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Prototype Electric Car Could Point The Way To The Future

Modular batteries in the rear of Lou Shrinkle's electric Volkswagen car, April 11, 2016.
Matthew Bowler
Modular batteries in the rear of Lou Shrinkle's electric Volkswagen car, April 11, 2016.
Prototype Electric Car Could Point The Way To The Future
Prototype Electric Car Could Point The Way To The Future
UC San Diego engineers plan to put an electric car through a challenging cross-country journey. They're covering a 2,500-mile trip in less than two days, which can't be done with current battery technology.

This is KPBS Midday Edition, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. If electric cars had battery systems instead of just a battery it could radically decrease and redefine refueling. That's the premise of an experiment by an engineer at UC California eight -- an electric car with the unique battery system on a 2500 mile cross-country trip in less than two days. KPBS reporter Erik Anderson has a story. Lou Shrinkle 's Volkswagen looks like any other car of its kind. But it is different, that alarm goes off every time he starts driving the car. It says there's some problem with the fuel system. This field goals diagnostic system can't find the engine, because there isn't one. It was replaced with an electric powerplant, that's not unusual, how the juice is stored is unique. Schinkel leans in the back door. Pull on the module, nectar is released, this module contains 48 lithium iron phosphate batteries, it weighs 30 pounds. That's about twice as heavy as it needs to be. The car has over a dozen individual batteries that work together to feed the engine, each can be pulled out and replaced in less than a minute. It is now engaged. That is what makes this car completely different. Electric cars typically rely on one large battery. Those might need to be charged overnight or with a fast charger fill up in a couple of hours. USGS Professor. Raymond de Callafon says that model isn't practical. His swappable batteries can refuel quicker and more completely. Imagine that you are driving your car and its 40th percent empty, you would have to charge it, you could potentially take five modules out and put five more in and your replenish. De Callafon is developing a control system that will manage groups of batteries that can be full or empty. At his control system will allow the batteries to work together, to feed an electric motor. Once a standardized system is developed he imagines all sorts of batteries sharing electrical work. To be able to have this flexibility of moving energy around, people would like to store their solar energy and their battery in a garage and be able to move those into your car. You can use those batteries on other equipment. De Callafon says the concept has a chance to change the way people use electricity. The system could completely append the electric car business. The challenge is the batteries have to work as a system, it's a system's way of thinking that has to be part of the integration. Having communication up and running and making sure the batteries always work properly, they can become full proof. PhD student Xin Zhao , works in De Callafon 's lab. He defined the control systems, complex algorithms manage the voltage in storage and communicate with the car and other batteries. Those controllers can gauge demand and pull power from certain battery modules or from all of them. If there's a chance we can get this done and scheduling will be a good feature for this technology. The real proof comes the summer Emma that's when a team of researchers, students and volunteers take the car on a cross-country odyssey. The idea is to drive more than 2500 miles from San Diego to Charleston South Carolina. If we are driving across the country we figure there will be about 20 to 25 stops. There are no long charging stops, battery modules will be swapped out and the car will continue on its way. It's a grueling 45 hour proof of concept. It could have engineer swapping new ideas about how batteries power electric vehicles and other appliances. Erik Anderson joins me now with more on this new way of powering electric cars. Welcome. Tell us a bit more about how this concept of individual batteries working in unison differs from the kinds of batteries and electric cars now. The kinds of batteries we have now are not batteries we can never see, they are in the car, we know they're there, they are usually one big battery that's underneath the seat or the trunk inaccessible. That battery is then recharged electrically, you can do it slow with a trickle style charger, overnight or you can do with a fast charger that will cut down some of the charging times. When you do that, he you need twice as much energy for that four hour period. It creates more drama on the electric system. The modules create options, you could charge, sailor 20 modules. You could charge those 20 modules during the day from your solar panel, perhaps. Then you could put them into your car at night, then while those modules are in your car you could have presumably, another set that would be charging for the next day, the time it takes to refuel the vehicle is actually only the amount of time it takes the mechanically switch the battery system. How experimental is this concept? I don't think the concept is experimental, at all. We use it in flashlights, for example or many electric devices that rely on seesaw batteries or AA or AAA batteries. You take a couple of batteries, you put them in, use them to their used up. It has not been done on this particular scale, the implication is not just for automobiles, it also presents an idea that maybe we can use batteries in slightly different ways inside the household, with other appliances like lawnmowers that are already electric. The emphasis on improving electric car batteries has long been on getting an them to hold a bigger charge for a longer time. How does Professor. Raymond de Callafon 's idea challenge that. You are kind of constrained by the batteries that are put in the car when it's manufactured. It's got a lifetime in capacity. With a modular system you could buy modules that will fit into your electric car when you bought the car, and you use them -- in five or 10 years a better battery comes out, more efficient, you could replace those modules just as easily as you do from one to the other to get the recharge. You could increase the capacity of an electric vehicle over time. For car manufacturers there might be some resistance, you don't necessarily have to sell the batteries system with the car. They could just make the car, there might be reluctance, you could make the car get the battery from a third-party operator. That might in effect, bring down the cost by creating competition for these batteries. Do you see downsides to this concept for the operator of the vehicle tax could there be more susceptible to breakdowns? Not in terms of how the vehicle operates. What you might consider a downside is the fact that batteries are in fact batteries. There are devices that are designed to hold electricity, sometimes they are not the most environmentally friendly items. I think about when they are used up, batteries do have a finite life, you can only recharge the maybe 1000 times. You have to figure out what you are going to do with these potentially hazardous materials, once you are done using them for the electric vehicles or in your house or whatever. The difference here is, how you are using this batteries in conjunction with each other. That's a connection, how they are used as a system to achieve what we want them to achieve. If this band of experimenters makes it across the country from San Diego to Charleston in today's, what's the next step? Two things, there's nothing that says they won't make it. This trip is a proof of concept. It's as we have done this 2500 mile journey, we stopped every 120 miles an swapped batteries and it worked. The concept has legs. We have proven that it works. The next obstacle is deciding what the standard is going to be for these batteries. The control system that researchers at UC San Diego have developed maybe a little bit different from the control system other researchers have developed. So, you decide this is going to be the industry standard, want to decide then you can put those public, people will make them to those standards, suddenly you have a swappable energy source. I've been seek -- speaking with Eric Anderson.

