Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Tue 1st Aug, 2017

Back on electricity

I rode my electric motorbike today after several months off the road.

Firstly, I'd had problems with the bike cutting out for a second or so while riding. I wanted to find a solution to that but it's very difficult to work out what might be wrong when I cannot replicate this in the garage. And it's very difficult to work out what the controller lights might be telling you when they're down on the fuel tank and you're supposed to be watching the road at 80km/hr.

Then I left it off the charger for a month or so and a couple of factors caused the battery to drain. Finding cells that are supposed to be 2.5V minimum at 0.7V is not a good sign. Basically, I don't disconnect the DC converter so it's constantly doing a small amount of work keeping the battery topped up. It then took a fair amount of work, not helped by going away for several weeks, to get the cells back to a state where the onboard BMS would consider charging it again.

So this afternoon after work I took it for a couple of laps around the block here, doing a few gradually increasing loops to see how it would go. I didn't hit the low battery alarm, but I'll keep gradually increasing the distance nearby to see if I can hit any problems and to exercise the battery more. It helps the BMS level out the cell differences.

I've probably lost about half the battery capacity or more. It's very difficult to say without proper testing equipment. But I'm up for a new battery, I fear.

Still, if I can find the cells I want I will get a battery with ´╗┐about 32% more kilowatt-hours (~10KWhr), 36*1.5, weighs 64% (54kg) and takes up 55% of the volume. Just got to hope that someone will sell them to me...

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Tue 23rd Sep, 2014

That time that I registered an electric vehicle

So, tell us a story, Uncle Paul.

Sure. One time when I was in Rovers, ...

No, tell us the story of how you got your electric motorbike registered!

Oh, okay then.

It was the 20th of February - a Friday. I'd taken the day off to get the bike registered. I'd tried to do this a couple of weeks before then, but I found out that, despite being told a month beforehand that the workload on new registrations was only a couple of days long, when I came to book it I found out that the earliest they could do was the 20th, two weeks away. So the 20th it was.

That morning I had to get the bike inspected by the engineer, get his sign-off, and take it down to the motor registry to get it inspected at 8:30AM. I also had to meet the plumber at our house, which meant I left a bit late, and by the time I was leaving the engineer it was already 8:15AM and I was in traffic. Say what you like about Canberra being a small town, but people like driving in and the traffic was a crawl. I rang the motor registry and begged for them to understand that I'd be there as soon as possible and that I might be a couple of minutes late. I squeaked into the entrance just as they were giving up hope, and they let me in because of the novelty of the bike and because I wasn't wasting their time.

The roadworthy inspection went fairly harmlessly - I didn't have a certificate from a weighbridge saying how heavy it was, but I knew it was only about eight kilos over the original bike's weight, so probably about 240 kilos? "OK, no worries," they said, scribbling that down on the form. The headlights weren't too high, the indicators worked, and there was no problem with my exhaust being too loud.

(Aside: at the inspection station there they have a wall full of pictures of particularly egregious attempts to get dodgy car builds past an inspection. Exhaust stuffed full of easily-removable steel wool? Exhausts with bit burnt patches where they've been oxy'd open and welded shut again? Panels attached with zip ties? Bolts missing? Plastic housings melted over ill-fitted turbos? These people have seen it all. Don't try to fool them.)

Then we came up to the really weird part of my dream. You know, the part where I know how to tap dance, but I can only do it while wearing golf shoes?

Er, sorry. That was something else. Then we came to the weird part of the process.

Modified vehicles have to get a compliance plate, to show that they comply with the National Code of Practice on vehicle conversions. The old process was that the engineer that inspected the vehicle to make sure it complied had blank compliance plates; when you brought the vehicle in and it passed their inspection, they then filled out all the fields on the plate, attached the plate to the vehicle, and then you transported it down to Main Roads. But that was a bit too open to people stealing compliance plates, so now they have a "better" system. What I had to do was:

  1. Get the bike inspected for road worthiness.
  2. They hand me a blank compliance plate.
  3. I then had to take it to the engineer, who told me the fields to fill in.
  4. He then told me to go to a trophy making place, where they have laser etchers that can write compliance plates beautifully.
  5. I arrive there at 11AM. They say it'll be done by about 2PM.
  6. Go and have lunch with friends. Nothing else to do.
  7. Pick etched compliance plate up.
  8. Take compliance plate back to engineer. Because he's busy, borrow a drill and a rivet gun and attach the plate to the bike myself.
  9. Take it back to Main Roads, who check that the plate is attached to the bike correctly and stamp the road worthiness form. Now I can get the bike registered.
Yeah, it's roundabout. Why not keep engrave the plates at Main Roads with the details the Engineer gives to them? But that's the system, so that's what I did.

And so I entered the waiting department. It only probably took about fifteen minutes to come up next in the queue, but it was fifteen minutes I was impatient to see go. We went through the usual hilarious dance with values:

Many months ago I had enquired about custom number plates, and it turns out that motorbikes can indeed have them. Indeed, I could buy "3FAZE" if I wanted. For a mere $2,600 or so. It was very tempting, but when I weighed it up against getting new parts for the bike (which it turned out I would need sooner rather than later, but that's a story for another day) I thought I'd save up for another year.

So I finally picked up my new set of plates, thanked her for her time, and said "Excuse me, but I have to do this:" and then yelled:


Well, maybe I kept my voice down a little. But I had finally done it - after years of work, several problems, one accident, a few design changes, and lots of frustration and gradual improvement, I had an actual, registered electric motorbike I had built nearly all myself.

I still get that feeling now - I'll be riding along and I'll think, "wow, I'm actually being propelled along by a device I built myself. Look at it, all working, holding together, acting just like a real motorbike!" It feels almost like I've got away with something - a neat hack that turns out to work just as well as all those beautifully engineered mega-budget productions. I'm sure a lot of people don't notice it - it does look a bit bulky, but it's similar enough to a regular motorbike that it probably just gets overlooked as another two-wheeled terror on the roads.

Well, I'll just have to enjoy it myself then :-)

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Fri 19th Sep, 2014

Learning as we go

Today I broke my record for distance on the electric motorbike: 70km on a charge.

The battery at the end of that was at 121.8V, which is about 3.2V per cell, and the lowest cell was 3.16V. Watching the voltage as I was riding (taking quick glances) showed that even under load it wasn't dipping below 110V, so there's a good chance that most cells were still running just fine. It's possible that there's a cell with lower capacity, but I think as I ride it and the battery gets more chance to level out I'm actually improving its range.

Unfortunately the battery meter on the bike thinks that power is leaking out when it isn't, so that doesn't tell me much. The meter on the BMS read "0%" at 38Km (the last time I read it) and "0%" before I started charging it, so I have no idea whether that's being caused by a low cell or some other random error. Either way, it's still trial and error to see how much distance I can actually get out of the battery.

According to the meter on the wall socket, that was half a kilowatt-hour. According to my calculations, that was about 11 amps at 120 volts over four hours, so about five kilowatt-hours. Either the decimal point is wrong on the meter and it's an order of magnitude too low, I'm reading it wrong, or it's just plain incorrect. Five kilowatt-hours is in the right ball park. At $0.17 per kilowatt-hour I just paid 89 cents to fill up the bike. So it's about 1.2 cents per kilometre, at this rough guess.


The other amusing thing is that I'm having to get used to coming back to the bike to find people peering intently at it. Fluoro-clad workers, motorbike enthusiasts, general passers by - I get all types. There are still lots of people who walk on by, so I don't think I've really changed the planet. But it's still fun to explain it and to see people's different reactions, all without exception positive. That's pretty cool.

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Sat 7th Jul, 2012

The lightbulb moment

Tony, the other person in Canberra building an electric motorbike, came over last night. We were both keen to try out the new 150W DC-DC converter I'd got recently to augment my auxiliary battery when supplying power for the headlights (permanently on, at the moment) and other systems. Each headlight is about 55-60W, with one for main drive and two for high beam. Having crashed the bike in part because the light was just not strong enough, I wanted to kick it up a notch and make sure I had enough light to drive safely.

So, we clipped off the strange proprietary connector on the DC-DC converter, fitted a pair of Anderson connectors for the 120V end (to match those on the 120V fuse box) and a pair of female spade lugs for the 12V end (to match the fittings on the auxiliary battery wiring. We plugged it into the battery pack and all that happened was that the green LED came on. That was all we were expecting; sure enough, a multimeter showed it was outputting 12.5V on the output stage. This obviously wasn't impressive enough for us.

Tony had the bright idea of plugging it into the headlights of the old bike, still in their boxy plastic housing. The high beam worked. The high beam side of the dual-output lamp worked. The low beam worked - but showed us a very interesting thing. The output was noticeably dimmer than the high beams, even though it should only be 92% as bright (barely noticeable).

We pulled the bulb out and tried a couple of other experiments. We plugged it into the small 12V battery, and it did the same thing - low beam was definitely dimmer than the high beam. And a careful examination of the actual bulb showed that the filament was damaged - it looked rough and slightly irregular compared to the smooth, regular coil of the high beam - and there was a small amount of soot on the inside of the bulb near the low beam coil. So it was definitely physically damaged. Even the small battery would still give full output brightness if the bulb had been working correctly.

