Luke Workman interview Part 2: The million-horsepower piston crusher, the Joby S2 and leaving Zero
Also known as LiveforPhysics, Luke Workman is a brilliant, fearless maniac who has so many fingers in so many pies that he's got to have an extra pair of hands somewhere. Formerly the lead lithium battery specialist at Zero Motorcycles, Luke is now an independent contractor working on a dozen ridiculously amazing projects including the stunning Joby S2. That's just his professional life – outside hours he's constantly working on a range of backyard science projects that would scare the bejesus out of any lesser being. In part two, we discuss his million-horsepower piston crusher, his multirotor projects and his post-Zero consulting career.
In part 1 of our interview with this remarkable character, Luke threw me the keys to a souped-up electric three wheeler at 1 am on a rainy night, and laughed as it fishtailed down the road making terrifying arc flashes. We spoke about the limitless performance opportunities offered by electric vehicles, and also his "Death Bike" – an overpowered electric bicycle that smashes Teslas down a drag strip when it's not tearing the spokes out of its rear wheel.
Later, he told me "you've got to ride Death Bike, it's too good to miss out on" ... so, armed with a bicycle helmet and a fireproof Nomex suit he had lying around in lieu of actual motorcycling gear, I set out to ride the thing in the dead of a rainy Santa Cruz night. Since Death Bike had no headlight, Luke followed along on another bike he'd been building for his wife, holding a flashlight so we could both see.
With bicycle pedals for footpegs and very little where a tank would normally be, I found Death Bike deeply terrifying under brakes. Naturally, it was much more fearsome under acceleration, especially with cold tires in the wet. I don't think I got much past 70 percent throttle, which was fine with me, as he'd already told me that going to full throttle generally destroys the sprocket, sprocket carrier or rear wheel, whichever is feeling weaker that day. Suffice to say that under the conditions, finding traction was a constant challenge, and one ride on Death Bike was more than enough for yours truly.
But terrifying electric vehicles are only a small part of what this wild genius of a man is up to, and I wanted to know more about some of his other backyard science experiments. What follows is the second part of our conversation back in January 2016.
On his million-horsepower can crusher:
Luke Workman: Well, I got these capacitors in the front yard that I'm trying to give away now, because I wanted to crush a top fuel piston with an electromagnetic coil discharge as an art project. But then, once I made this smaller version of it, which I was using to crush cans with an electromagnetic field… It was so spooky to work with the scaled down, like one tenth scale version of it, that I decided even though I already got the hardest to find part in the whole project, that I just didn't even want to mess with doing the scaled-up version.
Loz: So when you say crushing cans like what actually happens to them? they just implode like you're stepping on them?
Luke Workman: Yeah. What happens is you put his coil of copper wire around them, and then you hook it up across a spark gap. And I made a spark gap that's spring loaded with a bunch of bungee cords, so it kind of catapults these two huge copper contacts together against each other. And they're wired up with four-ought gauge cable.
So you spring this bungee arm back, and you set a pin on it, on a long piece of fishing line so that it's electrically isolated from the system, and then with another fishing line you turn on the switch to power up this transformer that feeds this diode bridge that charges the capacitors, and then once it's charged, you flip off the transformer – because otherwise the ringing from the discharge will blow up the transformer. I found that out the hard way.
And you pull the pin out and this spark gap closes fast and once it gets near the other surface – because it's got 50,000 volts just on the small version, the big one was 160 kilovolts - it arcs between here, and then it builds a magnetic field in the circuit as it discharges this huge pulse discharge capacitor through it.
And this field accelerates so fast through the aluminum can that just the resulting eddy current forces totally crush the can in… And it makes the most unique little necked joint in the can. Like I don't think there's any mechanical way possible to neck an aluminum can the way this coil can do it.
But if you step up the power then at some point the coil's own magnetic forces cause it tear itself apart until it just shreds in to shrapnel of copper, and it sounds kind of a like a shotgun blast going off, and it make this big ball of plasma when it blows up.
And if you're using that level of force with things like cans, it destroys them. Turns them into plasma, like, vaporizes them.
People put these coils around things like quarters and then it shrinks the quarter. You can make them like four times as thick and a quarter the diameter with electromagnetic fields, all in a 100,000th of a second or something.
Loz: Dear god.
Luke Workman: So I wanted to do the quarter shrinking concept to a top fuel dragster piston. They're, like 500 cubic inches, so like a 4.5 inch bore and a 4.5 stroke or something, right around there. Pretty big piston. They're like an inch thick of aluminum on a top field dragster piston at the top of it. So I wanted to crush it right in that inch thick spot, rather than on the skirt.
