Luke Workman interview Part 3: Street racing, the birth of an electric obsession, and a lethal wedding ring

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Luke Workman: checking out life from inside a carbon fiber sphere made by bicycle wizard Craig Calfee(Credit: Loz Blain/Gizmag.com)

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Luke Workman, aka LiveforPhysics, is a joyfully maniacal electric vehicle genius with his fingerprints on some of the most exciting and ridiculous projects in Silicon Valley. In the final part of our hilarious and mind-blowing interview series (don't miss parts one and two), Luke sits down with Loz to discuss his youth as a street racing hustler, how he got into lithium battery technology, the future of high performance motoring in an autonomous world ... and the lightly radioactive, potentially deadly and totally unique wedding ring he made for his wife.

On the unique and potentially deadly wedding ring he made for his wife:

Loz: I remember something vague you told me about the ring you made for your wife, you know, her engagement ring.

Luke Workman: Oh yeah, it's pretty amazing. It's the wedding ring. Yeah, well. I was looking at diamond initially, when I realized it's not stable at one atmosphere at room temperature, it's actually boiling away at the surface, it's sublimating, it's only stable at super high pressures. It's not going to affect a noticeable mass change in a human time span duration, so you know, for practical purposes …

Loz: Are you seriously telling me that diamonds are not forever?

Luke Workman: Yeah, diamonds are boiling. Diamonds are only forever if they're deep in the earth's crust with a ton of pressure on them.

Loz: No shit.

Luke Workman: Anyways, I was looking at more stable things like fluoropolymers which aren't evaporating at room temperature. And I was thinking, if you're going to use a fluoropolymer, you could actually make a ring that was forever.

Well, not forever, like eventually, UV radiation and gamma ray bursts and things hitting it will break it down but it would last a very long time, much longer than any kind of metal or rock.

Loz: Much longer than most marriages would last.

Luke Workman: Yeah, exactly. And so to make it unique … through eBay and some ... harder to find sources, I found 92 elements that were solids, that were practical to put into this material that I chose: fluorinated ethyl propylene.

Because there's some crazy elements in there I advised my wife not to wear it if she's going to get her hands wet, because like there's thallium in it and another things like that could potentially kill her if they get into her skin.

But the ring is unique, and I was looking for unique. A diamond is a rock formation that happens all over, and all the time, right? So in this ring, in this environment, this combination of materials will be trading electrons at the surface. All chemistry is ultimately surface chemistry right? So all of these interacting materials will be creating alloys and species that have never before existed in the universe – perhaps, at least. Even species that are so unstable they only last for microseconds. It will be generating them continuously, combinations that if never been else in the universe. So ...

Loz: On your wife's finger?

Luke Workman: Right, on her finger. And it also has tritium vials that have a phosphor powder that reacts with the radiation that they give off as they decay in the helium 3. And the tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, but it actually does an atomic conversion of energy. It trades its mass for energy as it decays in this radioactive process.

And that radioactivity, you can use it to stimulate phosphorus so that you can actually see a glow. And so I put those in her ring so that, not only does it glow when in the dark without needing to be recharged but, also it has a radiation source to stimulate the generation of new species that wouldn't have otherwise occurred. So it's extremely probable in her ring there are things at any point in time that have never existed anywhere else but in her ring which is why it's a unique feature. And making it was a labor of love. I wouldn't make a second one.

Loz: And how long did it take?

Luke Workman: Well, of course I put it off until like a week before the wedding. But then I'd been gathering materials for a year. But I had to work pretty much day and night for that week before we left and I was just finishing it before we left to go to Maui to get married.

Loz: Oh, man. And what did she think?

Luke Workman: She loves it. It's beautiful and unique and it glows. And it has truly unique properties that nothing else has. And I think if you put it in an XRF machine, the machine would … it would either think it was a calibration problem like its baseline through zero shifted up, but it would trip on pretty much everything it can detect aside from just a couple that are either unstable or …

Loz: Just too dangerous to put in there.

Luke Workman: I didn't really stop if they were just too dangerous. Just if they really were going to decompose on their own, unstoppably. And I also didn't mess with fluorine gas either because … I'm at peace with dealing with fluorine … just over it. (laughs)

Loz: You're just finished with fluorine.

Luke Workman: Yeah. I've completed all interest in fluorine gas.

Loz: How did you end up completing the interest?

Luke Workman: I am just going to … I'm just going to leave it at that actually. Let's just say there is a Prius that needed a new interior and I'll leave it at that.

Loz: Okay. All right. All right.

Luke Workman: And I was glad that I could get a breath again.

Loz: At all.

Luke Workman: Yeah, at all. Yeah. I'm just cool with fluorine now. Yeah.

