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All-electric, all-Texas

Video: How a high-tech electric engine from the Lone Star State could change the face of Vietnam.

A Vietnamese family rides their motorcycle with their dog. There are efforts to get the Vietnamese to give up their love of the gasoline-powered and polluting motorcycles for a more environmentally-friendly electric motorbike. (Luis Enrique Ascui/Reuters)

HANOI — It’s hard to find a place in Hanoi where you don’t hear motorbikes.

The city has 1.8 million of the gasoline-powered beasts, roughly one for every two inhabitants. They are the dominant mode of transit, and the source of most of the city’s caustic air pollution. A 2006 study found pedestrians in downtown Hanoi breathe particulate matter levels of almost 500 parts per million, ten times higher than WHO guidelines.

But Christian Okonsky, an engineer from Austin, Texas, has a device that could change all that.

The device is an electric motor with a nano-crystalline core. It is the size of a casserole dish, and more powerful than a 600cc motorcycle engine. Okonsky’s company, KLD Energy, is supplying the motor to the Vietnamese motorbike company Sufat and by the end of the year he expects to startle Hanoi with something it has never seen before — a clean, quiet electric scooter that can accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in under 10 seconds.

At least, that’s what the prototype can do. There are still a few kinks to work out.

“We’re hoping to have it done by the end of the year,” Okonsky said in May, sitting next to his prototype on the sidewalk in front of KLD’s Hanoi office. “Our technology is on pace.”

The prototype, which KLD’s lead engineer, Hector Moya, had just unpacked from a crate air-freighted from the U.S., was not working. Okonsky and Moya had been fiddling with it for half an hour.

As it turned out the problem was simple — the software on the computerized motor controller had to be rebooted. After that, the bike ran perfectly for several days. But by the end of the week, its battery had burnt out.

Such are the perils of working with new technology. If the teething problems can be solved, KLD’s electric motor, produced under the trademark name “Neue," could make a major dent in air pollution and carbon emissions in Vietnam — and beyond.

Okonsky picked Vietnam to debut the technology because it has the world’s highest ratio of motorbikes per person: 22 million motorbikes in a population of 85 million. If Sufat’s electric scooters take off in Vietnam, KLD will spread the technology to other motorbike-crazy countries, like Malaysia, Taiwan and India.

Electric motorbikes, as such, aren’t new to Vietnam. “They have been sold in Vietnam for a long time,” said Tran The Loan, deputy director of Vietnam’s Department for Pollution Control. “But they have not been be able to penetrate the market.”

The reason is that current electric motorbikes are underpowered for Vietnamese tastes. Most are made in China, where the industry took off after major cities like Beijing and Shanghai banned gas-powered motorbikes in the 1990s. Chinese electric scooters can do a solid 30 miles per hour, and can go up to 55 miles between recharges. Last year Chinese bought 30 million of them.