Extreme Hybrids Ahead
By Bill Moore
Edward Furia's AFS Trinity has been lying low, perfecting technology and building alliances, waiting for the opportune moment to pounce.
That moment came on January 25, 2006 when the Bellevue, Washington company issued a press release announcing that it and world-renown auto engineering firm, Ricardo, had quietly joined forces late last year to not only develop a plug-in hybrid, but a vehicle-to-grid or V2G hybrid.
The event that caused the Furia to surface with his announcement was the Plug-in Partners press conference the day before at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
I immediately contacted Furia and arranged to do an interview, which took place on Friday, January 28, 2006. I expected to talk with him for 20-25 minutes, but instead we went nearly an hour in one of the more informative and entertaining telephone discussions I've conducted for EV World. I will attempt to summarize the main points of our dialog, but I strongly encourage you to listen to it in its entirety using either the MP3 Player on this page or by downloading the file to your computer hard drive for transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device.
EPA and Earth Day
Ed Furia was a senior EPA official for the mid-Atlantic states in the early 1970's. He was instrumental in helping bring about the first Earth Day, as well as the 20-year commemorative celebration.
He explained to EV World that back in 1989, his former EPA press secretary, Tim Kent, introduced him to the concept of powering electric vehicles with advanced flywheels, rather than just batteries.
"At the time, I declined to get involved", he said, "because with my experience in the government, I believed there was too much institutional inertia, both in Detroit and Washington for one to successfully introduce an alternative to the standard internal combustion engine-driven car."
It would be a convergence of several different events including the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, the debut of the General Motor's Impact electric car, which became the all-too-short-lived EV1, plus Congress' amending the Clean Air Act in 1990 that would cause him to re-evaluate his views.
"The thing that pushed it all over the edge was (Iraq's) invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. That rekindled concerns about the instability of that part of the world from which we were getting the oil and gasoline for our cars."
These events in the early 1990's lead directly to the creation of American Flywheel Systems or AFS "at Tim (Kent)'s kitchen table in Los Angeles."
The fledgling company incorporated, filed a patent for a flywheel "battery" and went hunting for strategic partners, only be rebuffed.
"We actually found no interest. It was way too exotic, confusing, nobody understood it. Now, it doesn't sound so wild, but at the time, people could barely get the concept".
It would take 18 months before the U.S. Patent Office issued what was the very first patent on a flywheel-based battery.
"This was greeted with global excitement", he noted.
Front page stories in the world's major newspapers resulted in an unsolicited call from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and a grant of $1 million.
Suddenly, AFS found itself deluged with offers to help co-develop the technology and selected Honeywell as its partner to build a prototype that the military hoped could be used to power a vehicle like the Humvee.
"That project went very well and we made some breakthroughs in rotor design and active magnetic bearings and motor/generators, but we also got into a dispute with Honeywell. They sued us and we counter-sued, and we ended up in that dispute for five years".
Eventually AFS won a $38 million judgment against Honeywell, which was then settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money; enough for AFS to buy rival Trinity Flywheel Power in 2000. While battling Honeywell, AFS shifted its focus from flywheels for electric vehicles to flywheel batteries for spacecraft.
EV's Place Is in the City
Based on his knowledge and experience, Furia believes that pure electric vehicles have a place as short-range city cars.
"Those that drive them short distances absolutely love them and would have nothing else," he said. "But that wasn't going to be a mainstream vehicle."
Where he attributed the initial excitement over EVs to the price of oil and concerns about clean air in the early 90's, he also blames the steady drop in oil prices during the 90's and battery range issues as stymieing public interest -- as well as carmaker opposition -- in torpedoing battery electric cars.
"When we came out of that litigation with a bag of money that we could use to either distribute to our shareholders and go out of business or look for a way to go forward, we acquired Trinity, but it wasn't for the vehicular application. We acquired Trinity in order to use flywheel technology for uninterruptible power supply."
AFS Trinity's flywheel-based UPS was intended to provide a brief, 15-second bridge between the grid and a company's back-up generator. A single flywheel APS could handle 300 desktop computers in an office.
