This week we welcome Mark Emon of St Michael’s Maryland as our special guest. Mark operates St. Michael’s winery and brought us an interesting Seyval/Chardonnay and an equally delightful Chambourcin.
I’m frankly not a fan of North American wine grapes and hybrids. I love to drive the Porsche to a local Missouri or Illinois winery for a bit of lunch and a bottle of vino, but generally you have to enjoy the drive and the view and the setting. The wine is rarely a treat.
But Mark’s offering was actually pretty tasty and we polished off both bottles before we quite done shooting this week’s show. So if we seem happier about the state of the electric car this week than the news quite merits, there you have it.
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Mr. Emon is one of our 10 finalists in the EVTV Build Your Dream EV Components contest. Recall that we are giving away 50 CALB 180Ah batteries, a Netgain Warp 9 motor, an EVnetics Soliton 1 controller, a RechargeCar magnetic pickup, a Masterflux Sierra electric air conditioner and of course a case of Stag beer to the winner. We had offered the opportunity for finalists to come to Cape Girardeau and appear on the show to set their appeal, American Idol style, directly to the viewers and consequently the voters in this contest.
Mark is in the midst of converting a Porsche 914 Targa to electric and he took the opportunity of the visit to sign up for the Electric Vehicle Conversion Convention (EVCCON) tendering his registration fee noting that he is bringing his green Porsche 914 to the convention. A challenge as he has yet to complete it and it is his first conversion.
But he’s already planning his second and kind of counting on winning the pile of loot to compete an experienced BMW for his wife to drive.
My simple demonstration of opening a box with a Thundersky battery in it that we had had on hand since October of 2008, manufactured in August of 2008, and measuring the open circuit cell voltage of 3.300 which precisely matched the 3.300v of the Thundersky 400Ah cells we received the day before. This cause quite a stir. There is an entire little army of pseudo poseur engineers over on the DIYelectricjunk forum immediately sprang into action spraying messages in all directions describing what I did and did not do, what I should of done, and why I had it all confused and totally incorrect.
What I found terribly interesting in this, beyond the sheer number of them and the intensity of their howls of outrage, was how MUCH they appeared to know about what I do and don’t do in testing batteries. On reflection, while I find the entire concept of typing nonsense into the screen on topics you know absolutely nothing about both annoying and slightly nauseating, but the level of disconnect was a little jarring.
Partly my fault. I actually have a greater interest in battery technology than I quite do in automobiles. My father had a variety of not very good construction equipment rolling stock when I was a stripling and it rather fell to me, somehow, to maintain this rolling collection of wreckage – none of it young nor particularly appealing when it was. So the concept of “working on cars” for pleasure is not a thing I share with our viewership. I hadn’t changed my own motor oil for 30 years when we began this mission.
Indeed, while I have long been fascinated by electric cars, I don’t even count them as viable – until the advent of these batteries. So for me, it is ALL about the batteries, and from that, the cars, and extending further, a convenient solution to an inconvenient problem. ANd in fact, the more I look, the more problems I find, some really QUITE alarming, that simply adopting personal transportation that is seven to eight times MORE efficient at converting energy to forward motion essentially solves very neatly and very nearly completely.
Most problems are simply intractable and require a lot of chewing around the edges from a variety of directions to even steer toward a solution. Electric personal transportation really IS kind of a magic bullet. With a couple of admittedly ambitious assumptions, some of these problems simply evaporate.
This is something akin to banishing the U.S. national debt by banning turtle racing, and of course the insidious wagering on turtles that goes with it. Or curing cancer with T-shirts. Imagine if we could eliminate child abuse by simply backhanding mouthy kids? Or relieve traffic congestion by coughing a lot?
Or wipe out unemployment by buying more Chinese baseball caps.
For some pretty serious problems like the largest transfer of wealth every recorded in the history of the world, from the U.S. to the middle east, this one really IS that easy. Get 20% of the population to drive 20% of their miles in electric cars and the problem doesn’t ease – it disappears entirely.
To avoid a devastating collapse of the global financial system caused by spiraling gasoline prices headed our way just a few years hence, same solution. And same result. It pretty much just goes away. Not a problem. Was a BIG problem. Now, no problem.
It even solves problems that AREN’T really problems. I guess I am a bit agnostic about global warming. But electric cars offer a partial solution even to this – a very convenient response at that. And I suspect that 300 million autos all huffing 60 lbs of atmosphere per gallon into a cloud of nitrous oxides, particulates, and carbon monoxide may well have something to do with currently popular and problematic diseases that just weren’t heard of 75 years ago. The place would in any event be clearer, prettier, and not smell so bad.
So it’s a very appealing situation. But it all derives from the batteries. And I do a lot of twizzling with these batteries. But I doubt that it makes very good video or would ever get me to go viral on YouTube. It’s just something I like to do in the back room, and even the people on EVTV with me really don’t know what I do back there, or why I go do that. So how do the chirping magpies lined up by the hundreds on the DIYelectric telephone line know so much about it?
Of course they don’t. But that’s partly my fault. I don’t really video very much of it. So their suppositions of what I do and don’t do and so forth are generated entirely in a vacuum, which doesn’t explain how they come up with so MUCH of it. But enough about them, more about me.
