Columnist: Our future is electric |

Columnist: Our future is electric

Kirk Caroway
Vail, CO Colorado

Oil is the number one economic and foreign policy issue for this country. If we didn’t have to import oil, an astonishing number of problems in this country would simply fade away. So finding a way to end this dependence should be the top priority for this country and the people running it.

But how? There are many alternative fuels that could lessen the dependency, but they all have their problems. Ethanol gets a lot of attention, but producing it in large enough quantities is a problem. Same with bio-diesel.

President Bush was playing up hydrogen as the fuel of the future, but there are some big hurdles in terms of storing and transporting this stuff.

Then there is electricity.

I saw a chart from Popular Mechanics that compared alternative fuels, and how much it would cost to drive a small car across the country using each one. By far the cheapest were electric vehicles. They estimated it would take only $60 worth of electricity to drive coast to coast. I don’t know about you, but $60 wouldn’t get me across the state with my current vehicle.

The big knock on electric cars is that once the battery runs down, it takes hours to charge it. So yes, you could get across the country on $60 of electricity, but you would burn 10 times that on motel bills while you waited for the batteries to charge. No thank you.

But what if it only took six minutes to recharge? This was the question posed to me at a forum in nearby Reno featuring a local company, Altairnano Inc. Altairnano has developed a new type of lithium battery that solves the recharging problem, as well as some of the other drawbacks of electric-powered cars.

Using nanotechnology, they have replaced the graphite in typical lithium-ion batteries with titanium, thus creating cells that can be charged super-fast: 6 minutes for a full charge, and one minute for an 80 percent charge. Think of the possibilities ” quiet, clean, efficient transportation, with the same convenience and power of gas-powered vehicles. And the Middle East can keep their oil and all the problems that it creates.

Altairnano’s battery breakthrough also solves other problems encountered by

electric vehicles. These cells have about 10 times the battery life, allowing for 20,000 cycles before they start losing storage capacity, enough for 15-20 years of use. And the nano-titanate material in Altairnano’s batteries allow them to be charged and discharged at temperatures ranging for the coldest Arctic winters to the hottest Mojave summers. It also solves the problem of lithium-ion batteries getting too hot and catching fire.

There are drawbacks. For one, it takes more than a normal extension cord to charge one of these things in 6 minutes. Special charging stations would need to be built to do fast charges. But that cost could be easily recouped due to the far cheaper price of electricity. A charging station could charge a lot higher margins for each charge than they currently get from gasoline.

These cars can also be charged the slow way with a standard 220-volt connection. In other words, plug it in at night, and you will not need to do rapid recharges except for long trips.

The other drawback at this time is price. These batteries aren’t being mass-produced on a large scale yet, so the cost for enough cells to power a car would run somewhere between $50,000 to $100,000. As this is a brand new technology, you would expect that to drop considerably once they kick up the manufacturing effort.

I went into this thinking just about the possibilities for vehicles, but Altairnano is carrying this even further. For instance, one of their clients is an electric utility company in the Midwest. They are constructing huge, train-car-sized batteries for them to charge during the night in order to have excess capacity for peak hours. Imagine how this could be used to store electricity generated by solar and wind generators.

With the high price of oil ” in both dollars and blood ” continuing to weigh on all Americans, it’s nice to see there is a solution coming down the road that will help us to enjoy our roads again.

Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at

Support Local Journalism