Imagine the satisfaction of driving your environmentally friendly electric car for 1,500 miles without having to stop to recharge the battery – a distance more than four times as far as the best and most expensive model currently on the road.
Under the bonnet is a revolutionary new type of battery which, unlike those used in conventional electric cars, can also power buses, huge lorries and even aircraft. What’s more, it’s far simpler and cheaper to make than the batteries currently in use in millions of electric vehicles around the world – and, unlike them, it can easily be recycled.
This might sound like a science-fiction fantasy. But it’s not. Last Friday, the battery’s inventor, British engineer and former Royal Navy officer Trevor Jackson, signed a multi-million-pound deal to start manufacturing the device on a large scale in the UK.
Austin Electric, an engineering firm based in Essex, which now owns the rights to use the old Austin Motor Company logo, will begin putting thousands of them into electric vehicles next year. According to Austin’s chief executive, Danny Corcoran, the new technology is a ‘game-changer’.
‘It can help trigger the next industrial revolution. The advantages over traditional electric vehicle batteries are enormous,’ he said.
Few will have heard of Jackson’s extraordinary invention. The reason, he says, is that since he and his company Metalectrique Ltd came up with a prototype a decade ago, he has faced determined opposition from the automobile industry establishment.
It has every reason not to give ground to a competitor that may, in time, render its own technology obsolete. Car industry sceptics claim Trevor’s technology is unproven, and its benefits exaggerated.
But an independent evaluation by the Government agency UK Trade and Investment said in 2017 that it was a ‘very attractive battery’ based on ‘well established’ technology, and that it produced much more energy per kilogram than standard electric vehicle types.
Two years ago, Jackson claims, motor manufacturers lobbied the Foreign Office to bar him from a prestigious conference for European businesses and governments at the British embassy in Paris, which was supposed to agree a blueprint for ensuring all new cars are electric by 2040. The bid to exclude him failed. Now, with the signing of the Austin deal, it seems he is finally on the road to success.
He has also secured a £108,000 grant for further research from the Advanced Propulsion Centre, a partner of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. His technology has been validated by two French universities.
He says: ‘It has been a tough battle but I’m finally making progress. From every logical standpoint, this is the way to go.’
Jackson began working on new ways of powering electric vehicles after a distinguished engineering career. He worked for Rolls-Royce in Derby, helping to design nuclear reactors, then took a commission in the Royal Navy, where he served as a lieutenant on board nuclear submarines, managing and maintaining their reactors.
Before founding his own firm in 1999, he was working for BAE Systems, where he first started looking at alternative, green ways to power vehicles. By then he and his partner, Kathryn, were married. The couple have eight children, aged 11 to 27, and live in Tavistock, on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon.
In 2001 he began to investigate the potential of a technology first developed in the 1960s. Scientists had discovered that by dipping aluminium into a chemical solution known as an electrolyte, they could trigger a reaction between the metal and air to produce electricity. At that time the method was useless for commercial batteries because the electrolyte was extremely poisonous, and caustic.
After years of experimentation at his workshop in the Cornish village of Callington, Jackson’s eureka moment came when he developed a new formula for the electrolyte that was neither poisonous nor caustic.
‘I’ve drunk it when demonstrating it to investors, so I can attest to the fact that it’s harmless,’ Jackson says. Another problem with the 1960s version was that it worked only with totally pure aluminium, which is very expensive.
But Jackson’s electrolyte works with much lower-purity metal – including recycled drinks cans. The formula, which is top secret, is the key to his device.
Technically, it should be described as a fuel cell, not a battery. Either way, it is so light and powerful that it could now be set to revolutionise low-carbon transport, because it supplies so much energy.
Jackson gave me a demonstration. He cut off the top of a can of Coke, drained it, filled it with the electrolyte, and clipped electrodes to it, powering a small propeller. ‘The energy in this will keep the propeller spinning for a month,’ he said. ‘You can see what this technology could do in a vehicle if you scale it up.’ Following last week’s deal with Austin, that is exactly what is about to happen. Three immediate projects are about to go into production.
The first is to manufacture for the Asian market some ‘tuk-tuks’ – the three-wheeler taxis used by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge last week during their Royal visit to Pakistan. The second is to make electric bikes, which will be cheaper and run for much longer than those made by rivals.
Finally, and most importantly, the firm is to produce kits to convert ordinary petrol and diesel cars into hybrids, by fitting them with aluminium-air cells and electric motors on the rear wheels.