Furia admits that against the advice of his advisors and board, he continued to maintain a core program that looked at flywheel battery applications in heavy-duty vehicles. That led to a series of government-funded programs to develop an energy storage system for heavy hybrids. The flywheel would handle the heavy "lifting" of acceleration and regenerative braking, while the battery handled the long distant "marathon" side of the task.
This analogy of a weightlifter and marathon runner would take on new importance as Furia and his staff in Bellevue, Washington and his researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area, monitored the growing public recognition of the peak oil problem.
"When the price of oil started going up and everything that we saw was pointing to a real disconnect between supply and demand, we started to think maybe we could use what had been developed mostly at Trinity... [which] was doing super-fast energy storage with their flywheels; they were developing all the power electronics... to make that work
Furia said that he was aware of plug-in hybrids, but that he saw their weakness was still the battery pack, just as with a pure EV.
"That was the breakthrough when we realized that if we used our Fast Energy Storage -- a trademarked term -- technology using either flywheels or ultra-capacitors in combination with batteries, we could make plug-in hybrids really practical".
This would be the underlying premise behind the Extreme Hybrid[tm] concept announced on the 25th. But the actual decision to proceed with the program took place the Spring of 2004. By early 2005, AFS Trinity had filed for five patents on their Extreme Hybrid technology, which also included a vehicle-to-grid component.
"By the end of 2005, we have dedicated most of our engineers and activities to that program."
Preview of Extreme Hybrid
With momentum building both in the media and within government for the adaptation of flex-fuel plug-in hybrids as a way to dramatically cut America's need for petroleum, including editorials in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, as well as other opinion-shapers, it was obvious to Furia that he needed to start telling the rest of the world about his firm's plans and partnership with Ricardo.
"The theory [behind plug-in hybrids] is really, really exciting, but if you look at the small print in every one of these articles, what you find is battery is the problem."
He contends that everyone assumes battery makers will solve their problems, but they are running up against the limits of chemistry and physics.
In Furia's view this presents an opportunity for his company, especially the Trinity side of the business with its fast energy storage technology.
He likens the problem to that marathon runner who every five miles or so has to stop and lift 200 pounds over his head. By the time the runner has reached the fifteen mile mark, he simply won't be able to lift the weight. For Furia, the energy batteries in a plug-in hybrid are the marathon runner and the weight is the acceleration and regenerative braking demands that are placed on the battery pack periodically. To compensate, carmakers have to utilize bigger battery packs, which Furia contends is analogous to having a weight-lifter running the marathon.
His solution, which he compares to having running legend Sir Roger Bannister teaming up with Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a sort of hybrid battery that incorporates ultra-capacitors and lithium-ion cells. The ultra-caps are Schwarzenegger, the lithium-ion's are Bannister. The result, as he envisions it, is a smaller battery back that doesn't have to deal with the power surges from acceleration and regen. This approach will also insure a longer life for the lithium cells because the ultra-capacitors can be suddenly charged and discharged tens of thousands of times without degradation.
The key, in Furia's view, is smartly managing the power between the two distinct electro-chemical systems.
"The heart of the machine is a black box" he stated.
He envisions that not only can the size of the battery pack be reduced, but that even less expensive batteries could be utilized. [Firefly, are you listening?]
"Our system, using what we call 'fast energy storage', which can be either flywheels or ultra-capacitors, and our unique power electronics will make it possible to do that heavy lift, whether its acceleration or regenerative braking."
While he attributes AFS Trinity's work on flywheel energy storage to helping make his "black box" viable, the initial specifications for their prototype Extreme Hybrid calls for utilizing ultra-caps.
"... Mostly because they are readily available, their price s coming down and it reduces the complexity of the system. It doesn't mean we're not going to use flywheels in the future, it just means we think we can do ultra-caps faster to get the system out there."
The Extreme Hybrid[tm] will be engineered to operate 40 miles on electric power-only before the down-sized internal combustion engine comes on giving the vehicle a 500-mile range in hybrid-mode.
