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Quick-charging electric cars could be round the corner

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Updated The rules of the game for electrically-powered vehicles may be about to change, as new battery technology approaches road service.

Thus far, modern electric vehicles such as the Tesla Roadster have tended to employ large lithium-ion battery packs coupled to electric motor-generators in lieu of petrol tanks and engines. This offers excellent torque, and thus world-beating acceleration. Top speed is usually on the low side compared to hydrocarbon vehicles, but more than adequate for a normal driver's needs. Range is acceptable, a little shorter than typical for a petrol car, but nothing to lose sleep over.

The big weakness of regular li-ion batteries is the time it takes to charge them up, which is normally measured in hours. This substantially limits the distance that can be driven in a day, effectively ruling out such vehicles from many applications.

That may be about to change, however. Nevada-based company Altairnano has developed a new battery technology called NanoSafe™ (pdf), based on "nano-titanate" tech. NanoSafe™ cells offer comparable performance to li-ion, but require only minutes to charge up, provided a suitably robust electric source is available.

A NanoSafe™-powered battery car still can't speed-charge from a normal domestic power socket - that would overload the wiring, and charging up at home can only be done safely over a period of hours. Delivering dozens of kilowatt-hours in a matter of minutes calls for a specialised high-power outlet: but such equipment wouldn't be particularly expensive to deploy at petrol stations and service areas. The main electric power grid should be able to handle such loads.

Road vehicles driven by NanoSafe™ batteries are under development now. Examples include the Phoenix Motors SUV, due for consumer beta-test in California later this year and full release in 2008; also the UK's Lightning sportscar, now taking reservations for 2008 delivery.

These vehicles will still be impractical for long journeys until high-power electric outlets become widespread, which might not be for years - or never, if the technology turns out to be overhyped, overexpensive, or simply doesn't gain acceptance.

But, if the specs are right, it could be humble pie time for your correspondent in a few years. If NanoSafe™ can really do what it says, there is no serious technical obstacle to practical fully-electric motoring and the infrastructure to support it.®

Update

Lightning Car Company Ltd. have informed us that the Lightning will cost "circa £150,000 depending on the final specification." They are looking into the possibilities for export to the USA. The first prototype should be running by the end of the year.

Lightning also said:

"For a fast charge a 3 phase power supply is required and with the interest in electric powered vehicles increasing significantly, more high power charging stations will be installed. Most garage forecourt and industrial areas already have this level of high power source available and therefore can be fitted with a universal charging station."

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