March 27, 2008 It seems a transatlantic battle is brewing in the high-performance electric sportscar market. As America's Tesla moves into the production phase with its 130+mph Roadster, Britain's Lightning GT is hot on its heels, with prototypes expected to hit the road later this year. The Lightning's power figures are very impressive - 700 horsepower, and 4 second 0-60mph times to almost rival the Tesla's 3.7 seconds. But it's the GT's revolutionary battery technology that might give it the upper hand: Nanosafe's Li-ion cells using nano titanate structures instead of traditional graphite give the GT an incredible 250-mile range, a full recharge time of only 10 minutes, and a life expectancy of 12 to 20 years, or 15,000 charge cycles before the battery performance drops significantly.
With battery technology advancing so quickly, it's hard not to be bullish about the prospects of electric motoring as a serious alternative to the combustion engine. The battery has always been the limiting factor with electric vehicles; they've traditionally been too heavy, too large, too expensive. They took too long to charge, they didn't offer a good enough charge range, and some of the better-performing Lithium variants were prone to dangerous overheating spirals that threatened driver and passenger safety.
Beyond the battery, the sky's the limit to some degree - electric engines are incredibly compact and can be pretty much as powerful as you want them to be. Power to each wheel can be precisely measured and controlled. Maintenance is next to zero, since there are so few moving parts compared with a combustion engine, they're clean, simple and, of course, very green.
Which is why the Lightning GT is such an exciting electric car. Beyond its very British good looks, extreme performance figures and nifty regenerative braking, this is an electric car that takes only marginally longer to "fill up" than your Ferrari - and will travel a similar distance, all the while delivering truly awesome driving thrills and extreme amounts of torque.
The GT uses an array of Nanosafe batteries, by Altairnano - which replace the graphite structures within the traditional lithium-ion cell with nano-engineered titanate materials which are much more effective along several axes. The stronger nanostructures resist breakdown over time far better than graphite, leading to a greatly increased life expectancy of more than 15,000 charge cycles before the cell drops below 85% of its original capacity.
Battery safety has been a concern in the past with previous graphite-based Li-ion designs exhibiting dangerous overheating when subjected to overcharging, punctures, drops and crashes - to the point where under stress tests they can frequently smoke, ignite and even explode. The Nanosafe batteries show none of these behaviors, and seem thermally very stable.
The nano-titanate batteries also show extremely high levels of power density - as much as 4000W/kg compared to a good traditional cell's 1500W/kg. And their well-ordered, low-resistance structure allows for exceptionally quick charging - as little as 10 minutes for a 100% charge.
While the battery technology is still in its infancy, the Lightning GT and electric supercars of its ilk will remain highly expensive - but since the battery is generally the major expense in their production, and battery technology is likely to become vastly cheaper as it matures, we can expect good, fast, long-range electric cars to be a genuine and compelling option for the average car buyer sometime in the next five to ten years.
In the meanwhile, early adopters who've got enough green to go green can sample the Tesla Roadster and Lightning GT as the performance pioneers of a sector that might well prove to be our salvation from our reliance on oil-based fuels. Which will be the better supercar? Clearly, ladies and gents, this question calls for a race series.