All of you over age 50 remember TV cartoon character Sylvester Pussycat, and most of you under 30 have probably never heard of him. That’s because he spent most of his time trying to catch and eat Tweety Bird. That was judged too much violence for your tender ears, and the show was removed from circulation. Apparently the regulators are not aware that some animals are carnivores, and they do not have a sanitized abattoir where their prey can be killed painlessly, to the strains of Kum Bayah; wild animals just catch and eat other wild animals.
Sylvester and Tweety belonged to Granny. Grannies car was a marvel, a hundred year old electric car, still going, only needing an occasional drop of oil here and there for maintenance. The battery was the real marvel. Ordinary car batteries make electricity between lead and lead oxide plates; Grannies battery made electricity between iron and nickel plates. No acid, no corrosion, nickel and iron are much stronger than lead and especially lead oxide, and the battery could last forever.
Nickel-iron batteries were patented by Thomas Edison in 1903, and used in electric cars for a decade or so, and still manufactured by Edison’s factory until the 70’s. Exide, the largest maker of batteries at the time, bought the plant and shut it down so nickel-iron batteries are no longer made in the US. They are still imported for high end applications where reliability is paramount, such as in space. They are quite commonly used in Australia for residential solar-electric systems.
What brought all this to mind was my new cordless whipper-snipper, it puts out at least 4 times as much energy as my 15 year old one did, shows how much better the lithium-based batteries in our cordless stuff have become. Their downfall still is that, as you have probably noticed, lithium batteries do not last forever, in fact they begin losing capacity the day they are first charged up.
So the question that popped into my mind was, if Grannies battery was so good and lasted forever, why is modern technology fiddling around with lithium batteries in cars? One reason might be that Grannies battery was expensive, although not really if it lasts forever. Also it is heavy compared to lithium batteries, a disadvantage for portable applications. But that raises an even tougher question, why is Tesla using lithium technology for their new power-wall batteries for residential solar systems? Nobody cares how heavy a battery is if it just sits there connected to your house. And the Australians have already shown the way. Why do we go to such lengths to avoid this technology?
Maybe the answer to that question can be found in the adventures of my old friend Alvin Snaper (well, OK, friend is an exaggeration, but I did have a conversation with him once). Alvin is probably the most prolific and eclectic inventor of our time, with something over 600 patents. His inventions ran from Tang (synthetic orange juice) to the IBM dancing ball typewriter, a mechanical marvel from before computers. He invented making foamed metal, much like blue Styrofoam, but metal like titanium or aluminum instead of plastic; a hugely important development in aircraft and spacecraft as it saves a lot of weight and expensive metal.
Alvin retired about 20 years ago, but found retirement boring, so he and some cronies set up a lab to do research to help the world. First question, what does the world need? That’s easy, a better battery. O.K., let’s look at applying foamed metal technology to batteries. So they did – first they came up with a lead-acid battery with foamed metal plates, clearly better, lighter, longer-lasting, and potentially cheaper than regular batteries. Then they set to work on a foamed nickel –iron battery, which might change the world. It could be as light and as cheap as lithium batteries, but would last much longer if not forever. At last, the battery of the future, and a practical electric car.
They ran into the most unbelievable business, legal and political road blocks at every stage, the negative reaction of the establishment was truly astonishing. Now all this work appears to be permanently tied up in lawsuits and red tape; clearly the powers that be do not want a better battery.
Maybe the problem lies with the electric car. A truly practical, long-lived electric car? No engines wearing out, making the car obsolete after a few years? Hardly any maintenance? No fuel to tax? That looks like an economic disaster, no new cars to make! The car factories all obsolete! All those jobs gone! No more auto exhaust whipping boy for the environmental lobby! A bit of freedom for the masses from the big government/big business yoke! Something must be done, Alvin must be stopped!
Perhaps Alvin’s troubles could be foreseen in Exide shutting down Edison’s better battery plant. Or in Chevy destroying all of their wildly successful EV1 experimental electric cars, in defiance of all common sense. The political agenda was already showing, no truly practical electric cars will be allowed.
Anyway, my new whipper-snipper does work really well, at least until its battery gets old.