At age 15, my brother, Wade Ortel, bought a rusty 1973 Volkswagen Bug, a purchase that marked the beginning of an extraordinary journey. His dream? To build an electric car, all on his own, using salvaged laptop batteries. Two years and countless hours of work later, the “e-Bug” is a reality. In front of our family’s home on Block Island, Rhode Island, sits a little blue Bug with an extension cord running from its gas cap to an outlet in the kitchen. It is likely the world’s first home-brew electric car powered entirely by repurposed laptop batteries. On a tiny island 13 miles off the coast of mainland Rhode Island, one remarkable kid has quietly led the way in developing environmentally sound transportation using materials that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill.
Hopping into the e-Bug presents a curious two-way time warp. On one hand, you are catapulted into the past in the small, narrow car, with its lone side mirror, manual windows and lack of heat and airbags. On the other hand, the car is clearly a futuristic vehicle. A digital gauge mounted on the dashboard displays the voltage of the battery pack and how much current is being drawn from it in real time; behind the front seats rests the handmade battery pack, comprised of 18 smaller packs of lithium ion cells. These cells were painstakingly extracted from dead laptop batteries and hand-soldered into place in a configuration my brother designed himself. For safety purposes, Wade soldered a fuse to each of the 1,530 cells individually. If one cell shorts, its fuse melts and it is removed from the circuit, leaving the rest of the battery pack unaffected and preventing an explosion.
When you pull out of the driveway in the e-Bug, it is nearly silent, save for a quiet whirring and an occasional creak from the 44-year-old chassis. The battery pack bristling with brightly colored wires is at odds with the worn vinyl seats stuffed with coconut fiber. The e-Bug launches quietly and elegantly, unaccompanied by the roar of an engine or spew of exhaust.
Although the manual gearshift was retained during the electric conversion and the car still possesses four forward speeds, it is now clutch-less. There are two voltage systems in the e-Bug: the 72-volt battery pack and a “legacy system” from the original car, which powers things like the headlights and turn signals. When the key is turned in the ignition, a relay flips and turns on the 12-volt DC-to-DC converter, which is equivalent to the alternator in a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. Wade has always embraced the “reduce, reuse, recycle” creed and, in keeping with this philosophy, his relay was salvaged from a broken furnace control panel and housed in a plastic box that was once packaging for a watch.
The e-Bug has a range of approximately 25 miles, which more than fulfills the needs of most island drivers. Wade estimates that the e-Bug could probably reach 50–55 mph maximum, though he hasn’t pushed it beyond 45 mph. Either way, it’s perfectly adequate for Block Island, which has universal speed limits of 25 mph on its paved roads and no stoplights.
Converting a vehicle that is more than four decades old to electric and using discarded laptop batteries to supply it with energy storage enabled Wade to create a zero-emissions car with a minute carbon footprint. When Block Island completes its transition from diesel-powered generators to offshore wind turbines in April 2017, his vehicle will truly be emission free. Now home to the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. as well as the first electric car powered entirely by discarded laptop batteries, Block Island has unexpectedly emerged as a testing ground for innovative renewable technologies. By tapping into resources that already exist—such as sea breezes, laptop batteries and a rusty old car—Wade and the rest of the island community have become part of a unique experiment in sustainable living. In some ways, Wade’s e-Bug project parallels the wind farm venture. In both cases, creative individuals saw potential in something that already existed and had the audacity to risk putting their ideas into action.
Cruising around the island in the e-Bug, Wade says he’s satisfied with his project. He doesn’t have huge ambitions for the Bug’s future; for him, it’s enough to enjoy driving the little car, listening to the quiet hum of its electric motor.