Alliance with Ricardo
"The alliance with Ricardo is of enormous significance to people who are interested in this area... Ricardo builds transmissions, drivelines, engines, integrates vehicle systems, creates software solutions; develops gasoline, diesel, hybrid, fuel cell technology...for the big automakers. They work for Ford and GM and Hyundai...with offices all over the world: Asia, Europe, the U.S. 1,750 engineers. Every imaginable testing facility.
"[The alliance with Ricardo] gives us the ability to have all of the automotive engineering skills necessary to turn this technology into an actual drive train that we can license to the world's automakers".
Furia sees the continuing challenge of world oil demand versus global oil production and the resulting ever-higher price of energy driving investment in alternative technologies like his, which have long languished because of cheap oil prices.
"If that continues, than substitution is going to occur and perhaps the nightmare that [Sheihk] Yamani predicted two years ago when he spoke to OPEC will happen. He said that the real enemy of OPEC is technology."
For Furia, that the technology is the plug-in hybrid.
On the internal combustion engine-side of the Extreme Hybrid, Furia doesn't have a favorite. He prefers to let Ricardo and future OEM licensees choose the type of engine -- high-compression gasoline, common rail diesel -- that fits their needs.
"The system doesn't require a particular size engine," he noted. "You can basically configure it for a larger or smaller engine; and you can basically configure it for what you want its performance targets to be.
"As an exercise, our first trade studies have been done on car that would be a plug-in hybrid that would replace the Lexus 400h, because it's a very challenging application: zero-to-sixty in seven seconds, a top speed of 100 mph, be able to tow up a hill and all that business. We did that because we saw it as the hardest application, but we also can do it in something the size of a Camry and get the price all the way down. It just depends on what the OEM's want.
"We're not going to go into the car business. Let me make that clear. Neither we nor Ricardo want to compete with the big Three or the OEMs. We want to help them. We want to support them. We want to license this technology to them and then Ricardo, because that's what they do for a living, will help them integrate it into a specific platform."
Furia explained further that Ricardo is going to help AFS Trinity identify the appropriate components and suppliers to integrate into the Extreme Hybrid system including batteries, ultra-capacitors, electric motors, etc.
"The part that will remain completely proprietary," Furia said, "is the power electronics box and all the software that makes it go. We haven't decided whether we will manufacture that, perhaps abroad, or whether we will license that as well. The revenue that our company is going to make are license fees; however, we may also sell that box."
A company buying the "box" could then specify and source their own components.
"We intend to put this in a vehicle and put it on the road and show it to the [prospective] licensees so they can kick the tires and say, 'I'll be damned, it works'."
AFS Trinity's Furia pointed out that it's not enough to build an expensive, one-off prototype. Carmakers have to see that its mass-producible and that's also why the alliance with Ricardo is so critical.
"One of the things that Ricardo brings is the fact that everything they build has to be built so you can make millions of them, so that the cost is as low as possible.
"We're not going to just build a prototype and say to the automakers, you figure out how to mass produce it, you figure out how much it will cost to make it. We're going to prove all those things out.
"I think that separates us from everyone else who is playing around in this field," he asserted. "We're not a group of enthusiasts modifying a Prius... In order to get the world's automakers to embrace this, we have to enter their world. We have to support the way they need to work, and cost is key.... That's why we sought out Ricardo. "
The Ricardo connection is seen as critical to the next phase of Furia's business plan, which is to sign on at least four OEM licensees to help with funding development. He and a representative from Ricardo also met last week in New York with the major investment banking houses.
Furia is hoping to have a demonstrator vehicle operating in about 18 months and a mass-producible version 18-months after that.
"The long-term business model for us is the Dolby-model or Intel. There's Extreme Hybrid Inside.
Reaching the Tipping Point
Furia believes that we've reached the "tipping point" for this technology, which up to now carmakers have viewed with great skepticism. He thinks it actually occurred the 24-hours in which the Plug-In Partners held their press conference in Washington, D.C ., and AFS Trinity and Ricardo issued their press release.
"I think Tuesday was a historic day."
Assuming he and Ricardo can deliver as promised -- or any of the other players in this rapidly evolving field -- he may well be proven right.
Ed Furia has much more to say in this nearly one-hour long interview, so be sure to listen to it, at your convenience, in MP3. You'll find it entertaining and enlightening.