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Whittier + Pasadena dailies: New cars plug into the future
Aug 21, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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New cars plug into the future
Local company's hybrid gets 100 mpg

By Kimm Groshong, Staff Writer
Whittier Daily News
Pasadena Star News

MONROVIA -- Imagine averaging 100 to 150 miles for each gallon of gasoline you pump into your car.

With the counters spinning ever higher at the gas station and calls to curb American dependency on foreign oil getting ever louder, the notion may sound like a dream.

But Pete Nortman, Greg Hanssen and the modest crew at their Monrovia-based Energy CS have been working to make that dream a real option. Today, the company's blue 2004 Prius -- a pioneer of sorts --can be seen buzzing about town.

Outwardly, the prototype looks just like any other gas-electric hybrid Prius. But beneath its exterior, the team has replaced the original battery with a rechargeable, powerful lithium-ion battery. And the Prius now averages well over 100 miles per gallon for the first 50 to 60 miles of its journey each day. After that, it gets the Prius' standard 45 or 50 mpg.

The conversion allows the vehicle to plug into a standard electrical outlet overnight, giving the car the ability to travel in purely electric mode at low speeds, and in a 100 mpg mode on freeways. Once the extra electrical power is consumed, the power supply operates as in a standard Prius -- using the engine when needed and generating and storing energy in the battery when the car breaks or coasts.

At this point, the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is one of a kind. Some of the Energy CS electronic components can be found in the handful of other existing plug-ins, but the company believes it has the only operational plug-in with a lithium-ion battery.

Among environmentalists and those seeking the latest way to use less gasoline, plug-in hybrids represent a promising and realistic transition between standard cars and vehicles powered with renewable fuels.

"Our goal is to bring this up as a possible choice and a way to displace oil consumption," said Nortman, Energy CS's president. "It provides a bridge -- a way to use battery techniques in transportation without the users taking a huge risk."

The company's 250-pound replacement battery is actually 18 lithium-ion batteries interconnected in a rectangular formation just below the floor mat in the car's trunk. A small dashboard monitor shows how much the driver can accelerate before the gas-burning engine kicks in. Now that the company's engineers have worked out all the technical tricks to make the concept functional, they have teamed up with two other firms -- Los Angeles-based Clean-Tech and Austin-based Valence Technology -- to form a new company called EDrive Systems. EDrive Systems hopes to begin offering Prius conversions to the public in early 2006 for between $10,000 and $12,000.

Nortman and Hanssen imagine their target consumers will be current Prius owners interested in mileage boosts and environmental benefits. They refer to such customers as "early adopters" and "pioneers," because they view the investment as a way of taking a leap ahead.

"It's going to be people like us who are going to take this on," Hanssen said. "Most people will say you're crazy' at first. But when they start seeing the benefits their neighbors and friends get (from the conversion), they'll start waking up to the idea."

For Hanssen and Nortman, the Prius project is just one in a long stream of renewable-energy transportation endeavors. Nortman built his first electric vehicle, a two-seat car called the Sun Cycle, in the early 1980s. It was a hybrid of another breed, combining solar panels, a lead acid battery and human pedaling.

But beyond their work on such projects, both men have incorporated renewable energies into their lifestyles. Both have driven fully electric vehicles for at least seven years. Their homes are outfitted with solar panels to harness the sun's energy, as is the Energy CS workshop.

"It's been all about decreasing gasoline consumption, which has geopolitical consequences, economic consequences for the U.S. and implications for pollution," Hanssen said.

So why a lithium-ion battery?

Such batteries can store much more energy than standard battery chemistries without dramatically increasing the weight of the unit. They're the batteries that enabled cell phones to become pocket-sized.

"It will allow you to have a driving range that's increased by at least 50 percent compared to other chemistries," said Rachid Yazami, a visiting associate in materials science at Caltech. "Definitely, this is the future."

But research and development of such batteries for cars has not taken off on a larger scale for two main reasons: safety and cost barriers.

"We are dealing with a system that stores huge amounts of energy. These problems have been solved for small batteries like the ones in your cell phones," he said. But cars undergo vibrations, heating, freezing and other conditions that make battery safety more challenging.

Yazami said lithium-ion batteries are becoming safer all the time. And, "if the industry can make large batteries as safe as the small batteries, that will be the wave of the future."

Nortman said Energy CS and EDrive Systems chose the Valence Saphion battery in large part because of its safety features.

"It's much, much more resistant to thermal runaway and other things that would be safety concerns," he said. "You have to properly manage the system in order for it to be safe. ... We take care of all of it."

Since the company was founded in 2001, other projects have included the development of fuel cell- and lithium-ion battery-powered ATVs, a battery monitoring system for a hybrid locomotive and combustion-free delivery vans for the European and Japanese markets.

The Prius project has required the company to stick its neck out on the line a bit, but Nortman said, "That's being a pioneer, and you have to do it."

Conversions will not be available until at least February or March.

-- Kimm Groshong can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451, or by e-mail at kimm.groshong@....

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