Batteries Not Required

A Loveland company is changing the future of energy consumption, one car at a time. From the August Denver Magazine.

By Stewart Schley

Dan Johnson of Lightning Hybrids has uncovered a vital source of energy that could power a new generation of vehicles, and it’s under your foot.

Every time you apply your brakes, you unleash an impressive amount of energy that turns to heat in most vehicles. But in a Loveland garage-workshop, Johnson is devising a system that captures most of that braking energy in a high-pressure hydraulic tank and redirects it to the vehicle’s drive train — which turns your wheels.

This means good things for efficiency and expense. Applying hydraulic power to a traditional vehicle delivers up to a 40 percent improvement in fuel economy. That means the gallon of gasoline that used to get you 20 miles can now take you another eight. With a volatile oil market pushing gas prices near $3 per gallon, a 40 percent improvement in mileage looks especially sweet to people who manage fleets of heavy trucks and buses. Johnson’s system also dramatically eases wear and tear on brakes. “The second you touch your brakes, the engine will shut off, and all the braking is handled by the pump,” Johnson says. For fleet operators, Johnson’s idea of a hydraulic retrofit has the allure of a dream. Except this one might come true.
Robot Roots

Johnson is a trim, silver-haired, 51-year-old mechanical engineer with an amiable personality and a master’s degree in robotics from CSU. As a kid in Phoenix, he spent hours in the sun working on backyard projects. “One afternoon I look outside and see the spark from an arc welder,” says his dad, Sam, a retired industrial engineer. “I didn’t even know we had an arc welder.”

It was Sam who issued a challenge to his son two years ago: Build a car that gets 100 miles per gallon using hydraulic power. Johnson shrugged off the idea initially. But it gnawed at him. He was familiar with the essence of hydraulics: forcing fluid from a large vessel to a smaller one. His dad told stories of using hydraulic power to launch airplanes from carrier decks in the Navy. After Johnson sold his interest in a Loveland technology company, he decided to give the idea a spin. With business partner Tim Reeser, Johnson launched Lightning Hybrids. The name refers to the hope that they can get their hydraulic technology to the marketplace before competitors.

The way they saw it, the stars were aligning. Gas prices were rising, environmental sensitivity was building, and a new breed of hybrid cars relying on battery power was creating a buzz. But Reeser and Johnson were skeptical of electrically powered cars. For one thing, the batteries are expensive; General Motors has conceded it will lose money on its forthcoming Chevrolet Volt hybrids. And Johnson is convinced the current generations of batteries can’t sustain energy levels required to power heavier vehicles. A Toyota Prius battery can store about 30 percent of the energy released from braking. A hydraulic system can capture close to 80 percent, Johnson says.
Business in Motion

Reeser began to court investors. He shared a vision of getting to market with a technology that has been evaluated for years by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency but only now is getting serious attention. As a proof-of-concept, Lightning Hybrids undertook an audacious first project: building Sam’s hydraulic car. The company introduced the sleek LH4 sedan last April at the Denver Auto Show. And yes, it gets 100 miles per gallon.

But today, the LH4 and a three-wheel cousin are in storage. The real action is happening inside the garage, where on a recent Thursday, a crew of five mechanics put the finishing touches on the hydraulic retrofit of a Chevrolet Silverado truck. Nestled against the chassis was an elongated metal box that holds the key ingredient behind the HyPER Assist: a pressurized hydraulic tank that feeds torque — the force that propels the driveshaft — to the transmission.

By late this year, Johnson and Reeser hope to have signed the first commercial customer for their retrofit technology. At $14,000–$24,000 for a commercial vehicle, it isn’t cheap. But based on projected fuel and maintenance savings, fleet owners should be able to recapture their investment within three years, Johnson says. The plan has convinced several Colorado investors, including Boulder’s green-minded Aravaipa Ventures, which recently injected $500,000 in fresh funding to bring Lightning Hybrids’ total capital to around $2.5 million.

Reeser admits a sudden dip in gas prices, although unlikely, could pose a risk to the company. But he’s convinced a trio of circumstances — technological advancements, customer interest, and investor support — is in place to make hydraulic vehicles finally come to life. And if Loveland seems an unlikely birthplace for revolutionary transportation technology, well, so did Kitty Hawk in its day.