This made me feel a bit better about the accident. I was still riding beyond the range of the headlights, and it's still my fault. But it wasn't that the bike electrics were incapable of driving the bulb. If I'd noticed, and turned on my high beam, I would have been fine. I'd charged the auxiliary battery in the bike the previous night; it definitely would have given me full range of vision if the bulb had been working. I feel a lot more confident that the bike will give me full range of light, even if the traction battery or DC-DC converter dies and I have to run on auxiliary battery alone.

I'd also started to wonder whether I should put an external switch, or full DC relay, on the auxiliary 12V systems - the input from the battery charger, the output to the battery monitor, and the DC-DC converter. If the DC-DC converter is draining 150W from the traction battery pack continuously, it'd last about 48 hours from full charge to dead; I didn't want to find out that the converter had killed the $4000 battery over a weekend. But we realised that once the DC-DC converter has brought the auxiliary battery back up to 12.5V, the load on that circuit would be quite low - the DC-DC converter simply isn't going to be able to push 12.5V against a 12.7V auxiliary battery. It might be worth putting a suitable 15A diode in series with the lead to the battery, just in case the DC-DC converter doesn't have back current protection, but I kind of doubt that that'd be left out.

Of course, disconnecting all the auxiliary electrics is a good thing to do if I'm going away for a while anyway. The auxiliary 120V system connects from the battery to the fuse box via an Anderson connector that I can pull out. It's easier and less prone to Catch-22 problems than a relay.

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Thu 7th Jun, 2012


The electric motorbike is - was - very close. I had cut the bottom out of the fuel tank to fit around the controller and battery management system, wired everything into the 12V system, got the traction battery charging, received the replacement for the cell that had died, hooked that in without frying a BMS board, and made a mock-up of the crash protection for the traction battery. So I put the bike on the trailer on a frosty Monday morning, to take it to a couple of welding and fabrication places for quotes.

All unsuspecting.

As an aside, a friend of my brother-in-law came over to have a look at it on Sunday and suggested a polycarbonate battery case, with solid bars to hold it in position. The roll bar system I'd made up, while structurally good, would stick out quite wide, reducing my cornering angle; the mountings for the polycarbonate would be closer in. And the polycarbonate would reduce weight, would resist abrasion and rebound from an impact rather than bending permanently, and not catch fire if something catastrophic was to go wrong (the acrylic sheeting I had in mind for the covering actually burns quite well).

So after the quote from the engineering company to get the roll bars made came in about five times the price that I'd expected it to be, I went and saw a plastics company who said they could do a polycarbonate shell for more like the price I was expecting. Still, a small crowd had gathered to ask questions at the engineering company - I can definitely hear the attitude change between two years ago ("it'll never be as good") to now ("hey, that looks pretty cool!") in the questions from the greater public.

Likewise, when I took it to the Canberra Riders group meeting that afternoon there were lots of questions and lots of ... enthusiasm is too strong, but certainly a level of appreciation for the project. And, since I wanted to give the battery a bit of a work-out and generally show the project as nearly finished, I took it off the trailer and rode it around the car park a bit, then took it for a ride down a nearby disused road.

It's easy, at this point, to think about what I should have done. Should have had an escort, should have noticed my lights weren't too bright and my visibility was down. Was the controller cutting out on me as I started to accelerate because it could secretly predict the future? Unlikely. As it was, I rode the bike up the road a bit, through the two chicanes I knew were there, and started to accelerate into the main stretch.

And found the big traffic island that had been put in the road, at somewhere between 40km/hr and 60km/hr.

The trope here is one's life flashing before one's eyes. That doesn't happen for me. All I recall is seeing the traffic island, thinking "Oh no", and then being on the ground three or four seconds later. I picked the bike up and started both assessing the damage and cursing my foolhardy stupidity. I checked myself over - everything seemed to still work, no broken bones - and started picking up the pieces of the bike - the left mirror broken off, the windscreen cracked, the indicator dangling, the left handlebar control cluster broken beyond repair. A new dent in the fuel tank, just where I'd beaten out the previous one and found the repair from the one before that...

At this point two of the Canberra Riders came looking for me, probaby because I'd been gone for some time. They made sure I was OK, then one stayed with the bike while the other took me back to the car. Then a couple more riders followed me down and helped me lift the bike onto the trailer. Actually, they did the lifting, because my left shoulder really wasn't up to bearing weight. And the front wheel wasn't turning either. They tied it down, made sure I was OK, and followed me some of the way home. Those guys - I don't know their names, and I only vaguely remember their faces - helped me out when I most needed it without being asked or expecting reward. That's what motorbike riders do.

The rest is mainly painful. Three fractured ribs, a non-dislocated fractured collarbone, and some grazes to my knees. A worse-for-wear helmet, jacket and gloves. A lot of guilt and self-blame for being such a stupid, overconfident, unthoughtful idiot. A lot of thanks to luck for my injuries being that minor. Care from a beautiful, kind, thoughtful woman who never once reiterated what my conscience was already beating into me. Several days of rest, not being able to lie easily or get up simply. Another three to six weeks of healing before the shoulder knits together.

I can cope with the financial outlay. I can cope with the pain. We all do stupid things, and we move on from them. I don't dwell on it, really. I'm really more inclined to look at the things that somehow, amazingly, survived. Me, basically intact, with no ambulances or surgery. The battery, with not a single scratch or BMS board damaged. The rest of the bike is still sound. The bike actually worked. It's a temporary set back - life still goes on.

And only today I got an email from a guy doing an electric motorbike conversion in Sydney wanting to know some details about the project. Yep, life still goes on :-)

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Tue 3rd Jan, 2012

Time to make something better

I've just managed to release the magic smoke from some or most of my battery management modules - the little boards which sit on each cell and make sure that it doesn't over-charge and notifies you when the cells are getting low. Unfortunately, EV Power's basic design has a fundamental flaw: they require two through-hole soldered connections which are very close to the cell terminal. With the large cell interconnect blocks, this makes it rather easy to end up with one cell's sensor wires touching the traction battery. When another cell somewhere else also has its sensor wires touch the traction battery, the tiny MOSFETs that do this switching end up with a potential difference of several tens of volts with over a hundred amps ready to gleefully emit magic smoke.

I consider it a basic flaw in EV Power's design. They could supply the modules with wires already soldered in and epoxied over. They could have supplied explicit instructions about how to wire them up which warned me of this possibility. The most recent design had an even worse flaw in my opinion - the holes which you feed the sensor wires through to provide some strain relief on the solder joint were on the wrong side. Earlier designs had it so the insulation of the wire would be the bit touching the terminals if things went wrong; the new design makes sure that you put the solder joint is right there to contact the traction battery.

In addition, the circuit board didn't go all the way across, instead using a wire and a lug (in some kind of supererogatory effort to save a fraction of a cent in circuit board cost, as far as I can see). This means that the sensor wire solder joints are literally pressed against the terminals unless you turn the board sideways. I did try to avoid this, but apparently not fervently enough, and the result seems to be numerous module boards with scorch marks and (in the next-to-most-recent design) burned-off heat-shrink.

Now I have to find another BMS, because there's no way I'm paying for any more EV Power products. I would strongly recommend anyone considering using them on 60AH Thundersky cells look elsewhere. I will now be ordering a Lithiumate Lite BMS from Elithion - the communications interconnect is top-soldered only. EV Power's BMS probably works fine for 90AH cells and anything larger than a 61mm between-centres connection. But for me this is definitely a dud.

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Tue 10th May, 2011

Shiny Stuff!

I got my battery frame panels at the end of the weekend, and they look really cool:

Shiny aluminium plates

To get these I had to:

That cost around $650. While expensive, it totally feels worth it. I was worried that the 3mm aluminium plate would be too soft - my experience with aluminium pieces like window frames and so forth led me to believe that I would have to go with 5mm plate just to get something that didn't flex under my fingers. That experience is clearly with inferior products - I can put as much pressure as I like on even the largest plate with my hands and it doesn't even give in the slightest. I am totally confident that this plate, held securely in the frame, will easily be able to support the weight of the batteries.

And how much is that? Well, according to NCOP 14, the frame has to hold the batteries against 20 Gs of force from the front, 15 Gs from the side, and 10 Gs from rear, top and bottom. With 83 Kgs, this means I have to support about 1245 Kgs from the side. In other words, I have to imagine the bike hanging on its side and 1.2 tonnes hanging directly from the central battery frame panel.

And, you know, I'm pretty confident of that. Most of that weight is going to be directly transferred to the frame, which is already designed to take that carrying the combustion engine anyway. The panels feel strong enough to hold that load and transfer it to the bike frame easily. The edges, from the water jet, feel a bit rough but the corners are sharp and there's no tearing or wavering. Now to actually get enough time to start putting bits of it in the bike! (I need to find a tame person with a decent metal brake to do some of these bends, though...)

