Let's Find Out If Using Electric Eels To Charge Your Tesla Is A Good Idea

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For decades, the dream of motorists all over the world has been a car that could run on frothy buckets of cheap, garbage fish like tilapia or something. So far, though, that dream has eluded humankind. But now, thanks to the rise of modern electric cars, perhaps it’s possible with the intermediary help of electric eels. So let’s take a moment to really think this through: How well can you recharge an electric car using eels?

What I’m envisioning here is a sort of range-extender system. Certainly electric eels aren’t going to replace the EV’s battery simply because they’re animals (Electrophorus electricus, and it’s technically a knifefish, in case anyone asks) and as animals they’re not really able to provide constant, uninterrupted energy like a battery can, despite what The Matrix wants you to think.

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But you actually can harness the electrical energy from an electric eel. Scientists have already figured out how to harness eel-tricity to power things. Here’s a video of an eel in a tank powering lights on a Christmas tree:

...and what the hell, here’s another:

So, we know it’s possible to harvest the electrical power from eels to power other things. Now we just have to figure out if it’s actually a good idea beyond a delightful, adorable one.

For the sake of this thought-experiment, let’s figure out how much range-extending power you could get by, say, towing a range-extending tank of electric eels, connected to your car’s charging port.

For our example car, let’s use a Tesla Model 3. For reference, when you’re charging your Model 3 from a normal, everyday, American-spec 120V/ 15 amp wall outlet, Tesla says that you should be able to get between three and five miles of range per hour, with 120 volts and a 12 actual charging amps.

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Okay, so 120 volts times 12 amps comes to 1,440 watts, which, let’s say for the purposes of this, gives you four miles of range for an hour of charging.

Now, an adult electric eel can provide a jolt of up to 800 volts at one amp, but I’ve found more sources that say that 600 volts is more common. These jolts of power only last a moment, so we’re getting 600 watts, but for a very, very limited time.

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Now, how often can an eel provide these shocks? And exactly how long do they last? These answers were surprisingly difficult to find, so I reached out to an expert: Dr. Jason Gallant, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Integrative Biology.

Dr. Gallant has done extensive research into electric fish of all sorts, and told me he’s the second person people reach out to when these sorts of electric eel questions come up. To find my answer, he looked to a paper published by the first person most reach out to, Dr. Kenneth Catania.

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Dr.Catania’s amazing paper measured the power transfer to a human during an electric eel’s leap-and-attack. Basically, the man had juvenile eels shocking his own arm, over and over.

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Dr. Catania’s paper used small, juvenile eels that generated smaller bursts of energy, but Dr.Gallant confirmed that the 600V/1 amp burst from an adult eel was indeed accurate, so I’m going to stick with the bigger numbers.

Dr. Gallant, basing his rough numbers on Dr.Catania’s research, felt that an adult eel could provide about 50 pulses of electricity over the course of half a second, which gives us a duration per pulse of one hundredth of a second (0.01 seconds). However, Dr.Gallant felt it would be unreasonable to expect the eel to provide 100 pulses per second, so we’ll stick with 50 pulses per second as our number, letting the extra half-second factor in for rest.

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Okay, so now we know how much power an eel can provide, and for how long, so let’s try to figure out how much range an eel shock can give your Tesla’s battery. If a normal wall outlet can give four miles over the course of an hour, how much range will it provide in one second? To figure that out, let’s divide four miles by 3,600, the number of seconds in an hour: 0.001111.

Okay, so we know that there’s 5,280 feet in a mile, which means that 0.001111 miles is about 5.86 feet, which let’s just round up to six feet. So, one second of normal, U.S.-voltage wall charging at 1,440 watts gets you six feet of added range.

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Now, for our eels: we can get a jolt of 600 watts from an eel, but only for one hundredth of a second, and we can get up to 50 of these pulses per second. With each eel giving 50 pulses of 0.01 seconds, then we could use two to get a full second of electricity. At 600 watts, that would take 2.4 times to equal the wall outlet’s 1,440 watts.

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And that means if 1,440 watts give four miles per hour and 5.85 feet per second, then we can reasonably expect—since the charging rates seem pretty linear, that our 600 watts will give us 2.44 feet per second of eel-charging.

That’s about 146 feet per minute, and 8,784 feet per hour, or about 1.66 miles per hour of eel-charging.

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Remember, this is all assuming constant eel electrical output, which, as we stated, isn’t going to happen from one eel. If you want to insure constant output, and based on our experts’ findings that suggest we’d need to have two eels for just one second of continuous power, then it’s clear we’ll need a lot more eels.

But it gets even worse, especially if you’re an eel: Dr. Catania’s research required him to agitate and/or scare the eels so they’d attack with their electrical shock. That means we’re going to have to keep scaring and/or agitating these poor eels to get power from them.

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They also shock to stun prey to eat, so we can use power generated by feeding them as well, which we’ll have to do anyway, since no energy is free and they need to eat to keep being able to produce electricity.

So, we have to keep these eels constantly scared and/or eating. And we need to keep them in water, of course. I found that an adult eel needs a 200-gallon tank, so let’s just push these boundaries a bit and cram, oh, ten adult eels in each 200-gallon tank.

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We’ll make these 10 eel/200-gallon tanks our base modular unit, and have an integrated food tank full of doomed fish and shrimp for the eels to eat, and an integrated LCD monitor with speakers that will be used to display terrifying video clips to the eels to keep them in a constant state of fear and agitation.

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I’m not proud of this, but I think it’s the only way this can work at all. I’m also not sure what sorts of videos scare eels. Human arms grabbing? Harpoons? Exploratory short films of eels realizing the meaningless of their lives? I guess we’ll just try a variety of things and see what works.

Okay, so, if we need two eels for one second of continuous power, that means we’ll need 120 eels for one minute of continuous power, and that means we’ll need 60 times 120 eels for one full hour of power, which comes to, um, 7,200 eels.

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That’s a lot of eels.

I suppose you could do it with many less, if you were willing to work the eels a lot harder, but the truth is that all the constant shocking would exhaust them pretty quickly. With 7,200 eels, eels only have to give their 50-pulse burst of electricity once an hour, which seems to be sustainable long-term. Maybe you could cut the number in half and be okay, with eels shocking every 30 minutes? I was just playing it safe here.

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If we’re going to use our 10-eel modular agitation/feeding tank, we’ll need 720 of those, and the weight of 200 gallons water in each tank would weigh as much as my old VW Beetle: 1,670 pounds, and we’ll need 720 of those, which is 144,000 gallons of water, which comes to 1.2 million pounds of just water weight.

Huh.

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That’s a bit more trailer weight than I think most Tesla Model 3s are approved to tow. And keep in mind that all of that—all 7,200 eels and 720 tanks and all the feed fish and monitors and all that crap (the weight of which I didn’t even factor in here) will only give you, at best, about 1.6 miles of extra range per hour.

For many EV buyers, that’s not ideal.

My guess is the weight and aero impact of pulling that colossal aquarium-trailer will negate a sizable majority of the benefits to having on-the-go eel charging for your car. Maybe even all the benefits, if I’m gonna stick my neck out here.

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Even without doing that last bit of math, I feel pretty comfortable in leaping to this conclusion: Charging your electric car with the harnessed electrical energy of eels is a terrible idea, and a slippery one.

Now, maybe if they were just stationary charging tanks, not mobile range extenders, and you had tons and tons of live fish and shrimp to get rid of, then, you know, maybe this makes sense.

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Maybe. But not really. Sorry to break it to you.

(Thanks to David Tracy for checking over my math!)

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)