By Terri Steele
La Jolla, California — On the eve of America’s National Drive Electric Week (September 12 – 20th), a grassroots initiative known as the M-BEAM Challenge is delivering the world’s first coast-to-coast electric vehicle (EV) trek to demonstrate the versatile, range-extending capabilities of its Modular Battery Exchange and Active Management (M-BEAM) swappable battery system, designed to address the industry’s largest hurdles to widespread EV adoption: upfront cost and limited range (or range anxiety anxiety). And the inventor, engineering students, and UCSD advisors behind the endeavor – aka Team M-BEAM — have launched a fundraising effort challenging the world to help take their concept mainstream while supporting their milestone journey, currently slated for October 2015.
The M-BEAM model offers EV owners an entirely new means of charging electric vehicles while on the road. Rather than wait in line at an official EV charging station and endure a 45-minute to 4-hour wait as batteries are recharged, M-BEAM’s swappable battery solution allows EV drivers to pull into M-BEAM “exchange stations” – theoretically, convenience stores like 7-Elevens or Speedways – and simply swap any number of shoebox-sized battery module sets for fully-charged ones, improving convenience for many EV drivers when they travel far from home or run low on charge while out and about.
Fast & Flexible
“We’ve taken this gigantic battery pack and diced it up into smaller, more manageable modules that the driver can extract and replace as needed,” said M-BEAM inventor and project founder Lou Shrinkle. “Small, replaceable batteries allow drivers to refuel quickly. When ready for a charge, the consumer simply extracts depleted battery modules, pays for one or more freshly-charged battery systems at the counter, slides them into the battery housing and the journey continues — without frustrating wait times,” Shrinkle said.
It’s a distinct alternative to the networks of charging stations being developed across the nation. And it’s relevant to millions of people who may not know it yet. According to NASA, gas automobiles are now the largest net contributor to climate change pollution, belching about a pound of carbon dioxide on average per mile*. Worse, over one billion new cars will be on the road in the next 10 years due to growth in China and India**. If these new drivers are given the option of using EVs in lieu of gas guzzlers – and presented with the versatile charging/storage opportunities these EV batteries afford folks on or off the grid – this world becomes a collectively better place.
“Renewable energy is experiencing explosive growth, and M-BEAM’s solution can synergistically provide the necessary storage we need to support off-grid charging,” noted Shrinkle. “These same modules could easily become a safe, reliable, low-cost mobile energy source… think of them as zero-carbon 5 gallon gas cans,” he said.
Public Charging Stations: A Flawed Concept
Team M-BEAM contends today’s infrastructure and America’s evolving charging station model simply can’t support mass adoption of electric vehicles. Today, 50% of the country has no access to a garage, let alone 240-volt outlets, rendering electric cars impractical for them. And Team M-BEAM says the amount of time it takes to administer a cost-effective, safe charge at today’s commercial EV stations is too slow for most people for daily use. It suggests that pursuing alternatives like M-BEAM and standardizing its energy modules provides consumers a distinct choice that can easily co-exist with the country’s evolving public charging stations.
“Right now, government and industry are forcing public charging stations down our throats, misrepresenting them as the equivalent to gas stations for long-distance EV travel. That is a seriously flawed idea,” observed Shrinkle.
To prove the viability of the M-BEAM alternative, Team M-BEAM has retrofitted a 2002 Volkswagen Golf for its October proof-of-concept journey. The coast-to-coast trip will exceed 2,400 miles, with M-BEAM’s sixteen 30-pound, briefcase-sized, modular battery systems delivering about 100–120 miles (around 26 kilowatt hours, or kWh) per charge. This translates into around twenty-two 3-to-5-minute stops to change out the batteries across the United States – a vast time savings over the typical 45-minute to 4-hour charge. With a goal of $15,000, the Indiegogo fundraiser is designed to defray the costs for operating M-BEAM’s flagship vehicle (the VW retrofitted with M-BEAM’s swappable battery system), a sleeper vehicle, and a chase vehicle assigned to charge the replacement batteries and simulate the exchange station concept along the way. Money is also being raised to fund the team’s return trip to San Diego.
