The Dark Secret of Electric Cars: Astounding Speed

PHOTO: A Tesla Roadster Sport

His colleagues at General Motors thought he was joking when John Waters challenged them to a race: Their high powered Corvettes against his EV1, powered by nothing but an electric motor.

The EV1, the first electric car built by GM, was a nice-looking compact, but when parked beside a Corvette, it looked a little like a shy bug.

Waters had one rule. The race had to be done in a parking lot, which limited the top speed to about 30 mph. The frequent races became somewhat of a sensation, especially among high school students who would flock to the scene to see the mighty slaughter the weak.

Did Waters ever win?

"We never lost a race," he said. "The Corvettes had more horsepower, of course, so if we were racing from zero to 100 they would have smoked us."

The secret behind Water's success is the reason he is convinced electric cars will win out over the internal-combustion engine in the vehicles of the future, and that future might not be far away.

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Gasoline-powered vehicles operate at about 30 percent efficiency, and about 70 percent of the energy is eaten by heat, sound, friction and pollutants that are destroying our atmosphere.

A vehicle powered by an electric motor can operate at about 90 percent efficiency, according to Waters and numerous studies, because of instant power through torque.

A gas engine converts energy into motion by igniting fuel to move pistons and turn a crankshaft that spins a flywheel, eventually causing the wheels to turn.

But at low speed, the engine does not have enough torque -- forward movement produced by rotational motion -- to get the vehicle moving. So all that energy has to be helped by a transmission, which allows the engine to rotate faster to get the car to move, and slow down as the speed increases.

An electric motor doesn't need all that help, including the complex, heavy and expensive transmission found in today's gas-powered cars. It has as much torque from a standstill as it does at high speed.

That's called "instant torque," and it's the reason Waters' toy-like sedan could blow out a high-performance vehicle, at least from zero to 30 mph.

It's also part of the reason some of the fastest cars on the planet are now powered by electric motors, not internal-combustion engines that have been around for more than a century.

"Experimental electric cars already have achieved sustained speeds of more than 180 miles per hour, and established world speed records above 300 mph," Waters told the national meeting of the American Chemical Society earlier this month in Indianapolis.

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Waters, who developed the battery platform for the EV1 while he was with General Motors, expects to demonstrate the amazing performance of electric vehicles on a racetrack soon.

"I have no doubt that battery-powered race cars will be attracting race fans in the immediate future," he told the ACS.

The high performance of electric vehicles has been overshadowed by two major factors: range, because nobody wants to run out of juice halfway home from work, and batteries, which are expensive, heavy and require frequent charging.

Some problems will disappear through the natural course of development of a new technology, like faster charging, more remote recharging locations, and more juice in the battery. The state-of-the-art in battery technology is lithium-ion, and researchers around the world are working at a fever pitch to improve its performance.

No battery comes close to matching the energy that can be packed into a gallon of gasoline, called the energy density of the material. For electric vehicles to take over, that clearly has to change, and new reports of "breakthroughs" come out on almost a daily rate.

Just last week, the University of Colorado, Boulder, claimed it can now double the range of cars powered by a lithium-ion battery. Today's batteries, from cellphones to high performance cars, generate electricity by moving ions -- charged particles -- back and forth between two electrodes in a liquid electrolyte solution.

The Colorado researchers say they have found a way to replace the liquid electrolyte with a solid-state system, with much greater energy density, in which the ions move through a solid ceramic electrolyte, and they have the funding to move the technology closer to "becoming a commercial reality."

If so, that's serious stuff.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee claim progress in producing a lithium-sulfur battery that packs four times the energy density of a conventional lithium-ion battery.

Much of the research is directed at better batteries for the small necessities of life -- cellphones, laptops, etc. -- and some of the work is truly astounding. Engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced in April that they have developed tiny "microbatteries" that pack a huge punch.

How huge? Say the start battery on your gasoline-powered car is dead. You could use your cellphone to jump-start the engine, according to the Illinois researchers. It better start quickly, because the battery, only a few millimeters in size, can't put out that much power for long.

Once you get the old beast started, you can drive it across the entire country with no worries about recharging. Gas stations are everywhere. That's not the case for electric vehicles.

That glamorous all-electric Tesla roadster might be able to zip along at 125 mph, but you can't drive it from Los Angeles to San Francisco without recharging, which can take all night. Scientists at MIT and Stanford have been working separately on a way to transmit electricity wirelessly. That might make it possible to recharge electric vehicles as they move along the highway.

Copper coils could be imbedded in the highway, the researchers say, creating a magnetic field that would generate a current in matching coils in the vehicle, thus recharging the batteries. The two sets of coils would operate at the same frequency, and only at that frequency, so a person could lie down on the highway and not be hurt as the energy transferred from ground to auto.

All these won't work, of course, but that's a lot of progress since GM first produced that nifty little car in 1996 that wiped out those Corvettes. The EV1 was leased in a pilot program to drivers in several states, but GM abandoned the program as it moved on to other electric vehicle projects, despite the fact that many of the drivers loved the vehicle.

Some even threatened to sue if GM repossessed the cars, but all the cars had been returned to the manufacturer by 2002.

Most were crushed, some were sent to museums and all but one were disabled, no longer a threat to Corvettes. The sole survivor is in the Smithsonian Institution.

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