Everyone Will Want to Charge Their Vehicles Fast, These Entrepreneurs Bet

The trick will be keeping all the innards cool

Some time, years in the future, our transportation mindsets may change — we may forget all about what we now regard as the convenient corner gasoline station, and the reliably quick fill-up while rushing to an appointment or dropping off the kids. Instead, most of us will have new muscle memory and simply plug in our electric vehicle as soon as we get home, so it’s all charged up in the morning. If we happen to occasionally need added juice — say, for the random time we are on a long holiday — charging stations will be concentrated at intervals on highways. Otherwise, we are now watching the twilight of the gas station.

Or so assert lots of first-movers who over the last six months have written to tell me how wrong, wrong, wrong I am to argue that we will need nearly ubiquitous fast-charging stations before mainstream American motorists will relax and look seriously at buying an EV. They say they charge up at home, have left bad memories of smelly gas stations behind them, and that so will everyone else.

Lest I be accused of secretly hording buggy whips, I agree that behavior changes, and that it very well might in how we plan — or don’t — our future routine travel. But, to the degree it happens, multiple legacy automakers like Volkswagen and GM have decided that it won’t be before the middle of the decade, when sticker prices are set to drop, and they hope droves of mainstream buyers start to snap up their new EV offerings. So some of the automakers have put out requests to the research community to develop batteries that can be charged up in no more than 30 minutes.

Quincy Lee, CEO of a Seattle-based startup called Electric Era, comes from the ubiquitous-fast-charge-is-a-prerequisite school of EV futurism. Lee says his company has developed a cooling mechanism that handles the biggest problem in EV fast charging — overheating of the battery. When electrons are shoved into a battery at great speed, they cause extreme stress on the materials inside. At this stage of battery technology, if you fast charge your EV as a routine, you are more likely than not to seriously damage and even ruin your battery. But Lee says that the Electric Era system keeps the cells at more or less room temperature even while electrons are passing through at fast charge rates of 20 or 30 minutes, and do so with little degradation for at least 10,000 cycles.

This, he says, makes the system useful in fast-charging stations, where a buffer is needed between the grid, the fast-charge equipment, and EVs arriving to be charged up. The system is similar to an HVAC home cooling equipment, he said. Coolant fully envelopes the battery cells and pulls the heat out. Because material degradation is so low, the system requires many fewer cells, cutting the cost of the battery pack. Electric Era’s battery packs get charged up off the grid, and deliver electricity back during times of peak demand, like early evening. This takes stress off the grid and reduces the need for utilities to invest in more and more power-generating equipment. In the same way, Lee said, the system can smoothly deliver power to rapidly charge up an EV.

“We keep the battery chilling beneath 35 degrees Celsius,” he said.

If the system proves out, such technology could be an important step ahead toward easing consumer worries about going electric. Toward that, it is part of a gigantic rush of companies attempting to solve and cash in on the charging challenge.

“The first wave of [consumer] anxiety was range,” Lee said. Motorists were worried about getting stranded when EVs could go only 100 miles or less on a charge. Now EVs are routinely rated at up to 300 miles and more. “The second wave is the availability of charging. It’s what range anxiety was in 2012.”

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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