Announcements of technological breakthroughs that are going to save the planet are a dime a dozen. The true test is commercial success on the free market. By “free market” I mean no tax money to support its continued existence, and by “save the planet” I mean something that does not feed the planet to our cars. We are going to see a commercial application of this new technology in just a few months. You can find more details here.

I promised on my last post to look into plug-in electric car design from an engineer’s perspective. City government’s promising to use our tax dollars to buy plug-in electric cars as an incentive to mass produce them would be pointless if the technology needed to produce a viable car did not exist.

I will summarize my findings by showing what new battery technology would do to the General Motors EV-1, the subject of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?

By the way, regardless of what the documentary says, no one killed that car. It was stillborn from a lack of viable technology. Mass-producing the EV-1 would not have worked — you need consumers to do that, and few would have bought such a dog at any price.

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Although it weighed the same as a 2006 Honda Civic hybrid, all you got for that weight was a two-seat, 100-mile range lead sled. (It used 26 huge batteries weighing a total of 1,200 lbs.) Then there was the small problem of taking all night to charge the batteries, and the cost of replacing them every few years.

Now, what if you replaced those lead acid batteries used in the EV-1 with a new kind that weighed 80% less, for a total of 240 pounds? I don’t know, so let me answer a slightly different question. If you use only half of those new batteries (120 pounds), you could build a five-passenger, four-door Honda Civic hybrid that could easily go fifty miles on battery power alone. Curb weight of a four-door civic = 2804 pounds. 2804 + 120 = 2924, which is only 47 pounds heavier than a 2006 Civic hybrid. That would truly be a viable plug-in electric hybrid.

Four questions you should be asking: Where are these batteries? How long does it take to charge them? How many times can they be recharged? What will they cost?

They are in this year’s line of Dewalt 36-volt power tools. Their Japanese competitor, Makita (the brand I use), beat them to the punch with an 18 volt version using a less advanced battery.

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There are two facts that make this so hopeful. These batteries (unlike the ones found in laptops) were designed for high power applications, and mass marketed versions of them are already half the cost per amp hour of the NiMH batteries I purchased for my power tools last year. The fact that they can be charged up far faster and ten times more often than any previous battery is just icing on the cake.

My conclusion is that the technology has arrived and mass production really is all we need at this point to bring the costs down. Until this battery actually appeared in a competitive free-market application, you could not make that claim.

I gave up long ago all hope that the planet’s ecosystems would be spared by anything resembling rational thought. Hopefully, these batteries will defeat biofuels in a toe-to-toe competition on the free market, sparing our planet’s biodiversity as a side effect.