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Sun 1st May, 2011

TTXGP Round 1 - Wakefield Park

On Saturday afternoon I rode up to Wakefield Park for the first round of the TTXGP in Australia - the electric motorbike racing series. I joined Tony, who is also building an electric motorbike and who had ridden up the day before. (Aside: riding the GS-500 long distance isn't really comfortable, and what is it with all these people that do 120Km/hr? Here's a hint, going that much faster will get you a fine and waste a lot of petrol but won't get you there any appreciable amount faster). We were staying at the on-site cabins, a cheap accomodation for race crews, which was simple, clean and pretty decent. The Formule One is not as nice, and a bit more expensive. But anyway.

I got to meet the team from Catavolt, who've been putting together a race bike and had set the record (for a while) for land speed on an electric motorbike. They're running a forced-air cooled version of the Enertrac hub motor I'm using, and are looking at the dual coil version. Team Ripperton lead by Daniel (who finally got sick of all the usual hassles of petrol engines and decided to go electric) was also there, as was Anthony, the guy (I think) who's making the electric drag car up in Sydney. Going out to dinner with them was an experience - this is car talk as you'd hear in any Goulburn pub, but fully technical and all about electricity and construction. Then back to the cabin to talk more technical stuff before bed.

Next day after a cobbled-together breakfast I walked down to where the two groups had set up. There was a lot of checking chargers, checking voltages, checking duct-tape (called 'race tape' to make it sound more authentic) and general talk. The two teams knew eachother fairly well and they obviously got on together. The biggest problem was trying to get a good supply of power - the various circuit breakers on power boards and in the shed kept on tripping as the chargers sucked down the power, competing with the tyre warmers and compressors and so forth. Finally (oh, the irony) they set up a petrol-driven generator to get clean, reliable power.

The really interesting thing was that each group had many things in common but many differences. Ripperton's bike is a Mars brushless DC motor with an A123 60AH battery pack; Catavolt uses the Enertrac motor with a Headway 38120S pack. Voltron over in Perth runs two Agni brushed DC motors with a prefabbed pouch cell battery. I suspect as we get more entries - and I'm told there will (hopefully) be six different teams competing in the next race event - we'll just see more combinations of motors, battery technologies and controllers. That's the fun of it!

The actual racing was, let's be honest, not particularly exciting. Two bikes on a 2.2Km circuit was never really going to be dramatic, and with both teams running fairly conservative throttle limits, the acceleration and top speed were sedate compared to the regular petrol bikes - around 110Km/hr top speed and 1:22 lap times for the Ripperton bike. There were a few worrying things - the Enertrac motor heating up enough to smoke the anti-corrosion compound in the motor, the controllers switching off for a variety of reasons - that made all of us that were really keen to see the bikes do well cringe momentarily. Yet for the most part it seems to have gone quite well - both crews had literally finalised their bikes in the last week before the race and were trying new things, and with no major component failures or crashes they'll be improving and perfecting for next time.

And I have to say that if that's the future of racing, then bring it on! A race where I can speak at a normal volume while competitors fly by six feet away? Awesome! The Catavolt made the barest whisper of tyre and slip-stream noise as it went by - the Ripperton bike with its chain drive was only slightly noisier. We've come to see howling exhausts as a manifestation of power, but really that's just lots of wasted energy. Light the tyres up in burn-outs, pull wheelies on the straight, and do faster times than other people - that's the real show of power. It's going to be awesome!

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Fri 29th Apr, 2011

Constantly learning

After I build my tenth Electric Vehicle, I think I'll just start to have a basic knowledge of how to do so.

After all, just today I learnt about the Tritium Wavesculptor, a high-end controller for brushless three-phase DC motors (which aren't really DC motors, they're actually AC, it's just that the simpler controllers just output on-off square-like waves to energise each phase in turn, but that's another story). And they make a battery management system too - one that is actually formed (by chance) for the specific type of cell I have.

I learnt this not in a search for controllers - apart from already having one, I had discovered the EVnetics Soliton One (I refuse to link to EVnetics' site since it's Flash-only, but here's Rebirth Auto selling one for a mere $2,995 USD). Since that was far more controller than I needed - even the Soliton Jr doesn't really work under 240VDC, which is twice my standard pack voltage - I hadn't really looked around for more. I actually noticed a reference to a "Tritium Wavesculptor" in a post on the AEVA forums about converting (of all things) a VW Type 3.

Tritium are an Australian company that's been around and creating EV controllers for, oh, nearly a decade! How is it that I haven't heard of them?

Clearly, this is a field that needs a really good directory of motors, controllers and batteries. And, just as clearly, the market is fragmented - dozens of forums (with names from the normal to the incomprehensible and unguessable), dozens of suppliers, minimal coherence of specification (e.g. some cells are measured in grams per watt hour, some in litres per amp hour, etc.) and dozens, even, of supplier lists and directories on forums, enthusiast and club sites, and elsewhere. I feel the need to create a motor comparison and controller comparison site, if I didn't think I was already struggling for time just to do the things I want to do that are relevant to me right now.


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Sun 3rd Apr, 2011

Great minds think alike

The next major task for the electric motorbike is to build a frame that can store the battery. They need to be held in place with a lot of strength - the battery frame and its contents need to be able to withstand a 20G impact from the front, for example, and it needs to be able to fit the 38 cells I have as low as possible to make the bike handle well. I'd made up some cardboard mock-up cells and had worked out a way to get them into the frame - just.

Then I'd realised that I'd forgotten the space on top of the cells - there needs to be about a three centimetre gap above the top of the cell for the interconnects and cell management module. And then I needed to include the thickness of the actual frame. And I realised that one of the frames would be sticking right where my toes were supposed to be. This needed a rethink.

I've found that I get a lot better results and ideas when I brainstorm with friends, so I invited my two brothers-in-law to come over and play with some cardboard boxes. I showed them what we had to work with and, between drinks, we started rearranging things. We also talked about the actual requirements, and we started discarding the ideas which had been limiting me - like whether we used the side fairings I'd bought for it.

It's often said that progress doesn't happen with the word 'Eureka' as often as it does with the phrase 'that's interesting...'. And sure enough, Trev came up with the break-through idea by just rearranging things and observing, testing and improving. Then I made a few suggestions, then Rob made a few more, then we talked about how to build it, and before an hour was up we had a pretty much complete idea of how to construct the whole thing. And it all fits lower than the original fuel tank!

The key insight, as it later appeared, was that making room for the cell interconnections inside the frame chews up lots of space. Turning the cells on their side used horizontal space, which is less constrained. By putting the interconnects on the outside, I can see every cell's monitoring state and check the connections easily. The only variation is the bottom row, which faces forward because that way I can fit six batteries across the bottom row and still have room for my toes.

This photo illustrates the whole thing. The bottom layer is six cells across (facing forwards), and each other layer is made of eight batteries facing side-out. (The smaller squares are one cell, then I made three- and four-wide groups for ease of construction and reduction in cardboard). You can see on the right the rear upper engine mount which sticks into the second layer of cells - when this is removed that row can move an inch back; this in turn allows the front group to move down, which then in turn allows the top group to move forward. There is plenty of room there even with plates between each row.

Then the whole outside is covered in a solid plate of something - we're currently debating whether steel, aluminium or acrylic is better - that provides water and abrasion resistance. Steel plate with laser cut holes with an acrylic plate behind it is my current favourite - the holes provide viewports through to see the battery management system, and also mean that the bike has pinpoints of green light glowing from it at night. Inside the plate there are rubber offsets which both keep the plate away from the interconnects and press the cells into their niches. The outside plates attach at hinge points at the bottom and bolts go through from the top to a central plate which holds the whole thing together.

If the outer plate isn't seen to be enough to hold the cells in place, I have idea to fix that as well: put a steel strap around each group of cells and, on the ends, attach a flat plate to which a bolt has been attached. This then bolts down to a rod attached to the plate in the middle. The steel strap will sit inside the channel on the side of the batteries, holding them just as well as the frame I made up before.

The method of construction is still a little up in the air. Rob likes the idea of just bending acrylic into place around wooden moulds. Trev likes aluminium for lightness and for the horizontal plates to support the cells I think that's good. The central vertical plate I think I would make from steel and I would definitely prefer the outer plate to be steel for abrasion and impact resistance. All these can be cut from plate using water jet cutting - in fact, this design lends itself much more to water jet cutting than other designs I've considered. That makes it cheaper, as well as much more awesome.

Hopefully I'll have some plans together this week and I can start taking them around to fabrication places to see what they'd charge to make. The other good thing about this plan is that it's probably even possible for me to make it so that I can simply bolt the bits together myself, rather than having to pay someone to put it together. It feels like I've got the whole project back on track!

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Sat 12th Mar, 2011

I should be more electrified?

Last weekend I got the electric hub motor running. You'd think this would be the cause for great celebrations, fireworks and national days of rejoicing, but strangely it leaves me feeling like it's a fairly hollow victory.