On his early days as a street racer and how he ended up in the electric vehicle space:

Loz: When did you start getting into battery stuff?

Luke Workman: Well, I wasn't. You know, it's interesting you mentioned that. I had always been interested in chemistry, but electric chemistry and organic chemistry, ironically, were the two that I cared the least about because I was obsessed with wanting to be a Formula One engine developer.

At that point, I was just focused on the attributes of chemistry that were constructive towards making faster race engine fuels, you know, higher performance in internal combustion engines – and oil technology but …

Loz: And this all came from your youth as a street racing vagrant.

Luke Workman: Yeah, basically. That's a good description, yeah.

Loz: So you hot rodded your own cars up enough that you thought, "I should be doing this with the best people in the world."

Luke Workman: Yeah. Exactly. That's it. And one of the teams that I was so fortunate to get to work with now … SpeedFactory has the first 7-second front wheel drive street class Civic, which is pretty brutal.

But yeah, I come from a background of hot rod building. My dad was a hot rod builder and my dad's dad was a hot rod builder and street racer. And when hot rodding was first happening, he was one of the first guys putting superchargers on things, putting diesel turbochargers on things and figuring it out, so.

Loz: So it runs in the family a bit.

Luke Workman: It does run in the family. But what led me to batteries was actually somewhere towards the end of college. On the path that I was taking, which included all the thermodynamics and fluid dynamics I could get, I looked at electric motors. I don't know why but I just took a serious look at electric motors.

I realized that in internal combustion, I've got this hard carnot cycle efficiency limit of like 60 percent or something even if I make a frictionless internal combustion engine that has no pumping losses, and like, everything is perfect, right? I've got this wall where 40 percent of the energy that I'm burning is going to be waste heat.

And once I realized that, and I realized these materials were the same, it's aluminum and it's steel, you know. If I want to make some crazy powerful things, if I want to make a 10,000 horsepower car, you can do it like a top fuel dragster engine and then you get 10,000 horsepower for a few seconds before the whole system's thermally saturated and it needs to shut off and cool, right.

But if you want to just have this power available all the time, you can do it with electric because if you want to make 10,000 horsepower electric and you've got a 95 percent efficient system, it's only 500 horsepower of heat that you have to get rid of. And 500 horsepower of heat is, like, half the heat load that say a new Corvette rejects because to make it 700 horsepower or whatever it's burning like, you know, 2,000 horsepower of gasoline or whatever and then rejecting that much.

So if you want stupendous high performance, unless you make a higher melting point temperature material – and even top fuel dragsters still use aluminum pistons – so if you don't make a higher melting point material, internal combustion has no shot at matching the power density and performance capabilities in an electric vehicle.

And so after that point, internal combustion engines started looking more like Rube Goldberg contraptions that make torque as a byproduct of dominantly being a heater burning gasoline.

Bulk nitro in the door cavities appears to be a Luke Workman speciality in his younger days(Credit: Luke Workman)

And I looked at it like, the rate that you get rid of this heat is ultimately going to limit your continuous power capabilities. And so electric all of a sudden, whether I liked it or not, became where to go if your interest are really maximizing performance.

And what's holding electric back was the batteries. And so even despite my own personal interest in fast combustion engines, I could already see that there was an ocean of awesome motors available and awesome motor technology available.

And that was never the bottleneck for electric vehicles, and so I dedicated efforts towards understanding all the attributes of what makes the best electric vehicle battery design and made my life's pursuits not just through school but day and night bingeing; reading every whitepaper related to cell technology and battery technology.

This is such a fast-moving industry right now. It would be like if you went to school to learn about computer hardware technology today, by the time you've started your program and by the time you finished, it would be obsolete.

So battery tech is moving even faster and that's why the place to learn it is in industry. And starting off with Microsoft doing data center work and working with batteries there, and then moving into EV building and then moving to Zero after that. And it's been something like 10 years now of working with EV batteries. And those 10 years of experience are the priceless portion of my education that no school professor could offer because …

Loz: I mean, you've been right there while this whole field has been exploding …

Luke Workman: Yes, right on the bleeding edge of what's possible and better technology.

Loz: Like multirotors for example, and electric vehicles and Tesla and all that sort of stuff. These things are only happening because of what's happened in batteries. There's whole giant industries now riding the wave of just this last bit of battery development.

Luke Workman: And batteries are going to continue to evolve and improve too. What's crazy is EVs are already amazing today and I love them and I'd never consider going back. And yet, it will never be worse than it is today. It's already good today and it's only getting better. This is inevitable too. No one's going to make a worse EV than what you can get today. And they're already awesome. Drive a P90D.

Luke Workman: Doesn't every other sports car seem silly?

Loz: I'm not going to comment on that until I've driven all the sports cars.