Prototype Electric Car Could Point The Way To The Future
Prototype Electric Car Could Point The Way To The Future Guest:Erik Anderson, KPBS reporter
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Lou Shrinkle's Volkswagen looks like any other passenger car of its kind. But it's different: Every time he turns on the ignition, an annoying alarm goes off. The car warns the retired engineer that there's a problem with the engine.

"Of course, there is," Shrinkle said, laughing as he examined his car earlier in April. "There's a fuel system problem."

The vehicle's diagnostic system was telling him it couldn't find the proper engine fluids, which wasn't surprising to Shrinkle — the internal combustion engine has been removed and replaced with an electrical power plant.

That isn't unusual, but how the car stores its fuel is unique.

Shrinkle stood by the backdoor of the car and peeked inside. He leaned in and grabbed a suitcase-sized box.

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"OK, pulling the module connectors," Shrinkle said. He grabbed hold of the heavy battery so it slides out of the car. "Now this module contains 48 lithium, iron, phosphate batteries. It weighs about 30 pounds. Again, that's about twice as heavy as it needs to be."

The car has more than a dozen individual battery modules that work together to feed the engine. Each can be pulled out and replaced in less than a minute.

"Back in," Shrinkle said as he popped a clamp into place with a loud pop. "And it's now engaged."

That modular battery system makes this car completely different from other electric cars.

Most electric vehicles typically rely on one large battery, tucked away under the passenger seats or in the trunk, to store the energy needed for propulsion. That battery may need to be charged overnight, or with a fast charger be fueled up in a couple of hours.

Demand for a new business model

It is a business model that doesn't make sense to UC San Diego Engineering professor Raymond de Callafon, who's developing a new system that's going to be tested on Shrinkle's car this summer.

Callafon called the reliance on refueling a single battery impractical. De Callafon said fast charging isn't a solution because speeding up how fast a battery can be refilled requires more energy.

De Callafon thinks swapping battery modules goes a long way toward eliminating the refueling dilemma.

"Imagine that now you're driving your car, and let's say its 40 percent or 50 percent empty," de Callafon said. "You would have to charge it. Here you could actually take, if you have 10 modules in your car, and take five out — those are the ones that are empty — and put five in and you're completely replenished."

The system could operate like it does for propane fuel tanks used to fuel backyard grills, de Callafon said. Empty batteries could be exchanged for fully-charged ones.

De Callafon is developing a control system that'll manage groups of batteries. The modules can be older and newer. They can be full or partially empty. His system will allow different batteries to work together to feed an electric motor.

Think of it as a cruise control system for electrical power. Once standards are adopted, batteries could take on a variety of tasks.

"To be able to have the flexibility of moving energy around — you see it now from people who like to store their solar (energy) in a battery in their garage. And then (they) are able to move it into their car, or move those batteries in other utilities, a lawnmower or any equipment you have," de Callafon said.

The concept has a chance to change the way people use electricity, and the system could completely upend the electric vehicle business. Car companies currently sell the batteries inside an electrical car. With modules, batteries could be bought from third party sellers and car companies would only be selling the vehicle. That could sharply reduce the cost of an electric car.

Lab work is key to progress

"The challenge is that the batteries have to work as a system," de Callafon said. "It's a system's way of thinking. They have to be part of the integration."

That system research is what his team is working on in the lab.

Ph.D. student Xin Zhao came to the UC San Diego after working on electric cars in China.

"Here, I just want to turn on the power supply," Zhao said. "So we want to simulate the batteries. So (with) each power supply, I'm setting the voltage and current output of this."

Zhao is helping refine the control systems that let the batteries communicate wirelessly. Complex algorithms manage each battery's voltage, storage capacity and ability to communicate with both the car and other batteries. Those control systems can also gauge demand and modulate the flow of energy to an electric engine. They will decide whether to tap into one or two or more battery modules.

"Do we want to deplete a certain amount of modules rather than the entire battery pack? Or charge it back or so? If there's a chance that we can get this done, then the scheduling will be a good feature for this technology," Zhao said.

The real proof of concept comes this summer. That's when a team of researchers, students and volunteers will take Shrinkle's car on a cross-country odyssey.

The idea is to drive more than 2,500 miles from San Diego to Charleston, South Carolina.

"If we're driving across the country we figure there will be about 20 to 25 stops," Shrinkle said. "That's plenty of work. And we're doing all that in a period of two days."

The two-day trip is possible because there are no long charging stops. Battery modules will be swapped out in a matter of minutes and the car will continue on its way.

It's a grueling 45-hour proof of concept that could have engineers swapping new ideas about how batteries power electric vehicles and other appliances.