I'd spent the week assembling bits and pieces, soldering and crimping, fixing things and getting things running. I managed, somehow, to avoid frying the DC-DC converter supplying the 12V power for the controller and contactor after connecting its 12V leads to the 130V battery. I checked everything with a multimeter. I ran through every possible combination of wires and, on the very last possible sensible combination got the motor turning over without sounding like it was trying to chew up a cheese grater. I uploaded a video at the time. It was still sounding a bit odd and the controlle was occasionally cutting out when I backed off the throttle, so I got a friend with an oscilloscope to come over and have a look at the signal. I also layed out the controller flat on the table, which meant I could get the power wires straight rather than crossing over eachother. We fired up the motor on Friday and had it running for five minutes or so. The waveform looked OK, but since neither of us really knew what a bad or good waveform looked like it was somewhat moot.

At this point we noticed the cheap plastic caps that came with the lugs that I'd bought for the power leads were melting. Then the solder in the power wires started melting (why they put solder into the wires is beyond me). I went and got my thermometer cable for the multimeter and determined that the power wires were sitting at about 70°C! And that was only running for five minutes! This raises all sorts of questions.

Anyway, I decided to get a better video than the previous one. Armed with the knowledge that my phone had a high-definition video camera, I tried taking videos with that. Kate suggested putting light on the motor so you could see it moving rather than just a dark blob. I tried my other video camera, a ContourHD unit that I bought for attaching to the front of the bike, on helmets, and so forth - but the field of view is too wide and the sound is pitiful. And in a burst of idiocy I deleted the good video and kept the eight second out-take. (As strange as it may seem, these weren't excuses to start the motor up again.)

So now that I've got the video uploading away I thought I'd write this update. I should feel happier - a major milestone has been passed, and theory has turned into practice. But the major work now is to try and get a battery frame welded up on the bike; I want to use a professional metal fabricator for that. That has to go past the engineer to get his approval. Then I have to get all the batteries, controller, contactor and other parts actually in it, and attach all the cables. Then I have to get the 12V system working. Then I might be ready to actually run it down the street.

So it still feels a long way off. And I'd like to get the bike at least running in some fashion for the first practice event of the TTXGP at Wakefield Park near Goulburn at the end of April. And there's that cable heating problem to watch, or better yet fix. And how does one register an electric motorbike anyway? It still feels like a long way to go.

Here's the 'better' video:

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Sun 20th Feb, 2011

A crimp in my plans

Well, yesterday I hooked all of the cells up and installed and wired up all the BMS modules. That's 76 wires about three centimetres long, 76 crimp connectors and 76 solder joints - two per cell module. I used crimp connectors because I had a bunch of them from hooking up the controller cables - Jaycar has 100 packs of connectors for about double what a pack of 12 cost - and so that I could disconnect and rearrange every module if necessary (i.e. I wouldn't have a mess of cables when I disconnect it).

After a while I got a technique up. I borrowed a friend's crimping tool (I tried pliers and they either didn't get enough force or cut straight through the connector), but because it's fairly cheap it tends to bend out of line when you squeeze it as the normal hand motion applies sideways force (due to the way your fingers curl). Solution: put the bottom half in the vice. This way I could exert all my force straight on and the tool itself wouldn't twist in my hand. This reduced the number of bad crimps down significantly. I also got into a bit of a production line - cut a number of segments of wire, trim all the insulation with a stanley knife, then crimp all of the segments and arrange them. This meant less tool swapping and allowed me to get a good technique on each operation.

I worried a bit as I was soldering everything up, but not because I thought that I would accidentally adger the circuit on the BMS modules. They're copy-protected in a crude but effective way - a blob of translucent epoxy on the centre of each module. You can see the LEDs shining through but nothing of the circuit or components. It wouldn't stop a dedicated counterfeiter for a second, of course, but it's enough to stop me making my own. I don't really care about this - if I need one I'll buy one, and if the company that makes them goes out of business I'll just cut the epoxy off one and figure it out on my own - or just buy a new circuit. I like the ones Elithion make - expensive compared to an analog BMS but you get so much more neat information!

No, I worried because I was hovering over a bunch of exposed metal connectors that could easily kill me if I was stupid enough to make a good circuit between two ends, or even parts, of the battery. It's only 130V, but if it gets a low resistance connection it can do 180A for as long as you please - about a quarter of a second will do it to stop your heart permanently. Fun, eh? The problem is in getting too used to handling them, too blazé about the accidental touch, until I do something stupid.

Anyway. There was a fraught moment getting the charger working. The charger takes a feed from the battery that goes through the relay in the BMS, it recommended hooking it up on the positive side (why?). I then proceeded to attach the other lead of the charger to the positive terminal, and wondered why it wasn't charging. Moving the connection to the negative terminal started it up just fine.

The only minor annoyance at the moment seems to be that the BMS turns off the charger as soon as the battery reaches 3.65v per cell. This means that about seven or eight of the modules show their red "I'm diverting current around this cell to stop it overcharging" before the BMS turns charging current off. I figure I'm going to have to this cycle about half a dozen times to get all the cells up to roughly equal charge - I can see cell voltages of between 3.34v to 3.44v at the moment. It only takes about two to three minutes for it to go from starting the charge to stopping it, though, so I'll do that a couple of times this afternoon and monitor the cell voltages and see what happens. The readout on the charger isn't getting beyond around 137V anyway, so I don't think there's any damage being done.

Now to start getting the controller inputs wired up and see if I can starts the motor up!

P.S. Here are the pictures.

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Sun 9th Jan, 2011

Nothing to show off

Due to an interesting but otiose set of circumstances, the Canberra EV group got permission to have a stall at SummerNats - the yearly "more than a car show" festival at the start of January in Canberra. At first glance this appears a bit like inviting the Skeptic Society to a Church Fete; but there are many reasons that people have for converting vehicles to electric power, and fuel economy and helping the environment are but a few.

Take, for instance, the White Zombie, a 1972 Datsun 1200 that has been converted into an electric drag race car. This thing does 11 second quarter miles - well into supercar territory (quite a bit faster than a Holden HSV GTS). And because all of its torque is there from zero RPM, it takes off like a bullet - you can see in videos, it just doesn't accelerate much after the first six seconds, and that's because the controller is programmed to not ramp up the amps too fast. And that's not the fastest - here's a drag car doing a 7.56 quarter mile. Let's see any of the burn-out champions get anywhere near that.

Likewise, the TTXGP is bringing electric racing to motorbikes. In the year that I've been following this there have been at least half a dozen companies that are now putting out electric bikes both for road, sport and dirt. The dirt bikes are particularly attractive to run on electric motors as they get a lot of torque at low revs, something that dirt bikes are specially customised to do with petrol engines. The process of running these races and having electric drag cars is changing the minds of the racing and horsepower community.

So instead of talking about noise and exhaust emissions, we talked about torque curves and quarter miles. I also talked about customisation - one of the big things at SummerNats is that the people bringing along their cars are customising them and making something that is distinctly their own. I saw a customised Suzuki Mighty Boy (which was rad) - so even if it's not a fully blown 351 Chevy with triple weber carbies and a supercharger, someone can still get into customising it and showing it off. I think the scope for that kind of customisation is one reason for doing electric conversions - you can choose your motor, drive train, batteries, controllers, everything - and lay it out with the same care and attention that the high-end car audio system competitors do.

And a friend pointed out that there's another attraction. Every car made after about 1986 has to obey increasingly stringent emissions rules. This severely limits the amount of customisation you can do to a 2008 Nissan GTX or Holden HSV. That's why a lot of the cars at SummerNats are older: the scope is wider for modifications. But you could take a current muscle car with a dead engine and convert it to electric running, and you wouldn't have any emissions specs to look at. Maybe that's not a huge selling point, but it's an interesting thing to note.

I'm trying to avoid being judgmental about the people and cars at SummerNats. It's loud, and it's just not really the kind of place that I would normally hang out. When the burn-out competition started I could smell it before I heard it. But all in all the crowd was friendly; no-one came and trolled us, the people we talked to were all pretty interested in the possibilities one way or another, and they could see that we were passionate about our bikes and cars in our own way. The fact that we had a stall there at all is the big revolution. And who knows - maybe next year we'll have the electric go-kart ready to spin the wheels, or get the electric drag car that's being designed in Sydney down to show how it's done.

I haven't uploaded my photos yet but Tony has a set online. You can see me standing around in front of my bike in a few of them. The most interesting one to me is the second to last one comparing the different battery technologies. On the left you have a gel-cell lead-acid battery delivering 80 amp-hours weighing 32 kilograms - annoyingly heavy to lift. Next to it you have four of my cells, making a 12 volt, 60 amp-hour battery that weighs just over a quarter of that, at 8.8 kilos. The next yellow battery is another lead acid battery, capable of delivering as much power as my cells are, and only weighing a fraction more at 13.2 kilos - but it only has a quarter of the amp-hour capacity, at 15Ah. That's why we're going with Lithium cells.

