Power Tools

Sept. 18, 2023
New innovations are bringing power to our vehicles, roads and even our oceans

By David Matthews, Contributing Author

A Tesla Model Y stopped in a small Montana town looking for a charging station and wound up becoming front-page news.

Chad Lauterbach, and his girlfriend, Allis Markham, had driven the Tesla all the way from Los Angeles to volunteer at an annual dinosaur festival in Ekalaka, MT. Little did they know, much of Montana is still living in the Stone Age when it comes to EV charging networks.

The couple told the Montana Free Press that they were getting concerned about running out of power when they stumbled upon an RV-style outlet attached to a utility pole on Ekalaka’s Main Street. The outlet cover was unlocked, so Lauterbach decided to plug in, despite Markham's warning that the locals might assume he was "just some jerk from California, doing what jerks from California do."

As it turns out, the editor of the town's local newspaper, the Ekalaka Eagle, happened to drive by and took a photo of the unattended Tesla charging. The following day, a story about the "UEV (unidentified electric vehicle)" was on the front-page of the paper, next to stories about a pet parade and cribbage games.

After seeing the paper, Markham rushed over to the local power utility, Southeast Electric Cooperative, to pay for the electricity consumed. The staff initially told her not to worry about the bill, but after some back and forth, the couple ended up paying $60 for access to the electricity.

Lauterbach hopes that the Co-op will set up a charging station for electric vehicle owners interested in visiting Ekalaka, but the Co-op's manager, Tye Williams, said that’s not a priority for the town of 400.

“We’re going to have to do something in the next decade, or some amount of time,” he said.

Power trip

What if charging stations weren’t even necessary because electrified roads charged your car while you drove?

Researchers at MIT have developed a way to do just that by building small supercapacitors into cement.

The challenge is that cement is a poor electrical conductor, but scientists found that when they added powdered carbon to cement, the carbon clumped together forming long interconnected tendrils that can act like a network of wires within the cement.

The team found that if this electrified cement was used in a typical concrete home foundation, it could store 10 kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to power an average household for one day.

If the same approach was used for road construction, renewable power could be stored and delivered to electric cars via inductive chargers. One approach being developed in Germany and the Netherlands is sending electricity to the underbellies of cars via copper coils embedded in the roadway, similar to how wireless chargers charge smartphones.

Electrified cement could also make storing renewable power more affordable for developing countries.

The train has left the station

After 58 years of service, New York City’s "Brightliners" subway cars have all been retired.

As the Brightliners were decommissioned, they were shipped to coastal areas of Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia to begin a second life on the ocean floor as part of an artificial reef program.

The program was originally designed years ago to boost recreational fishing while saving the MTA millions of dollars it would have spent scrapping the trains.

Today artificial reefs have become a critical environmental tool. With half of the planet’s coral reefs being lost since 1950, artificial reefs can help restore habitats, enhance the marine ecosystem, and promote conservation efforts.

Prior to the Brightliners, the MTA successfully retired their Redbird trains to the ocean floor, where more than 1,000 remain to this day. The Brightliners were projected to last underwater for decades as well, but they started to disintegrate only months after being deposited.

Daniel Sheehy, an environmental consultant who’s been studying artificial reefs for more than 50 years, told Fast Company that the key to creating a successful artificial reef is size, location, and material.

Sheehy believes this this third factor explains the failure of the Brightliners, which were known for their shiny corrugated stainless-steel paneling. While this was a mechanical and aesthetic innovation in the 1960s, the way in which the paneling was welded led to faster corrosion underwater, and the corrugated paneling made it easier for underwater waves to pull the paneling apart.

Subway trains are far from the first type of artificial reefs. While shipwrecks are the most common, everything from oil rigs to military tanks have been successful, just as long as tires aren’t involved.

In the 1970s, more than 2 million tires were dropped off the coast of Fort Lauderdale FL, to expand the Osborne Reef. They were bundled together with steel clips, which ultimately rusted away and set millions of lightweight tires loose into the ocean. “They’re still picking up tires in Malaysia,” Sheehy said. R&B

About the Author

David Matthews

David Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news for his Roads Report column since 2000. The stories are all true.