So, what's going to happen when a couple-hundred-thousand fans from around the world swoop into Sochi in 2014, along with a flotilla of international media and all the world's greatest athletes? The Winter Olympics will happen, and the power will flow. It has to, and it will thanks to that unassuming looking shipping container above. It's being assembled at Ener1's facility outside of Indianapolis, and it's actually a giant battery holding an amazing amount of power -- enough to juice 1,000 average homes for an hour, or to act as the mother of all UPS's. Join us for a look inside and a video show how each of those packs is made.
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Ener1 factory tour
On the outside it looks like a slightly beat up, obviously re-purposed shipping container. And that's what it is. The exterior customizations are limited to some blingy chrome cooling vents and a whole slew of ominous warning signs. Note, of course, that the signs are posted in both English and Russian.
Peek inside and you'll see row after row of unassuming drawers. There are 180 total, each one holding four of what Ener1 calls a module. That module is about the size of two car batteries, each one made up of 12 so-called elements, and each element consists of 24 sheets. Each sheet is basically a thin, flexible dry cell battery that's injected with liquid electrolytes and given a positive and negative terminal -- sticking out on either ends. Each sheet is charged individually before the assembly process begins, which is chronicled in the video above.
By arranging these individual sheets together in parallel, and the arranging the resulting elements together in series, a highly energy-dense battery pack can be created. It's the same setup inside the Volvo C30 Electric we just test drove, just lot more. An awful, awful lot more.
Right now Ener1 has received an order for six of these monsters. The one you see above is nearing completion, but the company has the individual drawers laid out for the other five, nine columns and 20 rows of big, heavy batteries that will, in a few years time, be providing the juice to keep the cameras and cellphones and tablets and other devices of international tourists freshly charged up -- even if the area's infrastructure simply isn't up to the task.
Each will basically act as a ridiculously massive UPS, storing power and spitting it out when the grid fails, also acting to condition and manage clean, steady power. How exactly the devices will be connected and charged nobody would tell us. Neither would anybody tell us how much one of these units costs. Well, one person said "a lot," but that's what we would have guessed on our own.
If all goes well with this initial batch Ener1 plans to build dozens more of the things to serve similar purposes outside of critical factories and other areas where the power simply can't go out. The hope is that this will ultimately help the company drive down costs and, when that happens, we could see these suckers slotted into alleyways around the country, slowly charging up overnight when power is cheap and then quickly draining in the afternoon when everyone reaches for the dials on their window AC units.
The likelihood of that happening remains to be seen, but it's certainly closer to reality than cold fusion at this point.
Update: We received a request from Ener1 to remove some photographs and details from this article due to trademark concerns. While we did receive permission to photograph and film these batteries from three Ener1 personnel before running this story we have respected the company's wishes.
[Jazzy video soundtrack courtesy of Eric Bednarz]