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Thu 2nd Dec, 2010


I just thought of an idea for the E-bike. Have an RFID tag sensor in the bike and one or more RFID tags with things like the keys, my wallet, etc. The bike will still turn on with the key, but if the correct RFID tag isn't sensed nearby it will limit its top speed, acceleration, etc. So if something goes wrong with the sensor it's still driveable, but only to get to repairs. But if it's stolen it's near useless even if hotwired.

I've also worked out how to set up the switches on the bike. For cars, the key switch has four positions - lock, accessories, on and (momentary) start. A bike has three - lock, off and on; but a bike also has a separate motor kill switch (usually near the right thumb) and a (momentary) starter switch as separate things. A bike also has a footpeg switch - if you put the footpeg down and the bike is not in neutral, the motor will switch off (because taking off with the footpeg down is a sure way to have an accident). For combustion-engine vehicles, there is one electrical system - the 12v system; for EVs there is a separate (high-)voltage system to run the motor. (You're crazy if you try to run an EV on twelve volts, because the amperage the wires will have to carry to get the same amount of power will mean huge cables or things bursting into flame.)

So I have the key switch turn the twelve volt system on and off. This allows the headlight, signals etc. to work, and also provides 'system' power to the motor controller. The 'motor kill' switch then engages the contactor, a whocking great relay capable, in my case, of carrying 400 amps. This connects the battery to the controller and everything is ready for take-off. The 'ignition' switch is useless, but I'm tempted to repurpose it to cause a roll of thunder to be emitted from the onboard speaker, or flash the LED strip lighting menacingly, or activate the tesla coil, or shoot lasers or something. Or something useful, like put the motor into 'reverse' mode so that I can have power-assisted reversing.

There are a couple of criteria here. I want to make sure that the systems remain as 'standard' to a regular bike as possible, so I can lend it to a friend without a half-hour tutorial and so that I can hop from it to a regular bike without nuking the engine or something. This means the clutch lever might be dropped but I won't repurpose it (whereas on a scooter it's the rear brake and, when one goes to change gears, can result in amusing and health-endangering stopping). I also need to make sure that the lights and emergency indicators can remain functional even if the main 'motive power' battery is dead (or at least completely unusable - e.g. fuse blown) - this is for the Australian National Code of Practice for building electric vehicles.

Unfortunately for me, I bought a DC-DC converter that outputs 12V in the mistaken belief that I could simply wire that up to the power battery and have power to drive the lights even if it was too low to drive the bike. It turns out that I have to have lighting as a separate circuit so that even if something goes horribly wrong - one cell dies, a cell interconnect fuses, a bit snaps off somewhere, or even just the main fuse goes - I can still be illuminated at night. So I do need a (small) separate 12V battery; and because 12V lead-acid (and similar) batteries charge at 13.4V, the 12V that the DC-DC converter outputs is not enough.

Anyone want to buy a barely used 150W DC-DC converter with an input from 84 to 120 volts?

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Mon 22nd Nov, 2010

Powered by cardboard

I spent a productive weekend of planning and preparation on the electric motorbike yesterday. This was different to the week before, where a combination of bad weather and apathy caused me to stay indoors and flop around for the time I had planned to be working on the bike. This time I was better prepared, and as an added incentive I made sure I got the friend of mine who's been helping me with it enthused so I knew he was coming around and couldn't prevaricate.

We got the fairings worked out. We discovered that the reason the front and left-hand side fairings weren't fitting correctly was that the headlight mount had been bent in the crash and the headlights were only fitting by virtue of the fact that one of the mounts had broken. We discovered that the measurements on the EV Works website say that the LFP60AHA cells are 203mm tall but that their specification sheet that's linked to on the same page says they're 212mm to the shoulder and 215mm to the top of the terminal post. Rob made plans for the cell mounting cages while I worked on trying unsuccessfully to straighten the headlight mount. We discovered that the controller will fit near perfectly under the seat - with a weatherproof housing for the electrics it will be perfect. We learned that buying a bike that's been in an accident might be cheap but it comes with downsides.

That afternoon I constructed the rest of the cardboard mock-ups of the batteries, and determined that they would indeed fit in the frame - just. Rob's preferred method of construction is to buy the metal, cut it to size, get a welder and start attaching bits of metal to the frame where they need to go. I need a bit more of an idea whether that's going to work, so that I don't find myself grinding it all off because I should have fitted the batteries some different way. We're going for four groups of seven cells in frames, set up so that the cells are fixed together with straps, joined in series, and then the whole group is slid into the frame together, with extra cables between the groups. Then we have two groups of five, or some other combination that's going to fit in the space available, joined together the same way.

The complicated thing is dealing with the tops of the batteries. They each have a BMS monitor module across the terminals, and a cell interconnect (basically a thick piece of braided copper mesh) between the batteries. By my calculations the sides of this interconnect sit just over 10mm away from the edge of the battery, so having a 10mm-wide right-angled piece of metal to clamp onto the top of the cells to hold them down gives too many opportunities to short something out. Yet how do we hold the batteries down, to make sure they don't vibrate in place and wear the interconnects and/or start moving more enthusiastically around the battery frame? Rob's idea was to have foam rubber on the sides of the battery cage and to design it so that tightening the bolts on the end caps clamps the cells in place, but I'm not sure that's going to really stop the cells lifting up if I hit a speed-bump too quickly. I need something non-conductive to clamp the cells down.

So I'm going to do up the plans in something (SketchUp possibly) to take to the engineer. I've taken the headlight mount off, removed the wiring loom, and readied it for a bit of blowtorching. I've taken some photos, but my Gallery setup at home has eaten some really rather toxic mushrooms and I'm currently trying to triage it. If Gallery2 would actually work, rather than sitting sullenly and ignore my uploads, that'd be great too.

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Sat 13th Nov, 2010

If only I'd set this up earlier

One of the problems with building an electric vehicle is making the battery pack. There are a number of interdependent variables - weight, amp-hour capacity, volume, maximum voltage, and cost - and many trade-offs to be made. Even if you limit yourself to a particular voltage (because you have a particular motor) and total pack weight (because you have a maximum 'kerb weight' for your vehicle) there's still a lot of options. And you want to know a fair bit about each choice - cost, number of cells (which determines the number of joints you'll have to make), maximum amperage deliverable, and so on.

At about the time that I heard about 'pouch' cells - lithium cells that have a tough but flexible plastic wrapper instead of a hard outer casing, often used in mobile phones and portable electronic devices - I started making a spreadsheet of these options. I threw together a few formulas to determine some of the information about my specific pack but then I shared the (Google) spreadsheet with a friend and he put in his own calculations. Then I realised some of the cells I'd been looking at were Lithium Polymer (normal operation voltage 3.7V) rather than Lithium Iron Phosphate (3.2V) and so some of my packs could have fewer cells. And of course, it hit me - I needed a database.

So I hacked one together in Django, and transferred all my information into the database (by hand). Then I wrote the code to put together a pack of batteries based on your requirements. I released it to the denizens of the Canberra EV group with little fanfare. I added a few extra bits and pieces, like simple displays of the cells by manufacturer and online store. And now I present to you this finely crafted link to release it, still on my testing server at home, to the rest of the world.

Feedback, as always, is welcomed.

As an aside, it is a difficult thing to get some of this information. Many manufacturers are Chinese, with badly-translated, hastily thrown together and hard-to-use websites. Many I'm not sure there's any point in listing since they seem only to cater for manufacturers buying 1000 or more cells or wanting custom engineering. Some, like Saft, seem to have very little information and what little is there looks awesome, but they sell to the defence industries and I've never got a reply from my email to them. Some, like one Australian manufacturer I won't name here, are very hard to deal with by email and seem to think that websites are brochures, not sales desks. Many of the Chinese manufacturers, especially of cylindrical cells, work through Alibaba and various other direct-ship quote-based pseudo-services. A lot of the sellers of cylindrical cells seem to be selling the same thing ('Headway' cells), which triggers my scam detectors. For me, it's just not worth trying to trawl through all those sites trying to find useful information.

I am willing to hear from anyone that can supply more information for me, especially online stores, but I prefer to get full information (especially for cells) with verifiable information. There's a lot of "we're totally coming out with a radical new cell that is ultra-cool and is far more powerful than anyone else's, but it's all hush-hush because we don't want our competitors to steal our technology" claims out there, and I don't want to list speculative numbers. Give me a URL to a full data sheet.

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Fri 15th Oct, 2010

That old "last minute preparation" feeling

A quick search around my various machines shows I haven't actually blogged about getting the motorbike running (sort of) and showing it off (sort of) at the Canberra Electric Vehicle Festival 2010. This post attempts to correct that.

You will recall in our last thrilling episode, I had attempted to get the motor running and failed. Now, with only a week to ... what's that? Oh, yes. Then, with only a week to go, I wanted to be able to show off the bike running at the Festival - or at least the back wheel turning under its own power. This meant pulling apart some of my connections on my mock-up box and testing things out one by one - a time-honoured debugging technique.