The reason was just to show that this piston can withstand nitro methane's explosions and making a thousand horsepower per cylinder but with, like micrograms of electron energy I can just crush it like a toy. And the so the capacitors are in the in front yard to do that, but …
Loz: But ... Nup.
Luke Workman: Yeah. I just decided it's louder and, like, more plasma and like more molten copper exploding than I was looking to get into. (laughs)
Loz: Well it's good to know that there's ideas you have that you think are too extreme. That's a good thing for me to know.
Luke Workman: Yeah, yeah. I'm planning on giving them to someone who will do the project, I just don't want to do it in my backyard because I have neighbors close by, and … Getting this thing dialed in is it going to sound like exploding bombs in your backyard but it will just be electrical plasma and copper coils exploding ...
Loz: I guess you could do a leaflet drop, you know, as if you're going to have a party on the Saturday night. "Just by the way, hidelly ho, neighborino …"
Luke Workman: (laughs) Yeah, also if electronic devices in your house randomly die from EMP effects, I'm sorry. These things happen.
Loz: Oh, man … So are you going to be around when this piston thing goes down?
Luke Workman: Well, we'll see. Yeah. I mean if somebody else sets it up at their place and it's their neighbors that call the cops, and I can just leave afterwards, you know, I will definitely come and watch it. Yeah. (laughs)
Edit: since we spoke to Luke, his giant capacitors have gone to another project - as Luke describes it: "They went to a guy who makes giant Tesla coil lightning on demand for movies and lightning strike test equipment. He's going to use them for something that I don't want to stand within 200 feet of when it's running, he has this ingenious way to charge each one to its 60kV limit, then put them in series with the main Tesla coil's low Mega-Volt range arc to form the long distance plasma channel it fires the power of the capacitors into ... The coils this guy makes are so big the normal HV output has enough current to cause everything it strikes to almost instantly catch fire, or if it's metal it starts being EDM machined away rapidly, and he is just using that power to make the conductive plasma "wire'" to discharge the capacitors I gave him. I tried to sway him towards something more rational like an EM quarter shrinker, but this work is towards a good cause. His ultimate goal is to dump so much power into a pair of giant Tesla coils he achieves the eV energy level needed to achieve relativistic speeds of electrons leaving the plasma arc. This enables them to effectively shrink the collision probability with air molecules in the atmosphere, and they end up making otherwise impossibly long plasma streamers, just as we see in real lightning that shouldn't cover the distance it does otherwise. An apparatus has never been made to be capable of testing it outside of linear accelerators, which was this mad-genius' background occupation for a few decades. It seems like it's got a shot at working, though I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing, and the arc will be streaming absurd amounts of x-rays if he is actually able to get this energy delivered into the electrons. This is his Tesla coil running on a 696vdc battery system I gave him so he doesn't have to rent a stinky loud generator to power his coils."
On multirotors and the Joby S2:
Loz: Let's talk about multirotors, they really feel like one of the significant technologies of our time.
Luke Workman: Definitely. So like, on my last trip in Beijing, I spent a good deal of time riding my road bike through traffic. And I would say, maybe one in five vehicles on the road was some kind of delivery vehicle, like food or whatever. They have pizza delivery and everything else, right? I think multirotors will immediately take all of that traffic off the road, like within a year or two.
Loz: And somewhere like China, they can just snap their fingers and make that stuff legal and make it happen.
Luke Workman: The only thing that's missing is governments accepting that it's happening, rather than any functional issue with the vehicles.
We only occasionally hear about multirotors when there's a crash, like they found one in Oakland with a pound of meth strapped to it or something.
Drone delivery is already a normal thing happening everyday. It's simply that awareness of it is low. Really, the only industries not leveraging multirotors already are legitimate businesses like sandwich shops and pizza shops! If you make a law, it only affects law abiding citizens which weren't the problem in the first place …
Why can't I order a taco and it's here in like five minutes from Taco Bell, and just drops in my front yard? The technology's there.
I can make it happen for Taco Bell, right now, with my own multirotors. I could send them there and land in the parking lot. They could sit a taco in it and fly back to my house … Other places you could do that, they'd be fine with it. It's only legitimate business that's hurt by the lack of legislation.
Loz: And deliveries, that's just obviously one thing. Eventually when crazy bastards like you come up with the next three, five levels of battery technology, you can put people in there and hoon around in the skies.
