The Fisker Karma
*** Special to The Business Insider D. Muoio
Henrik Fisker’s first stab at an electric car went up in flames – literally.
His company, Fisker Automotive, was the force behind an electric hybrid called the Fisker Karma in 2012.
The $100,000 car had a host of battery issues that caused the automaker and its battery supplier, A123 Systems, to recall more than 600 Karmas, Wired reported at the time.
Separately, the Karma was known to burst into flames, which was said to be caused by the engine compartment rather than the battery. Fisker Automotive went bankrupt in 2011.
But, as first reported by Bloomberg, Fisker is back and working on an electric car under the newly minted Fisker Inc. that will be revealed in 2017. Fisker has promised a range exceeding 400 miles – which would be huge, considering the longest range currently belongs to the high-end version of the Model S, which gets 315 miles on a single charge.
We took a closer look at the revolutionary battery tech Fisker is planning to use in the electric car that would power what could very well be a Tesla killer.
2012 Karma Shadow with Henrik Fisker and Bernhard Koehler
A Nobel-prize winning material
Rather than working with conventional lithium-ion batteries, Fisker is turning to graphene supercapacitors.
Graphene is the thinnest material on Earth and strongest material known to man. Supercapacitors also store energy like batteries, but the way they do so allows them to have faster charge times.
However, the flip side is they don’t usually store as much of a charge.
The energy applications of graphene have been known for quite some time.
In 2010, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for pioneering research on graphene that opened the door for scientists to study its many applications, like its potential as a battery that can conduct energy better and charge faster.
“Graphene shows a higher electron mobility, meaning that electrons can move faster through it.
This will, e.g. charge a battery much faster,” Lucia Gauchia, an assistant professor of energy storage system at Michigan Technological University, told Business Insider.
“Graphene is also lighter and it can present a higher active surface, so that more charge can be stored.”
But what has prevented it from having a real-world application has been the high cost associated with producing it.
“The reason we are not using it yet, even though the material is not a new one, is that there is no mass production for it yet that can show reasonable cost and scalability,” Gauchia explained.
But Fisker Inc.’s battery division, Fisker Nanotech, is patenting a machine can currently produce as much as 1,000 kilograms of graphene at a cost of just 10 cents a gram, Jack Kavanaugh, the head of Fisker Nanotech, told Business Insider.
The ‘super battery’
Kavanaugh hails from Nanotech Energy, a research group composed of UCLA researchers who specialize in the graphene supercapacitor Fisker will use in his car.
“This particular technology that we’re working on and are using for Fisker Nanotech is a hybrid,” Kavanaugh told Business Insider. “We have been able to take the best of what super-capacitors can do and the best of what batteries can do and are calling it a super battery.”
Aside from the prohibitive cost of using graphene, another limiting factor has conventionally been that supercapacitors don’t hold as much of a charge as standard lithium-ion batteries because they have a lower energy density. Kavanaugh claims his machine addresses that issue by “altering” the structure of graphene.
“The challenge with using graphene in a supercapacitor in the past has been that you don’t have the same density and ability to store as much energy. Well, we have solved that issue,” he said. “Our testing has proven to us that we actually have much greater density than the other technologies out there.”
A hybrid supercapacitor made by Maher El-Kady and Richard Kaner at UCLA. The project was funded by Nanotech Energy.UCLA
Overall, Kavanaugh is promising a product that not only holds more charge and charges faster than lithium ion batteries, but also has a better cycle life. Improving the cycle life means you don’t have to swap out the battery for a new one as frequently as you need to for lithium ion batteries.
“Our battery technology is so much better than anything out there,” Fisker told Business Insider. “Our battery technology is the first battery technology that has taken the major leap, the next big step.”
UCLA researchers like Maher El-Kady and Richard Kaner hold several patents related to graphene superconductors. Both Kaner and El-Kady work for Nanotech Energy.
Kavanaugh said prototypes of the “super battery” have already been made, with new versions of the prototype coming in a few weeks. He said the plant that will actually produce the battery will most likely open in Janaury and will be located in northern California.
It’s worth noting that Tesla CEO Elon Musk actually came to Silicon Valley to earn a PhD working on supercapacitors, and has been on record saying that supercapacitors, not batteries, will be the big breakthrough for EVs.
Cheaper than the Chevy Bolt?
Fisker said he plans to reveal the electric car in the latter half of 2017.
Fisker told Business Insider that he first plans to roll out a luxury vehicle that will most likely be built at VLF Automotive, the car company Fisker is a part of that is building his supercar, the Force 1.
That first luxury electric car will have a limited production run.
“I don’t want to say what kind of car, but it won’t be a supercar,” he said. “It will probably be in the price range of the higher end of the Model S.”
Fisker said he will then produce a consumer-friendly electric car that will be in “an even lower cost segment of both the [Chevy] Bolt and the Model 3.”
The cars will boast ranges greater than 400 miles, Fisker claims.
But Fisker better move quickly because competition in the EV space is mounting quickly.
As mentioned earlier, Tesla currently offers a Model S that can drive 315 miles on a single charge. By the time Fisker unveils his electric car, Tesla may have already beaten that range or gotten closer to it.
Additionally, the Chevy Bolt will be the first consumer-friendly electric car with a competitive range of 238 miles when it hits dealerships by the end of this year.
Like Tesla, Chevy will look to improve that range by the time 2017 rolls around.
And that only touches the surface of the competition out there.
Electric car start-ups like Faraday Future and Atieva are looking for a piece of the pie. Big name brands like Mercedes and Volkswagen are also looking to roll out electric vehicles within the next 3 to 5 years.
It’s also hard to put too much faith in Fisker’s claims without seeing the patent application for the machine producing Fisker Nanotech’s graphene. But Fisker remains confident his product will be better in one key area:
“We will have the lowest cost electric vehicle in the world,” he said.