I'll spare you the whole exhausting detail. Fixing problems is a matter of connecting everything up, applying power to the Kelly controller, carefully observing the little flashing red light and looking up the error codes in the booklet. What I learnt in the process was:

Unfortunately what I didn't work on in that week before the festival was actually putting it all together in a neat, safe way. The EV Festival coincideded with Software Freedom Day, the Turning Wave Festival, and at least one other all day event that I'd been invited to go to; I was trying to help arrange the first, arranging to go to part of the second, and steadfastly refusing anything else. On the Friday night I looked at the mess of cables and connectors, the possibility of something going horribly wrong, and even just the possibility that I would be making EV building look like a boffins-only activity and gave up.

Two weeks before the show I also realised that it would be much better looking if it had panels on it. I'd taken the front and side fairing off because of damage in the accident that got me the bike in the first place. Naturally, I should have ordered the panels two weeks before that to get them in time. So I ended up showing off a bike that was more or less frame, wheels, seat and motor, along with the controller and a cardboard mock-up of the battery.

So on the Saturday I wheeled the bike onto the trailer, drove it down to the fair, helped set up the crash barriers for the driving course, set the bike up, walked around talking to a few people and looking at the other exhibitors, heard about pouch batteries, and generally talked more or less non-stop about the bike. I had printed up some helpful fliers with a brief run-down of the components, and they came in handy. Then I packed the bike up, drove it back home, unpacked it, and drove down to Gundagai for the Turning Wave festival.

Audience reaction was mostly positive. A few people told me it had to make noise, and I was glad I had my ready response: plans to build a box linked to the throttle that can make any sound I want: sports bike, Harley Davidson, V8 supercar, jet fighter, Millenium Falcon, TARDIS, Shepard-Risset Glissando, etc. Most people liked the idea of it costing around $10,000 all up - comparable with a modern sports bike. One boy felt the motor controller and asked "is this the battery?", to which I had to sadly reply that it would be lovely if it was but the real battery was much larger. No-one spoke against it - if they didn't like it they moved on, or weren't there.

So overall it was a pretty good experience. It strengthens my desire to have the bike working by the end of the year, and to demonstrate it at the next festival.

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Thu 14th Oct, 2010

Putting coulombs on the charge card

(I have to nod my head to my good friend Dunx for the title, though an explanation would be otiose.)

Finally I've put the order in for the batteries for the electric motorbike.

This is not a small decision when the cost of the batteries is over $3500. It's more so when there's that feeling that you're going to regret buying something that you're still not quite convinced will fit in the space available. Add to this the feeling that you wanted something larger and more capable but that would be simply impossible to fit, or almost an order of magnitude more expensive. And there's the looming question of how, exactly, is the whole thing going to perform. That's a lot of buyer choice anxiety right there.

We can reduce the choices down somewhat by starting from the fixed things. The engine, muffler, exhaust, air intakes and various peripherals that I removed from the bike and am not going to put back weigh around 84 kilos; that's how much weight, roughly, I can put back in the bike in battery pack. I'm adding the extra weight of the motor over the rear wheel (16kg), the motor controller, DC-DC converter and some other stuff, so it's probably going to be slightly heavier at 'dry weight'. This is something that the engineer can sign off on; we haven't made the whole thing unregisterable yet.

Likewise, to run the motor at 100km/hr requires 96 volts; at 3.2 volts per cell that's 30 cells, but I want to be able to comfortably exceed that for emergencies. A rather unfriendly email from a battery supply company taught me that the next size up of charger is 38 cells - and the cells really don't like being charged much more than their peak voltage. So 38 cells it is then. (If it turns out that I can't fit 38 in the bike, either due to space or weight, I can more definitely fit 30 anyway, and I'll just have to accept that its top speed isn't quite what I'd hoped.)

38 cells fitting into 84 kg makes for a weight per cell of around 2.21kg. By a happy chance, that is almost exactly the weight of the ThunderSky 60Ah cells. Unhappily for me I was hoping to use 90Ah cells as they have a better energy density. It was, I think, this unhappiness that then caused some of the delays.

It started when showing off my bike at the Canberra Electric Vehicle Festival 2010. A friend and I were talking about batteries and he mentioned 'pouch' cells as being his preferred battery component. These are like flattish bags with two metal tabs sticking out of them; Their chief advantage is much better amp-hour per kilogram and amp-hour per cubic centimeter. You can't squash them and you have to build a rigid pack around them, but that's OK since you have to do that for the vehicle anyway.

And some of them can deliver phenomenal quantities of current - the 70Ah cells I started looking at could deliver 350A continuous and 560A peak - enough to give 50mm² cabling a serious headache. Serious electric sports cars use these packs for their mind-cudgelling power delivery. Then we got a quote for them and stopped salivating: at over $13,000 for an equivalent pack to the ThunderSkys mentioned above this was seriously out of my league - at least for this bike.

As is often the way with me I then spent a quantity of time researching different batteries, finding various options and constructing elaborate spreadsheets to compare them. It compares rectangular (including pouch type) and cylindrical, calculating $/Ah, g/Ah and cc/Ah for comparison. The ThunderSkys come in at a very competitive $1.6/Ah but a modest ~37g/Ah and ~23cc/Ah; the best cells get down to ~22g/Ah and 10cc/Ah but an excitingly expensive ~$4.6/Ah. Then again you have to wade through who sells which cells - and half of the manufacturers won't deal with you unless you're ordering at least 1000 cells in one go.

In the end I was back where I started - 60Ah ThunderSkys, which I ordered today from EVWorks. $90 odd for delivery is cheap compared to the cost of the things being delivered, and especially to the $1000 or so charged by a USAdian company to send the same cells here. And with EVWorks I could buy pretty much all the remaining components - contactor (to turn the thing on from the key switch), cables, battery management system, charger, cell interconnects, cable lugs (yes, I get to use lugnuts), and conduit. I'm sure there's something I've forgotten but I can't think of what.

Anyway, the main task now is to read up the National Code Of Practice NCOP14 Guidelines for Electric Drive - its basics are covered on EVWorks's website - and work out what I have to do to make sure it will pass inspection. And also not fry myself or the batteries.

Oh, and the fairings I ordered (from the UK) have arrived too - I may try and get it looking nicer and take some photos. I have to have something better looking than this...

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Mon 9th Aug, 2010

Hard electrons

On Sunday I nearly got the electric motorbike working.

The problem is that it's sort of hard to tell how close I got. Everything was plugged in and in place, but nothing actually turned on, went beep or spun round. It's that sort of 'back to the drawing board' feel that I imagine makes scientific research so depressing - what bit of the large supply of things isn't working, and how do I deduce which one it is?

I'd spent the week preparing for it. I got the motor fitted with a tyre (from the excellent TJ's Tyres in Braddon), where it was opined that the fact that the spokes were bent where they attached to the wheel was a cause for concern. I got the awesome Laurie who runs Suspension Smith in Fyshwick to make me up some spacers and find an axle that would make sure that the motor fit in the middle of the rear suspension arms. I borrowed eight large UPS batteries in order to supply the 96 volts that is my aim for the battery pack's minimum potential. I spent the rest of Saturday going through my wiring and control box trying to get all the things that were supposed to connect together to do so correctly.

That bit is the real challenge. You see, there are five large and twenty-eight small connections from the motor controller; the large ones are the battery terminals in and the three motor coils out, the smaller ones do everything from turn a light on when the controller's 'on' to detect the position of the throttle to connections like 'boost' that aren't connected to a wire on the break-out cables and aren't documented in the manual. The motor itself has ten connectors (power for the three coils, hall effect sensors for each coil, ground and five volts, and the temperature sensor to and from). Some of the controller's outputs attach to external things - LEDs, variable resistors for throttle and brake, power supply, etc. which have to be put somewhere. So it's a bit bewildering working out how to connect it all together.

So on the day Rob and I fitted the brake and torque arm, fitted the spacers and axle (which were perfect!) and ran the cable. Then I lugged one of the batteries, the controller and the huge splay of leads out and started connecting things. I'd built a little kit box, used two D-15 ('VGA') connectors for the controller's inputs, and soldered all the wires to a circuit board. It's all reasonably neat but nothing like waterproof or robust enough to run - it's only really there to give me a chance to work out how the electrics all go together before I start actually finalising where everything goes. And the familiarity with its less-than-professional construction made me tentative as to how it was going to go. Would connecting it spin the motor up to maximum RPM? Had I something round the wrong way that would have its magic smoke escape?

With Rob holding on the front brake, I gingerly connected the battery to the controller. Nothing. I connected the mock-up box to the controller. Nothing. I switched the switch on. Nothing. Hmmmm.

I remembered that the controller required separate power and that was the only jack I hadn't soldered up. I did a quick soldering job and checked the polarity, and attached a spare motorcycle battery to the mock-up box's power input.

Nothing. Double hmmmm.

And that was more or less it for the day. We had to go out to lunch, Rob had to go and play hockey, and the next big task was to try and work out why all my clever soldering and wiring had produced a dud. The important lesson was that instead of one big box that everything plugged into, which was a pain to solder and required special connectors, I should have had each little subsystem in a separate box (or a different part of the same box) with its own connector. That way, when something breaks you can narrow it down fairly easily, and you don't have so much that's interconnected and jammed together. The Kelly jumper leads bundle the leads for the same functions - throttle, brake, LEDs, etc. - together, so you can have a separate box for each.