The demonstration on camera was of course simplistic. It was made for video. It communicated the situation very clearly. We had just received a brand new shipment of Winston Battery Company 400 Ah cells. And I had some Thundersky 90 Ah cells from nearly three years ago still in the box. So I had one of our visitors from the Netherlands dramatically open the box and measure the open circuit terminal voltage of the cells, and compare them to the cells just received.
IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME that the DIYenginiers did not even comprehend the relationship between voltage and state of charge. THAT’s how lost we are in the conversation here.
But of course I had taken out cells numerous times over the three years, and measured the same thing, and checked exactly how many amp hours were in them and how much charge they would take and what charging to various voltages does and on and on and on. Who but me would care? How many ions can dance on the head of a pin really IS the question, but it has no easy answers and whatever I measure there is more to measure tomorrow. And all if it is terribly time consuming. It takes hours. I don’t even want to watch all that.
In this episode we did at least do a simply test to show open circuit cell voltage after a too brief rest, and how it changes over the state of charge of the battery. Does it make perfect sense and operate very predictably? Absolutely. Would it make a good fuel gage? Not really. Can it be used as a fuel gauge anyway? Yeah, kind of.
And of course, the cells have the same capacity and there is no cell drift, and no “balance” problems and so of course the magpies are enraged because most of them are working on Battery Management Systems in hopes of selling them and making a brazillion dollars on the EV “craze”.
First, there’s no craze. Lacking any concept of business at all, if they sold any they wouldn’t make any money. But the thing they’re working on nobody needs anyway. And that’s a hard thing to face.
It all brings up a broader question we faced back in the early days of the Internet. I think it was Mitch Kapor of Lotus (smart guy, my goodness he was tough to even be in the room with) who likened it to 12 blind men surrounding an elephant. Each would feel up the elephant and argue vehemently with the guy next to him as to what it looked like.
The Nissan Leaf uses a Lithium Manganese Oxide battery. They actually call it Lithium Manganese Spinel because the term oxide is almost perforative with regards to thermal safety issues. GM uses a slightly different manganese oxide cell from LG chem.Tesla actually uses a Lithium Cobalt Oxide battery, probably with a nickel current collector. We use Lithium Iron Phosphate cells from China.
There are several reasons NOT to use Lithium Iron Phosphate cells from China. In the past, they have not been very consistent in their manufacturing process. Second, they are most commonly available in these largish prismatic battery cells we use. This is kind of a “commodity” approach to batteries like your standard AA battery that is ubiquitous in small electronic devices. There is no way to really have a “proprietary” battery technology with AA cells. And of course, you have to communicate in Chinglish, wait 12 weeks for your cells, and the whole business model is just a mess. Dozens of “trading companies” all claiming to own factories they don’t own, technologies they don’t own, and market them in a language they’re not at all familiar with. And the very basic issue of energy density OR power density is slightly LESS in LiFepo4 chemistries.
So I know of NO OEM who has even LOOKED at these cells. Never were on the table. I see absolute awe and worship in the body politic of electric car users over the “laboratories” at General Motors and Nissan and Tesla. WHile it is not in their economic interest to dispel this myth, there is no magic behind those doors. And they certainly aren’t going to spend a lot of time looking at a slightly LESS effective chemistry that they can’t use to create a proprietary pack anyway. Again, this stuff takes HOURS, and DAYS, and WEEKS, and MONTHS, and then YEARS to test even to the basics. You can automate it and speed it up to a very minor degree, but not really.
So it occurs to me, if the level of understanding of these cells is SO VERY POOR within our own community of people who actually do buy them and use them, and we couple this with the very natural propensity of OEM’s to maintain a level of trade secrecy about their “magic sauce” which must be the batteries, we have a perfect storm. A total VACUUM of knowledge about current lithium ion cell technology. A perhaps PERFECT VACUUM. Picture 2800 deaf dumb and blind men about an elephant who don’t even CARE what it looks like, they just are certain the guy next to them is a moron because he neither speaks, hears, nor sees.
Gotta love it. But after several years of studying almost entirely the LiFePo4 Chinese cells, and in truth with very LITTLE knowledge of the oxide chemistries (and even less interest frankly), I am slowly coming to the conclusion that we have accidentally stumbled on the very best cell technology for electric cars, and our good fortune was entirely driven by the REFUSAL of anyone else to sell us cells. These little bricks are REMARKABLY durable. They will suffer ANYTHING and put out IMMENSE levels of power from a simple stack of aluminum and copper foil no more complicated than a book. You simply have to observe TWO rules of thumb that are QUITE absolute. You CANNOT overcharge these batteries. And you CANNOT over discharge them. And if you observe these two, they most likely will last FOREVER, and suffer any indignity with absolute charm. And none of the OEM’s are even aware of them.
Peter McWade sent me two elderly HiPower cells this week. Not my favorites anyway, he claimed these were abused. They were wonderful. Still OVER their 100AH spec and going strong. One was totally discharged. One was totally charged. I don’t know if this was a test of the cells or some sort of bizarre test of Jack. But I marveled anew at how even the worst of these LiFePo4 cells are just very very good.