“We’re embarking on this journey to remind consumers that they have a voice in how this industry develops – and to encourage fellow engineers and entrepreneurs to take our idea to the next level,” said Shrinkle. “We are also providing some real hands-on experience for the students involved in this project. They’re the ones who will need to fix this planet that my generation did a darn good job messing up.”
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, EVs boast several advantages over carbon-producing gas-fueled vehicles. They reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil and fracking, and they are emissions-free, thus delivering improved air and water quality, creating healthier neighborhoods. EVs are also quiet, have hundreds fewer moving parts, and are thus easier to maintain. And exchangeable batteries eliminate the obsolescence of fixed batteries, potentially saving electric car owners thousands of dollars per year.
While EVs qualify for a bevy of incentives – from federal tax credits to parking privileges, HOV freeway access, and a bevy of state incentives – upfront cost continues to be an inhibitor to widespread adoption.
Shrinkle, UCSD Professor of Control Systems Raymond de Callafon, and the UCSD engineering students working on Team M-BEAM believe a nix on the fixed-battery concept native to EV manufacturing presents an opportunity to further lower costs.
“Imagine that you can now buy an electric vehicle without the battery. Keep them separate and simply lease the battery. As a result, the purchase price of the EV becomes around $10,000 cheaper, and the vehicle owner can enjoy the most advanced battery technology available,” observed UCSD’s de Callafon.
The Elon Musk Factor
M-BEAM takes the 90-second battery exchange concept introduced by technology innovator and EV icon Elon Musk in 2013 to a new level. Rather than swapping out fully-intact, enormously-heavy batteries at specially-designated service stations (the original Tesla Model S battery weighed in at a whopping 1,300 pounds***), M-BEAM’s modular battery technology enables the independent exchange of spent batteries for fully-charged, 30-pound briefcase-sized battery components. Shrinkle says future module weights will be much lower, as light as 5–8 pounds each.
In 2014, Musk surprised fans and critics alike by opening up Tesla’s patents – including those surrounding its Model S, Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year and the best car Consumer Reports has ever tested, according to its rating team – to all interested in using and improving on Tesla’s innovations to help speed the adoption of electric vehicles.
“Technology leadership is not defined by patents… but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers,” Musk said at the time.
Modular battery technology doesn’t have to serve only EVs. Generators, motorcycles, lawnmowers, even household appliances can be powered from this technology, say the mechanical and environmental engineers enjoying the hands-on clean energy experience this endeavor delivers. They trumpet use of solar to charge the batteries as another potential advancement.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Why don’t you just start a company and try to sell this thing?’ ” mused Shrinkle. “At the end of the day, we’re all just a bunch of engineers. We’re the little guys. We don’t have fancy lobbyists in Detroit and Washington. But we do think the folks there have their heads in the sand on this. We don’t have unlimited funds. For us, the ‘lobbyist’ advocating for this technology is this trip – the M-BEAM Challenge. And we hope to change some minds with it. We’ll leave the fight on the future of EV charging for the marketplace to decide.”
More about the M-BEAM CHALLENGE: The M-BEAM Challenge is the world’s first coast-to-coast electric vehicle (EV) trek demonstrating the versatile, range-extending capabilities of the new Modular Battery Exchange and Active Management (M-BEAM) swappable battery system. A collaborative effort among San Diego inventor and engineer Lou Shrinkle, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering and corporate sponsors, M-BEAM offers mind-seed capital to inspire new ideas about the way we use and charge electric vehicles – and the future of energy storage. Support the M-BEAM challenge and learn more via this Indiegogo link and at www.modularexchange.com.
About the author: Terri Steele is a San Diego-based writer, marketer, and clean energy evangelist who’s written for National Geographic-affiliated Water for Tomorrow, CleanTechnica, The Eco Report, Hearst’s The Daily Green, Solar Today, InterPV Magazine, Renewable Energy World, and elected officials and executives within the cleantech, telecom, and IT space. Follow her @SolarSavvy; find her at SolarSavvy@cox.net.
* From NASA: “Global Climate Change, Vital Signs of the Planet,” Feb. 2014.
** From www.HowStuffWorks.com, Kristen Hall-Geisler.
*** From the biography “ELON MUSK: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” by Ashlee Vance.