At this time, the applications would be limited to things where you have a short total flight time. Eventually inter-city taxi function would be excellent. But if you look at something like the Joby S2, it has all the function of carrying passengers in a multirotor, you know, where you can just take off and land wherever - but also transitions to forward flight and then flies like a super-efficient electric plane.
Loz: Yes, so that's the one what you've got, fourteen props or something, 10 or 12 tilters so you have VTOL capability and then they tilt forward to give you forward motion. At which point you've got the optimized cruise propellers, they kick in, and then all the other props fold away into aerodynamic shapes, so you've got 200 mile range on a 200 miles an hour flight with VTOL.
Luke Workman: Yup.
Loz: All electric.
Luke Workman: Yup, which is pretty convenient.
Loz: I mean, Joby's only got the CAD video out there of it now, like how far off is that kind of thing you think?
Luke Workman: Unstoppable, is how far off it is. So he's got way more than a CAD video. He's got many years of testing his own propulsion systems. The Joby motor is a pretty brilliant design.
All the numbers work for this, so it's not like we need to cheat physics somehow to make this happen, or make some new breakthrough to make this happen or something. It's simply a matter of assembling the thing and it will happen. So, that's something I'm helping with. It's a privilege to work with such an awesome team and it's one of my most exciting projects, Maybe, my second best.
Loz: You've got some amazing projects on the go … that we'll all find out about in a couple of years' time! (laughs)
On leaving Zero Motorcycles and the next stage of his career:
Luke Workman: Senior Engineer/ Battery Specialist was my title at Zero Motorcycles, yeah. And with the help of an amazing team there, that I loved having the pleasure to work with every day, we created perhaps the most robust, most rugged, most weatherproof, most power dense and most energy dense, electric vehicle batteries in the world.
Loz: Right on!
Luke: Yeah, thank you!
Loz: I still remember the first time I talked to you at dinner with Richard, the CEO of Zero. He had this wonderful mix of being in absolute awe of your capabilities but completely terrified as well. He's very much a father figure, I get the feeling, at Zero and you were his favorite son. He seemed like, "well, Luke's going to kill himself someday but my god, what a magnificent creature."
Luke Workman: Thank you!
Luke Workman (centre) with Zero Motorcycles CEO Richard Walker (right) and Bryan Cady (left) - "Bryan Cady is Zero's R&D wizard of everything from polymer engineering to radar system design. His official title is something like R&D test engineer, but if it doesn't mention wizard or epic super-genius it seems less accurate."
Loz: Trying to walk that line of being really impressed by the crazy things you've done and then, thinking "but this guy's really important to me and the business."
Luke Workman: You know, Richard Walker is such a great human being. He's one of the reasons I stayed working there for so long was because I was impressed by him. He's a great guy. Zero is very lucky to have him. We went through a number of executives before we got to Richard and it was worth each of the cycling exchanges to arrive with him. He's great human being.
Loz: Yeah. So the next phase of your life is much more … You're just going to strike out and consult on whatever takes your interest?
Luke Workman: Yeah. I have one hard requirement in my new consulting business, it's that the project must benefit all living beings. And otherwise, every other condition is optional, including payment. But if the project benefits all living beings, then the work itself was all the reward I need.
Loz: It's a great way to do things. So what kinds of industries are you striking out into? You've got the aerospace stuff with Joby …
Luke: Well see, all of the projects that I'm dealing with right now are supposed to be confidential and I respect my customer's confidence. Joby doesn't require that this project's confidential, because he's already made press releases about it.
Although I will say all of them benefit all living beings, and I'm proud to be a part of each one of them or I wouldn't bother. I refuse to work for money, I work for love and the passion of what I'm doing, and if there's a paycheck that happens as well, this is synergistic and fortunate, but it's not the reason why, it's not the motivation.
I've watched too many rich friends try to fill their life with toys, which end up just being distractions, and not finding peace.
Loz: Yeah, and like you said, you work for the passion of it, and I think it exudes from every pore in your body. You're one of the most enthusiastic people I think I've ever met.
Luke Workman: Thank you. What a kind thing to say, thank you.
Don't miss part 1 of this conversation, in which Luke makes me ride his hideously dangerous (and now destroyed) overclocked Corbin Sparrow, and we talk about Death Bike and the unlimited performance potential of electric vehicles, as well as how we met. Then check out part 3, in which we discuss his hedonistic past as a street racing hustler, how he got into electric vehicles and lithium batteries to begin with, the future of performance vehicles in a world where nobody drives any more, and the lightly radioactive, potentially lethal and very unique wedding ring he made for his wife.