Fuel Cell Article, Part 2

Originally posted at Writeindependent.org on January 14, 2012

This is the second part of a Fuel Cell article I wrote in 1997, reviewing alternative energy for automobiles.

Flywheels Surge Ahead

Rather than waiting for the USABC (United States Advanced Battery Consortium) to improve battery technology over five years, research companies are exploring flywheel technology. Flywheels fit easily into a car, operate quietly and cleanly, and work well with chemical batteries.

Flywheels continue spinning even while the car stands still because they float on frictionless magnetic bearings in a vacuum container. Unlike most batteries, flywheels may be quickly recharged and can quickly discharge thereby providing a surge of energy for acceleration while lessening the drain on a conventional battery. Flywheels easily capture the power produced by deceleration in the regenerative braking design.

One great benefit of the flywheel is that they “may extend the life of a battery significantly,” says J. Ray Smith, researcher at LLNL.

Lawrence Livermore National Labs and Trinity Flywheel Power of San Francisco are developing flywheels for use in stationary power applications. These same flywheels could be modified to fit in vehicles.

“There are two types of flywheels currently under development,” states Ed Furia, Chairman and CEO of American Flywheel Systems (AFS), “power flywheels and flywheel batteries.” The type of flywheels LLNL and Trinity are working on are power flywheels, whereas flywheel batteries actually create and store energy once they are set in motion via an outside power source, such as an electrical outlet or solar power.

AFS holds the first patent on the flywheel battery, an electro-mechanical battery that doesn’t require chemicals to store energy. Their goal is to design a ten-flywheel car that accelerates from 0 to 60 in 7 seconds and has a range of 300 miles, but doesn’t carry heavy chemical batteries at all. It should recharge fully in 25 minutes.

Furia says that their flywheel batteries shouldn’t have to be replaced, ever. Their only problem is, they don’t know if they will be able to maintain the charge in the flywheel battery for more than two days if left unplugged and undriven in a garage.

Other flywheel developers include Satcon Technology Corporation and U.S. Flywheel.

Since flywheels spin so rapidly, their rotors must be made out of material that won’t break apart and bust out of its container. According to Smith, “lightweight containment” is the biggest technological obstacle flywheel companies need to overcome. But Ed Furia, Chairman of AFS disagrees, saying, “all rotation machinery must be operated within a safe range. Many kind of high speed rotating machinery are operated without safety containment by keeping the device within its safe operating range, such as outboard motors on boats or jet engines.”

Flywheels must be rigorously tested in many “worse case scenarios” by varying spinning speed, destroying the chamber, causing rotor failure, or firing projectiles at the rotor, each done in hundreds of trials. This costs money. John Eastwood of Trinity Flywheel believes it would cost at least ten million dollars to do what is necessary before flywheels would be ready for mass production in automobiles, after having spent about as much already in research.

Ed Furia agrees, saying that getting the price of flywheels down by using economies of scale is the only solution to the cost of development.

Flywheels are at least three to five years away from being viable components in cars, even in the best of financial situations.

Batteries and flywheels in combination or flywheel batteries alone may be enough to solve most of our transportation needs. However, the electricity to recharge the batteries can be made either cleanly using wind, hydroelectric, natural gas, tides, water temperature variations, or solar sources; or it can be made with “dirty” power sources like nuclear or coal. In the near future, with the deregulation of utilities, each consumer will have a choice which sources meet with his/her philosophies or goals. For a list of green energy providers, call the California Energy Commission at 800-555-7794. They have information for consumers regarding credits you can get for buying green energy.


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