|How Plasma Boy Got His Name (Short Version)
excerpted from the original by John Wayland
Editor's Note: I'm publishing this story not to scare you about EVs, but to make sure you realize how much power can lurk in an EV's batteries. You wouldn't smoke a cigarette while changing your ICEV's fuel filter, but you might not know that using uninsulated metal tools and parts around an EV's battery can be just as dangerous. You're about to find out.
This drastically shortened version omits one of the best parts of the story - how John Wayland and a team of friends swarmed over an electric dragster nearly ruined by fire and, in a bit over 16 hours, had it ready to race again, and even looking pretty decent. You'll find that and much more in John's vividly-written (if lengthy) full story (pdf), 8-1/2 pages of single-spaced 10-point print.
The story begins at John's home, in 1998. John is preparing to race his electric dragster, White Zombie, a highly modified, but still street-legal, 1972 Datsun 1200.
As is usually the case, there was a lot of last minute work to be done on the race vehicles. The afternoon of Tuesday, March 3rd, John Bryan arrived in Portland, joining Bruce Meland and me. The plan was to have the work done by 5:00 PM on Tuesday, so that we could be off early the next morning for the NEDRA Saturday Night Electric Desert Drags.
I had worked on the Zombie's latest improvements all week, but at 6:30 PM the eve before we were to depart, we were still hooking things up. John Bryan and I were both inside the the Zombie putting the final touches on the 336 volt Genesis battery pack.
Frank The Metal God and I had designed the main power lead connectors for the potent, high voltage array, so that they could be easily accessed and worked on in a safe manner, away from the multitude of solid copper bus bars that interconnected the 28 high current AGM batteries. The batteries terminal connections often pass within inches of each other, so all the solid copper buss bars are necessarily closely spaced. This makes for a great low resistance current path, but it also makes the likelihood of a short circuit with something like a dropped tool or even a large washer very high. As such, whenever I worked in the battery compartment, I laid a thin mat of dense foam rubber over the batteries, to offer a safety insulating barrier while using tools in the area.
With both of us crammed inside the small car working together, the moment had finally arrived to make the last connection - the twin 1/0 negative power leads. In all the excitement of the moment, I had a temporary brain short circuit, and instead of utilizing the safety aspects that I had designed into the connector system, I instead attempted to make the connection inside the battery compartment - wrong thing to do!
In one hand I held a solid brass clamp bar that I had painstakingly created at the metal shop. I fumbled and lost control over the brass clamp bar. It tumbled away and onto the tops of the Genesis batteries.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion. Ca- clank ...ca-chink ...
"Hey, maybe it's just going to flop around and come to rest in a safe place."
"Oh-oh, this is not good!"
Then, another ca-snap. Then, CAAASSHHOOOOOOOSSHHHH, as an intense arc appeared!
"Oh, no!!!! This is REALLY not good!"
I reached towards the arc in a futile attempt to fix the problem, but the light was so intense that I couldn't look at it. I looked over at John. Suddenly, the arc flashed into a higher state, and a brilliant blue plasma ball, maybe 6 inches in diameter, formed and seemed to float just above the batteries. It was as if an alien being had taken over the car, and it was scary as hell!
An intense heat was radiating from the intruder. One of the interior side panels began to melt and the car filled with smoke. With our skin about to peel from the heat, I shouted at John, "GET OUT, GET OUT OF THE CAR!" Bruce was also screaming at us, "HURRY UP, GET OUT OF THERE!" In what had to look like a choreographed exercise, we both bailed out with a synchronized panic leap.
We stared in disbelief as the Zombie was being devoured by this demon from within. All I could think about was that all the hard work and years of nurturing this car into a race vehicle were going up in smoke before my eyes. Bruce had grabbed a nearby towel and had soaked it in the standing rain puddles, then threw it over the plasma ball. But like an insatiable monster, it ingested the fabric and the towel was vaporized in an instant.
Minutes before this all started, I had talked with John about the warning labels atop the stout little Genesis batteries: "Extremely High Current, Do Not Short!" I was thinking that at any instant, the plasma ball should go away, that the little 16 amp-hour batteries would surely be exhausted soon. But the quasar continued!
I ran for the fire extinguisher, and as I passed through the house (no extinguisher out in the shop!) I yelled to my fully-assembled family, "The cars melting down!" Running back to the car, I unloaded the contents of the extinguisher into the battery compartment, but the plasma ball refused to quit and kept on plasmizing (Is that a word?). It was relentless, and it continued to flare for about two straight minutes.
Finally, it went super nova, and shrank back to a white dwarf - but then, FLAMES erupted! With my family now gathered around the inferno, I exclaimed, "God, now it's on fire!" In her classic teenage sarcasm, my daughter looked at me totally seriously and said, "Why, are you an idiot?"
Taking instructions from my wife Cheryl, my daughter's close friend Heather dialed up 911 and summoned the fire department. I could see thick black clouds of smoke pouring out of the front windows, and the flames were licking the headliner, causing it to drip into the flames and refuel them. I doused the fire with the entire contents of a second extinguisher. Cheryl arrived with two boxes of baking soda, and I dumped the full contents on the flames, but they bounced right back. A garden hose was running water, as containers were filled with water and thrown at the blaze - but it just kept on burning!
Bruce and Cheryl were thinking much more clearly than I at the moment, and they began taking action to get the burning Zombie out of the shop, for fear of the whole shop going up in flames as well. There were two non-running EVs behind the Zombie in the shop driveway, plus another gas vehicle behind them, and they all had to be moved in order for us to be able to push the Zombie out of the shop. There must have been a lot of adrenaline flowing in everybody, as the cars were moved up and out the driveway in seconds.
Within minutes of the call, the sounds of a siren and bright flashing lights signaled that the fire truck had arrived. The firemen immediately began to take action, and after they learned just what they were dealing with, one of them donned protective equipment, including a gas mask, and bravely climbed into the interior of the car that was enveloped by the thick, dark smoke. Through the blackened side windows, I could see him ripping loose the specially-made copper bus bars that Frank had expertly formed with the metal brake. Finally, the flames disappeared, and the fireman emerged from the Zombie.
I was devastated by what I had done, and felt completely drained. All around me were sad faces, and the reality of what had happened was really sinking in. One fatal error, and all had been ruined!
John's story carries on for 5 more pages. Eventually we learn that all has not been ruined. Nor was his error fatal - and that was a near-miracle. He and John could have been badly burned, maybe fatallly. By sheer luck, they escaped, and even managed to get White Zombie back into shape in time for the race.
Not to sound preachy, but there's a lesson here. Modern EV batteries can produce stupendous amounts of power - about ten times as much your home's electrical system. Don't be afraid of them, but give them the respect they deserve.
EV safety tips: