per gallon?  "Infinite" is a bit better than what you report.)

Does it concern you at all that this ultracapacitor technology seems to blow all others out the window as far as energy density is concerned? As it, "too good to be true?" Most of the other ultracapacitors references I could find discuss energy densities on par with Pb-acid batteries, with promise of greater densities through application of nanotech.

If you can refill your car with an electrical outlet in a matter of minutes, do you really care?
I'm glad to see this get some attention. I've been posting comments about it for months (including an email to you, E-P...), but no one seemed to want to believe it.

If true, it really is world-changing. Besides vehicles, this would eliminate utility peak generation problems, and eliminate the last barrier to wind generation (and eventually solar)displacing everything else.

I'm always cognizant that any given technology could be vaporware, have roadblocks, or be an outright scam.  On the other hand, there are at least three solid candidates to replace petroleum with electricity (four if you count carbon-foam batteries); it only takes one.

Nick, us engineers are like mules.  First you gotta get our attention; that's what the 2x4 is for. ;-)

(Seriously, I don't have time to read everything suggested to me.  Wish I did.)
The barium-titanate ultracapacitor has still 0.03 times the energy density (graviometric) of diesel. And I seriously doubt the claim that it have no problem with overheating, since a big amount of heat on coventional (hight power) batteries are generated by eletric resistance, not chemical inneficiencies.

But it can lead to a very nice hybrid. You can forget about using gas on the city... Just need fuel to travels.
Suppose you have an ultracapacitor-based car charged and sitting in a parking lot somewhere...say, an airport parking lot...for a couple of weeks. Can it hold a charge that long or will it, like a normal capacitor, suffer leakage?
Marcos, is the ".03" is based on heat energy, rather than the engine output? A 400 lb, 52KWhr battery pack should take you about 250 miles, based on .2 KWhr per mile. That's not bad, when you remember that most of the penalty of extra weight comes from accelerating that weight and then braking with conventional brakes. Regenerative braking would become 100% efficient with an ultracapacitor of this size, so extra weight wouldn't mean that much.

E-P, I'm concerned about the license with Feelgood cars. This is very far from a major car company. They say the license is limited to 15KW drive systems, which is pretty small, then they say that's equivalent to 100 HP peak, which makes no sense to me. Any thoughts?
Over at The Energy Blog, Michael Cain says that the typical leakage is about half (voltage) in 45 days.  This is a substantial amount of power, and argues for vehicle-to-grid use when the car is idle; you'd drain the cap on long absences and recharge it just before you come back, perhaps using it for peaking storage in between.

Nick, 100 HP peak is about 75 kW, or 5:1 over the 15 kW quote; IIRC it's not unusual for a motor to have a peak rating 5x the continuous figure.  To get around their license, an automaker would need to make a zippier car.  I don't see this being a problem for customer acceptance. ;-)
"typical leakage is about half (voltage) in 45 days".

This argues pretty strongly for hybrid use, rather than pure EV. Having your sole power source leak away wouldn't be popular.

"To get around their license, an automaker would need to make a zippier car."

hmm. So are conventional car HP ratings peak, or continuous? If they're continuous then this is a tiny car, roughly 15-20% of a normal car's HP. If they're peak, then this is smaller than most cars these days, but well in to the normal range, especially outside the US.
Conventional vehicle power ratings are typically continuous. The engine thermal system is designed for continuous power under desert conditions. Besides sports cars, when you consider power and torque, you are typically concerned about towing a boat/trailer.
HEV & EVs are a different matter. The thermal design the motors limits the duration at high power levels.
No, they're peak.  If you look at the rated horsepower @ speed, it's apparent that nobody would operate the engine at peak for long (or expect it to last long if they did).  Peak in my Taurus SHO was at about 5500 RPM, highway cruise was 2000-2500. I doubt the cooling system was up to continuous operation at 100% power.

Vehicles built and tuned for e.g. towing will have all components sized for peak power, especially the cooling system.
This new article about ultracapacitors, posted at the Green Car Congress, gives me the heebie jeebies about EEStor's claims:

Do the math on the EEStor claim and you come up with about 286 wh/kg. This MIT technology claims over 60 wh/kg. So one wonders what EEStor knows that no one else seems to.
Maybe barium titanate has properties which allow greater performance.

Perhaps EEStor is full of it, but barium titanate is different from carbon nanotubes in that it is piezoelectric.  Applying an electric field across it causes physical migration of charges inside the material, and distortion and strain (with energy storage) of the crystal lattice.  I'm going to let their product speak for itself.

If it doesn't work, we're back to the Li-ion variants which will change the world in a few years instead of next year.  Not so bad, I can wait.
There's an interesting new article about eestor, by a reporter who appears to have done a lot of digging:

He seems to agree that it's incredibly promising...
That didn't seem to come through fully. I'll try again:

you may have to delete line end characters. Hmm. I'm going to have to learn how to post html.
HTML links are easy:

<a href="URL goes here">Link text</a>
Well, I guess I should clean up that link: here's the article.
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