Also, buying an extra set of connectors isn't necessary, since Kelly supply you with a set and they're push-on pull-off 'quick' connectors so they can be taken apart again, but it is very helpful as it means you've got a test set if you botch something completely.

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Mon 26th Jul, 2010

Riding on and off the road

After several weeks of indecision I registered this week for a racing day at Wakefield Park on a motorbike riding day. My hesitation was due to a couple of factors: I had an unfaired Suzuki GS500, which only the true optimist could consider a race bike; much as I enjoy the speed of the straight and the skill of cornering, I also enjoy not crashing and injuring my bike and myself; I hadn't done a ride outside Canberra before and was unsure how I would go; I had to ride the bike from Canberra to Goulburn, do the track day, and then ride back home; the certainty of there being lots of other people dressed in their full-on racing gear with high performance sports bikes sneering down their noses at this poor fool on an unfaired road bike with standard narrow tyres, while not worrying me overmuch, still didn't appeal.

Thankfully, various people I talked to told me, basically, to quit looking at the negatives and think of the positives. So I headed off at 7AM on a chilly Sunday morning for a day of fun and adventure.

I stopped just before the end of Lake George to stretch my legs, thaw my hands out and remove the mask which, though keeping my face from freezing, was directing all my breath up into my glasses to fog them up. I was glad I had had the break - I hit heavy fog just north of Lake George and discovered the fun of trying to keep your visor clear of mist with one hand at 100km/hr (I'd slowed down a bit to take a bit of extra care). Thankfully my remembered directions of how to get from the Goulburn turn-off to Wakefield Park came back perfectly and, after letting one peleton of traffic past me on the single lane road, I arrived.

I immediately started asking around for Canberra Riders people, particularly Heidi as she had said she was going to be there, she had a recognisable name, and her gender reduced my search set considerably. During the day I must have asked most of the women there if they were or knew her, but all to no avail. I hope those people can forgive such an odd question or questioner :-)

Soon enough we were meeting for the rider's briefing, where we were introduced to the signals that would tell us if there was a rider off the course but upright (one single yellow flashing light), a rider down off the course (two yellow flashing lights), a rider down on the course (one red flashing light) and the end of the session (one yellow flashing light and a chequered flag at the starting line). I signed up, paid my money, and took the bike up to the marshalling area - for I was in the novices group and we were first.

By this time the fog had mostly burnt off and the sun was coming through. The first two laps were done in single file with no overtaking, following a pace bike and learning the course. Then the jockeying for position began. I had met up with another Suzuki GS-500 rider and we spent most of the lap with me following him. We talked afterward and he said he felt a little less like an outsider with someone else riding the same thing - a feeling I shared. A friend had turned up at this point who had driven around the course at other times in a Porsche, and we talked about lines and apexes and cambers and stuff like that.

The second time out we were still led but it became obvious that the one fundamental problem that race tracks face when booking different categories is they really need four 'advanced / race' divisions, one 'intermediate' and one 'novice'. Given the choice between going in novice class and missing out on the day altogether, many of the faster people end up in the same group that I and other people new to Wakefield Park were in. By the fourth session there was no doubt I was amongst the slowest on the field - I was regularly getting overtaken at virtually every corner. People with racing slicks and 900cc tuned bikes were in this class - there's no way these people can claim to be novices.

And yet it really didn't matter. There weren't enough people in each group to make it dangerous or crowded, they all realise that they have to get around you rather than you making way for them, and the best I could do was just to keep to a good line, make my intentions plain and not do anything suddenly. I kept my rear view mirrors - I doubt they would make me go very much faster if removed - and it was useful to see people coming up and plan for them. And I had a lot of fun, gradually improving my lines, feeling how much I could rely on the tyres when they were cold and warm, finding and refining that line that leads from one corner to the next to the next... I think I improved, but I had a lot of fun and that's what mattered the most to me.

I finally met up with a bunch of Canberra Riders people at the end of the day, and two of them said they wouldn't mind if I rode home with them. I wasn't really keen to ride back alone anyway, and they were going to much more scenic route through Tarrago and Bungendore. The highlight of my day was seeing the guy I'd been following tapping on the window of the Renault that had been tailgating me up to the lights and telling him off for tailgating in the rain. I'd only known these people for two hours or so and they were looking out for me - that's a community worth being a part of!

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Sun 18th Jul, 2010

Manual work

The FZS 600 now has a hole where its engine used to be, and is a good deal lighter. For those of you who find yourself contemplating doing a similar conversion, let me annotate the workshop manual procedure for removing the engine:

  1. Exhaust pipe assembly. Paul: This will require a 12mm socket for all but one bolt, which is hidden behind a metal pipe whose only bolt is somehow behind the exhaust pipe assembly. For that you need a 12mm ring spanner and a lot of patience, as you'll only be able to move the bolt by about 15 degrees before you have to take the spanner off and reposition it.
  2. Exhaust pipe gaskets (4).
  3. Oil filter. Paul: If only I'd thought to open the sump plug rather than drain everything through the oil filter. And yet the engine still has a bit of oil in it to stop it getting rusty...
  4. Shift arm. Paul: Another thing that the accident broke off.
  5. Drive sprocket cover. Paul: This sits on two dowel pins (see 7) and will seem to be welded on. Use a flat-blade screwdriver.
  6. Drive chain sprocket gasket. Paul: Where the hell was this?
  7. Dowel pins. (2). Paul: Don't remove them, you'll only lose them. Keep them in there, they don't need to be out for the engine to be removed.
  8. Lock washer. Paul: remove? how? It's under the drive sprocket bolt. Note that there's no instruction to remove the bolt, and indeed it is basically impossible to do without an air socket driver - and even then you did keep the rear brake on so you can lock the rear wheel, right?. See 9.
  9. Drive sprocket / Drive chain. Paul: Hahahahaha. Instead, loosen off the rear wheel axle bolt and wind the wheel adjustment nuts out to give you some slack in the chain. Then use a 1¼ socket to turn the drive sprocket and a large screwdriver to lever the chain off the sprocket. To do this you'll have to remove the weird rod which sticks out in front of the drive sprocket - it slides out easily, it slides in easily, it's highly polished and I have no idea what it's for.
  10. Magneto / sidestand / neutral / engine oil level switch leads.
  11. Ground lead. Paul: Don't believe your friend when he tells you he's removed this lead.
  12. Plug caps (4).
  13. Crankcase breather hose.
  14. Cover.
  15. Water pump outlet hose.
  16. Radiator outlet hose.
  17. Engine outlet hose. Paul: At this point, you'll want a number of sturdy blocks of wood underneath the engine because when you start removing the mounting bolts the engine will try to head in the direction of the centre of the planet. Also place a ramp to the right hand side of the engine, because that's the direction it's coming out.
  18. Engine mounting bolt (front left).
  19. Engine mounting bolt (front right).
  20. Engine bracket (front).
  21. Engine mounting bolt (rear upper).
  22. Engine bracket (rear right). Paul: No, really, remove this little plate here. You might think it's possible to remove the engine just by unbolting it from this plate, but it's physically impossible. And don't just unbolt one side and swivel it out of the way. Go on, remove it.
  23. Engine mounting bolt (rear lower).
  24. Engine. Paul: Hahahahaha!!
Paul: Saying "remove engine" is like saying "and just lift that bag of cement above your head with one hand". If you're in zero gravity, or have a handy engine hoist, this is less tricky. You will need to push the engine forward as far as it will go, lift it up as high as it will go, lever the back end out half way, twist it delicately around to get the oil filter mount out from the front of the engine, and then gently lower it onto the ramp. If you happen to be in normal earth gravity and don't have a handy engine hoist, this will involve a certain amount of straining, struggling, and words of power.

I can, however, proudly say that the bike has not drawn blood from me.


So stick this in your manual in the appropriate pages. It will save you a fair bit of struggling and cursing, and possible accidents where you find the engine inextricably wedged somewhere or a crucial tiny sticky-outy thing bent in the process of the engine galloping earthward at some stage. And don't bother buying a manual, either. You can find the PDF for free on the internet.

The engine bay is not as large as I'd hoped, and does have some annoying protruberances which I need to check with an engineer before I grind off. I may also be able to mount at least one layer of cells outside the bars on each side - the engine sticks out at least that far. Some more logistic

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Sat 3rd Jul, 2010

Committed to the job

There's an old joke that goes: what's the difference between 'involved' and 'committed'? In making bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed. Well, having just spent $1500 on a broken motorbike, I feel committed to building an electric motorbike now. Up until now the parts I've bought - the Enertrak hub motor, the Kelly motor controller and peripherals - could all have been sold to someone else willing to build an electric motorbike. But the choice of a bike is a personal one, and I'd be lucky to get $500 for the bike now if I sold it for parts. So I've now committed money I really can't get back.

