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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Future of Flywheels

Air Date: Week of

So far, the biggest problem with electric cars has been designing an efficient enough battery. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports on the flywheel battery, which many believe will revolutionize electric vehicle performance.


CURWOOD: The most basic problem currently confronting electric car developers is battery technology. Existing batteries are heavy, expensive, slow to recharge, and give an average range of less than 100 miles. But there's a flurry of activity on the battery front. The Federal Government and the Big 3 auto makers have a combined research effort going. And some small entrepreneurs are also in the race. These efforts are largely focused on chemical batteries, such as lead-acid or sodium hydride solutions. But a Washington State company hopes to store its car's juice in a mechanical battery: a flywheel. Jennifer SCHMITT of member station KPLU has our story.

SCHMITT: The idea behind the flywheel battery is as old as the potter's wheel. The old foot-powered kind is a type of flywheel. All it takes to get it spinning is a few strong kicks to the heavy stone wheel.

(Potter's wheel in operation)

SCHMITT: After that, momentum takes over and the wheel keeps spinning on its own with just an occasional kick for extra power. Modern flywheel batteries work much the same way, except instead of foot power, electricity is used to set the flywheel spinning.

(Spinning flywheel; mechanisms in motion)

FURIA: We are going to put 3 amps of 110-volt power into this reaction wheel.

SCHMITT: Ed Furia is a former EPA official who's now the president of American Flywheel Systems. In a makeshift showroom in Seattle, he's demonstrating a small-scale version of his company's flywheel battery. Like a potter's wheel, it stores mechanical or kinetic energy. This prototype flywheel is powerful enough to run a small videocassette player.

FURIA: This is the battery in this box. Then there's a wire connecting it to the demonstration system. I'll now unplug it ... and we'll be able to turn on this TV and run this TV.

(Television on; music and announcement)

SCHMITT: It takes far less energy to run a VCR than it will take to run a car. But AFS and its technical partner, Honeywell, the well-known defense and space contractor, say a battery that's powerful enough to run their car will be ready within a year. In the meantime, Ed Furia uses a model of the battery to demonstrate how it will work.

FURIA: The batteries are suspended and spinning in a vacuum, with nothing to really slow them down.

SCHMITT: Each battery is composed of 2 super-strong composite rotors suspended by magnetic bearings in a vacuum casing.

FURIA: There's no mechanical friction. So it's as frictionless an environment as you can find on Earth.

SCHMITT: With nothing to impede them, the rotors will reach speeds of up to 200,000 revolutions per minute, slowing down only as their energy is tapped to propel the car. The rotors in the battery generate an electrical current, which in turn powers an electric motor. AFS engineers predict their flywheel design will solve the biggest problem plaguing the emerging electric car industry: developing a battery that's lightweight, efficient, and powerful enough to run a car over long distances without recharging. AFS plans to use its flywheel system to power a brand new, lightweight, luxury sedan which would sell for about $30,000. A prototype of the AFS-20 made headlines when it was recently unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show. But there are many skeptics.

CARD: I love prototypes. In fact you see more prototypes in Detroit than you do even at the LA Auto Show.

SCHMITT: Andrew Card is President of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, a lobbying group for Detroit's Big 3 auto makers. Card says the AFS-20 is more dream than reality.

CARD: Maybe that dream will become reality, but it hasn't - that vehicle hasn't even been produced yet. It hasn't had a cost figure associated with it that would reflect a price that a consumer would have to pay in the marketplace. It hasn't passed a crash test.

SCHMITT: And there are other safety considerations. Edwin Ridell of the Electric Power Research Institute points out that AFS engineers aren't the first to attempt to power cars with flywheels. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, researchers equipped some buses and racecars with massive metal flywheels. Flywheels which turned out to be quite dangerous.

RIDELL: I realize that they've done a lot of - there's been a lot of advancements with composites and things, but I can remember the old flywheels in racecars coming up through floorboards. Who knows? Nobody's proven to me yet that they can contain, successfully contain a flywheel inside a vehicle when it comes apart.

SCHMITT: But others involved in electric car research believe that concern is outdated. Sheila Lynch is the Director of the Northeast Alternative Vehicle Consortium. She says with the help of computers and strong lightweight materials, modern flywheels bear little resemblance to their dangerous predecessors.

LYNCH: I believe that flywheel technology will be available in the very near term. That prototype demonstrations will be shown within the next year. And that marketable flywheel products will be available within the 1998 timeframe for the California mandate.

SCHMITT: The promise of mandated markets for electric vehicles in California and other states has been a boon for small developers like AFS. In addition to helping to draw private investors, the mandates have helped AFS land $2 million in state and Federal grant money. The company's advisory board also includes several well-connected public figures, among them Michael Deland, former Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Bush.

DELAND: Once I looked at it, I came to the conclusion that this was a technology that really did have the very real potential to do nothing less than reshape the energy future of the world and do so in a way that was environmentally benign.

SCHMITT: Money and influence by themselves won't guarantee success for American Flywheel Systems, but President Ed Furia insists the company has the technology to displace the internal combustion engine. American Flywheel Systems says it will have a working version of the AFS-20 ready for the test track next year, and is aiming to have its flywheel-powered cars in the showroom by 1998. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer SCHMITT in Seattle.



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