A driver will be able to choose whether to run the car on fossil fuel or electricity. The cost of each conversion, Jackson says, will be about £3,500, and they will be available early next year. This, he adds, will be the stepping-stone to a full-blown electric vehicle powered by aluminium-air fuel cells. The car industry has already poured massive investment into a very different type of battery, lithium-ion.
Also found in devices such as computers and mobile phones, lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable. Almost every electric vehicle on the road uses them. But they have big drawbacks. As well as lithium, they contain rare, poisonous substances such as cobalt. They can explode or catch fire, as seen with the spate of incidents that forced Samsung to recall tens of thousands of Galaxy Note 7 phones in 2016.
With repeated charging, car-sized models eventually become spent. Recycling them to recover the cobalt and lithium is extremely expensive – about five times as much as the cost of disposing them and starting from scratch.
Aluminium, on the other hand, is the planet’s most abundant metal. Many of the factories that refine it from ore or recycled junk are powered by green, renewable energy, such as hydro-electric dams.
And once an aluminium-air fuel cell is spent, it can be recycled very cheaply. According to Jackson, the cost of recycling means the running costs of an aluminium-air powered car would work out at 7p per mile. The cost of a small hatchback’s petrol comes to around 12p per mile. More important, lithium-ion batteries are heavy.
Accredited tests have shown that, weight for weight, Jackson’s fuel cell produces nine times as much energy as lithium-ion: nine times as many kilowatt hours of electricity per kilogram. The luxury electric car maker Tesla says its model S has a range of 370 miles from one charge. Jackson says that if you drove the same car with an aluminium-air cell that weighed the same as the lithium-ion battery, the range would be 2,700 miles. Aluminium-air cells also take up less space.
Jackson claims that if the Tesla were fitted with an aluminium-air fuel cell that was the same size as its current battery, it could run non-stop for 1,500 miles – almost enough to get from Land’s End to John O’Groats and back again. An average British family – whose car will travel 7,900 miles annually – would need to change their fuel cell only a handful of times each year.
Scientists call the weight-to- energy ratio ‘energy density’. According to Jackson, because aluminium-air fuel cells have a much greater density than lithium-ion batteries, they could be used in buses or big trucks. If powered by lithium-ion, such vehicles would be unfeasibly heavy, with the battery weighing as much as the freight.
He says: ‘You could easily stack numerous cells in this type of vehicle – after all, getting rid of their diesel fuel tanks will give you plenty of space.’ Jackson adds that aluminium-air cells could also be used in aircraft. ‘We are in discussions with two aircraft manufacturers. It’s not going to be suitable for jets. But it would work in propeller planes, and be suitable for short-haul passenger and cargo flights.’
Meanwhile, the raw cost of a new aluminium-air cell is much lower.
In a Tesla, Jackson says, the battery costs about £30,000. An aluminium-air fuel cell that would power the same car for longer would cost just £5,000.
Drivers with cars that depend on lithium-ion have to charge their batteries from the mains when they are spent – a process that takes a long time, often overnight. But when an aluminium-air cell became exhausted, the driver would simply exchange it for a new one.
Instead of a vast network of charging points, all that is necessary are stores where cells can be swapped, just as people already swap propane gas bottles.
Swapping a battery, says Jackson, takes about 90 seconds.
He and Corcoran say they are in ‘advanced discussions’ with two major supermarket chains to provide this facility.
Last week, Sir James Dyson announced he was scrapping his plans to make electric cars because he had come to the conclusion they were not commercially viable, even though he had invested millions.
‘The problem is,’ says Jackson, ‘he was using lithium-ion. If his cars had been based on aluminium-air fuel cells, the outcome might have been different.’
Ironically, Jackson’s story so far bears more than a passing resemblance to Dyson’s.
Dyson developed his bagless vacuum cleaner at a workshop at his home, supported by his wife.
And just as Jackson has had to battle the vested interests of the big motor companies, it took Dyson ten years to break through commercially, because no distributor or existing manufacturer was prepared to upset the lucrative market for dust bags.
‘Everyone knows that if we are really going to hit the Government’s target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the hardest nut to crack is transport,’ Jackson says. ‘We’re just not going to do that with lithium-ion. Apart from anything else, it’s no use for trucks, which burn vast amounts of fossil fuel.
‘I know we are battling ferocious vested interests but the technological and environmental advantages of aluminium-air are overwhelming – and Britain has a chance to become the world leader in it.’
Corcoran adds: ‘If you want to do something about the environment, you can. You can do it now, with this product.’