In a stunning breakthrough in materials science Geelong inventor Alvin Crank has developed a hyper-efficient version of an old technology – the clockwork motor.

It’s a development that could render Tesla’s Gigafactory obsolete, even before it produces its first battery, and see electric vehicles become the victims, not the agents, of the next great industrial disruption.

Normally the preserve of children’s toys and, of course, old-fashioned clocks, clockwork motors are simple and reliable. Some clocks have been happily ticking away for hundreds of years.  But as anyone who has wound up a toy car or train knows, this technology won’t get you very far.

That has now changed.

“We calculate that about ten minutes of moderate winding effort will be enough to drive a medium sized car around 80 kilometres,” says Crank. That’s more than enough for most people’s daily commute, though less than range of a BMW i3 or Nissan Leaf. But there’s no problem if you run out of juice a long way from a power point. Just hop out and wind the car up again.

Crank admits that his clockwork drive isn’t able to match lithium batteries for sheer energy density, but this isn’t everything. The cost per unit of energy stored is a major consideration. “In mass production our entire drive train, which is just a spring and some gears, might costs a couple of thousand dollars,” he says.

Sound too good to be true? Well, in one sense it is. The energy that can be stored in the spring is only enough to drive a car a few centimetres. But that’s not its purpose. All the energy that propels the vehicle is literally plucked out of thin air.  And harvesting this energy relies upon Crank’s real breakthrough; the new metal alloy that the drive chain – springs, gears and axles – is made from.

“The quantum crystal structure of the alloy channels the energy of otherwise random Brownian motion into a directional energy flow,” says Crank. “The energy stored in the spring is simply used to ensure the energy extracted from the ambient environment flows in the right direction. That’s why we get such a big energy return on energy invested.”

Although a completely different technology, Crank says that the concept is analogous to heat pumps, which can produce several units of heat energy for each unit of electrical energy they use. “However, we manipulate energy flows right down at the subatomic scale, so we achieve a huge output for a given input, and the only ‘exhaust’ we produce is a stream of cold air,” he says.

Extensive testing at bench scale has been completed, and the next hurdles are to scale up production of the alloy, test a full-scale motor in a suitable car, and to negotiate licensing deals.

Crank declined to give details of the alloy, other than to say it mostly comprised common metals mixed with liberal quantities of bovine organic material. It will be marketed under the name Aprilfullium.