The problem with building an electric motorbike is that what you ideally need is a motorbike that is working in every respect but the engine is blown. This isn't the usual failure mode of bikes - they usually get enthusiastically smashed into or scraped over immovable bits of terrain at speed. My initial 'wanted' requests on classified ad websites and on web forums were fruitless, and from my many and various web searches I determined that no-one was advertising the type of bike that I wanted. I also didn't really want to buy a bike that was registered and working and try to resell its engine and peripherals, despite one claim that with the right bike that could make my money back. Time to look further afield.

A friend who's a bit of a bike expert and is helping me with this project recommended Motorcycle Disposals, a company in Sydney that takes bikes that have been wrecked, repossessed or confiscated and sells them for whatever they can get. Their web site is a bit 1990s but proudly declares that it is "best viewed in Mozilla Firefox v 3.6" (which is nice) and its main page, the list of bikes they're currently tendering for, is kept reasonably up to date. If you're prepared to spend a bit of money on some replacement parts, or don't mind something with a few scrapes, then there's plenty of bargains there ready for the new rider to take away.

However, the bikes on that page are only about half of their total stock - they're the ones that are rideable or popular so are a good bargain. They have at least that many bikes that have been written off and can only be used for parts, less popular bikes, and bikes with engine problems or larger defects. I spoke to Joel one day and he recommended coming and having a look through their extra stock to find an option. This meant a 300-km drive from Canberra to Sydney and back, so I planned this with the bike-expert friend and we set off.

We narrowed it down to four options. One I liked but was on the expensive side was a Honda CBR1100XX 'Blackbird' - a large, modern bike with a very strong frame and sporty looks. For my purposes I was looking at larger bikes (to carry the load of possibly 100Kg of batteries and 26Kg of motor) with good fairings to reduce wind resistance, and this fit the bill. Better yet, the exhaust had just been sold and I reckoned I could do them a deal on the radiator and oil cooler. But its entire front fairing and headlight assembly was missing and that cost a fair bit, making it a bit less appealing given my budgetary constraints.

There was a Kawasaki ER-6N that was OK, a Honda VT250 that was running but quite old and a bit small, and a Yamaha FZS 600. The latter was within my price bracket, had a motor with part of the engine and starter missing from impact, was a solid build and of modern appearance. I reckoned I could bargain them down a bit on the price, since I wouldn't need the radiator and exhaust, they could be easily unbolted, Motorcycle Disposals also has a side-line in spare parts. Rob and I repaired to a nearby Subway to deliberate.

We fed ourselves, fulminated briefly at the diabolical slowness of 2G modem speeds, and did some searching. The Blackbird looked like costing at least another $800 to get back to working order, and though I could afford it in the long run it was harder to get enthusiastic about it. The FZS 600 only needed a nosecone and windscreen, which could cost less than $400 all up. Finally Rob said "What time do they close?" I looked up the web site. 12:30. "What time is it?" 12:30. Time for a quick phone call!

Joel said that they'd stay there for me and we hurried back. I made them an offer of $1500, $250 less than their asking price, and after a bit of theatrical clutching of hearts and reeling, they agreed when I threw in the exhaust and radiator. It turned out that they didn't need the radiator since it was dinged, but they took the radiator, I signed the bill and wheeled the bike up the ramp onto the trailer. After strapping it down securely we headed off, feeling slightly odd at picking up a non-working bike.

Fuel efficiency was 12.5Km/l (8l/100Km) going up with the empty trailer, and about 11Km/l (9.1l/100Km) going back, compared to the Liberty's usual 15Km/l (6.7l/100Km) on the highway. We felt it most when we were on the hills - it was like we'd added an extra ton of car. I went at 100Km/hr on the return journey too, just to lessen the effect of towing a bike-shaped sail behind us.

The brightest moment of the trip was on the Federal Highway. A Ford Laser Sports coupe - one of those ones with the blue stripes down the centre like it's a giant equals sign - rocketed past us at easily 140Km/hr. Five minutes later we passed a police car on the verge with a speed gun, and we spent the next ten minutes trying to figure out why they hadn't taken off after the boy racer, and the general injustice of seeing so many speeding violations happening and no evidence of police action despite the numerous police cars we'd seen on the road that day. Then, near the Bungendore turn-off, we passed a highway patrol car that had pulled over the sports car.

We felt like going back and high-fiving the cops. It's a vicarious form of justice, to be sure, with more than a touch of schadenfreude thrown in, but it was totally worth it.

Finally, we got the bike home, unstrapped it and gently wheeled it off the trailer again, and parked it in the garage in front of the other two. It feels odd to have gone from owning a car each, to owning a single car, to a car and scooter, to a car and scooter and motorbike, and now we're a four vehicle family. I'll probably sell my bike when I finish the conversion and have the electric bike on the road, but until then it's going to be a bit crowded in the garage.

The Yamaha FZS 600 "Fazer" is actually a moderately rare bike, as it was only made from about 1996 to 2001. It's unfaired - which is a bit of a shame - but has a good solid frame and the motor probably weighs about 100Kgs or so, so putting in my preferred battery pack is going to leave the bike at specified weight. It has fixed front but adjustable rear suspension, which is important as we have to readjust it for the weight of the hub motor, and it's black.

I can't prevaricate any more about building the bike now...

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Mon 17th May, 2010

Catching the EV bug

In the past year or so there's been a fair number of people who have come along to one Canberra EV group meeting and never come again. Based on what they were interested in and what the meetings have consisted of, I suspect they saw that we were (at the time) more dealing with the theoretical and policy ideas rather than practical vehicle making - Canberra EV has a vague idea of running a group project but no actual plan, no shed to build stuff, few tools, and most of the people are either not building one or have already built their own. Seeing what they perceive to be a lack of practical action on our part (myself, possibly, included), they go away again.

(Or maybe they realise that it's a bit more difficult than just having someone invite them over to convert their old vehicle in a weekend for the price of a couple of beers and a few lead-acid batteries. But who knows?)

Recently, a young guy has started coming along who's dead keen and a tinkerer besides. He built his own electric go-kart out of an old frame, a bunch of second-hand free starter motors, a bunch of second-hand free lead-acid batteries, and an on-off switch. It fuses starter motors fairly quickly but he's worked out its something that he can do. And I, in my own way, am keen to see him not leave because we're not doing enough to help new people - and I'm also interested in building an electric go-kart, too.

He lives in Goulburn and commutes to Canberra each day, and he wants an electric vehicle to do that. I've suggested to him that he gets an old ute - something with a bit of carrying capacity for the batteries. To give him some leeway in his journeys - no good having to do a run to the post-office at lunch and finding out you can't make it home - I've suggested to calculate for 300Km and a top speed of 140Km/hr. But how do we actually convert those abstract numbers into an idea of what to actually buy?

Well, let's do a bit of research. From the Green Vehicle Guide we know that the Tesla Roadster uses 231Wh/km (watt-hours per kilometre) and the Mitsubishi i-Miev uses 132Wh/km. So let's settle on 200Wh/km as a rough guess of how much our car conversion is going to use. We need to go 300km, so that's 60Kw that we need to store in the batteries. Picking 192 amps as a reasonable maximum for our motor - the Kostov 11" motors are rated at 192A - we can then derive from W=VA that we need about 312.5Ah in the batteries.

Picking two 160AH Thunder-Sky LFP160AHA cells to supply 320AH, we need 120 cells to provide 192V at the battery pack's standard resting voltage. That would deliver 960A continuous and up to 6400A peak, making the pack able to deliver 184 electrical kilowatts continuously. The whole pack would weigh about 660kg and cost about $24,960 from EV Works - or possibly less if you bought direct from the manufacturer.

Then you've got to buy the motor, controller, wiring, and various electrical accessories to run the traction side as well as the accessory side. And the car, of course. So you're easily looking at the thick end of $30,000 to do the whole conversion. It's not a way to save money, by any stretch of the imagination. But I think I've got the EV bug pretty badly, because calculating this kind of stuff is interesting to me.

Aside: Steve Walsh has taken the time to correct my statement that going at 120km/hr would use 'a lot of' petrol. In analysing this graph from this page on fuel economy in automobiles, we determined that for most of the cars on that graph there was about a 10% drop in fuel economy at 120km/hr compared with going 110km/hr. Someone going 130km/hr would be losing about 22% or so. The average loss between 55mph (~88km/hr) and 75mph (~120km/hr) is around 25% (taken from the study that the graph gets its data from).

Our car does about 15km/l in a 300km journey from Canberra to Sydney - with fuel at about $1.40/l, it costs about $28.00 for that journey. An extra 10% on that is about $2.80 - 25% would be about $7 extra. So not, perhaps, the 'lot more' that I'd speculated, but still needless. Instead of 2h43m to do 300km, it's about 2h30m - so they've saved 13 minutes for about $2.80. If that gives them a smug feeling of pleasure at being faster than those other mundane people that just do the speed limit, then I suppose it's cheap entertainment - unless they pick up a speeding ticket, where it gets a lot more expensive.

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