Luke Workman: Good man! (laughs)

Loz: But that's just leaps and bounds in front of every other car I've ever driven. In every single way. There's nothing … it's comfortable, it's practical, and yet it's the fastest f***ing thing ever when you put your foot down.

Luke Workman: It's a rocketship.

On the future of performance vehicles in a world where autonomous cars will be the norm:

Loz: So here's a question for you. Within three years, autonomous vehicles will be on the road. Fully autonomous vehicles. Within five years, there's going to be a lot of autonomous vehicles on the road.

Luke Workman: Right.

Loz: Within 15 years …

Luke Workman: There will be no more semi-trailer drivers or delivery jobs for UPS dudes.

Loz: Right. So we're going towards a place … I've got a one and a half year old son. He thinks motorcycles are the coolest thing in the world. And he's not wrong.

Luke Workman: Right, good man. Good wisdom.

Loz: He's got that much sorted out. But he's probably never going to need to learn how to drive, right?

Luke Workman: He probably will never need to learn how to drive. Yeah.

Loz: For our generation, freedom came when you turned 16, 17, 18, whenever you get this license, all of a sudden, you can go be with your friends anytime you want.

Luke Workman: When he turns 16, any time he wants to ride anywhere, he'll touch like one button on his phone and an autonomous vehicle will come pick him and his friends up and as soon as the door closes, it'll be on its way to the destination that they've picked on their phone.

Loz: Yeah. And he never needs to learn how to park, he doesn't have to worry about the expense of owning a car.

Luke Workman: These will all be relics of this past gone society that was wasteful.

Loz: Exactly. And so, as a society, we've only had cars, really for the last hundred years, right?

Luke Workman: Yup.

Loz: And in that hundred years, they've become so much of a part of people's identity. And, you know, people take great pride in their driving skill and their riding skill. I'm the same. It's fun to drive and it's …

Luke Workman: You didn't wreck the Sparrow, so kudos to you on the good riding skills.

Loz: I just went real slow. Except for over those speed bumps, you know… (laughs) So we're sitting here talking about a future in which unbelievable amounts of performance will be available to driving enthusiasts.

Luke Workman: Yup. Yup.

Loz: Will there be driving enthusiasts left to enjoy it?

Luke Workman: I don't know. I don't know.

Loz: Are we the last generation?

Luke Workman: Imagine if there's say, like electric thrust propelled wing suits or whatever, you know? And if you want a thrill, you've got something that instead of pulling like two or two and a half Gs, it pulls like 10 Gs, And if you want to do like 250 miles an hour or whatever, you can and you don't need a straight road and there's no cops because you're in the sky or whatever.

It may be that hardcore adrenaline junkie drivers, you know, are all flying awesome electric vehicles or wingsuit flying or, who knows. But they also might just be driving incredibly high performance electric cars too, right?

Loz: I just wonder …

Luke Workman: How long the whole car concept will even last?

Loz: Yeah.

Luke Workman: Yeah. I don't know. It will certainly fail at some point but whether it will fail 10 years out or, you know?

Loz: I think our generation's never going to lose it. You know what I mean?

Luke Workman: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Loz: I think people like you and I are always want to go fast on the road. But yeah, my kid's generation, probably less. And it just occurs to me that we've only had cars for a hundred years, right? In a hundred years, they'll be long gone …

Luke Workman: Right.

Loz: It's sometime soon that that switch happens …

Luke Workman: Probably within like, I bet 25, 30 years, cars will be mostly phased out of normal civilian ownership for any reason because it would only be parasitic to your life. You wouldn't need it for transportation because anywhere you wanted to go, you would summon an autonomous electric vehicle that picks you up and takes you there and there's no waiting. And it's like already in your neighborhood charged and ready, you know, or wherever. Yeah.

Loz: Parasitic is a good way to put it. Like we make payments on cars that we might not use all that much.

Luke Workman: That's right.

Loz: We have to pay to get them repaired, serviced.

Luke Workman: I travel around the world all the time and while I am, I'm paying insurance on my cars that'll just sit unused … I would rather have them be getting used, you know.

Loz: Yeah. The trouble is, with all your bloody vehicles, like the Sparrow and Death Bike... they're all far too dangerous for anybody but you to drive.

Luke Workman: It's true. It's true.

That's the end of this conversation for now. I hope you found it as fun and fascinating as it was to be in the room with this lovely madman. Luke has a ton more going on, and I'll be sure to drop in for another chat next time I'm in California – only this time, with a better audio recording setup so I can hopefully make something we can use as a podcast.

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 2, in which Luke makes me ride Death Bike, and we talk about multirotors, leaving Zero Motorcycles, and his million-horsepower backyard science experiments.

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