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Car Corner
Alternative Fuels & Technologies

October 1, 2008
By Scott Lewis

Last month we covered the scam of the hydrogen add-ons to your car that claim to improve mileages by using water to provide hydrogen. I find it amazing that some of the better car magazines don't debunk this stuff. Probably because the people that read those magazines know better.

This month we will look at the major technologies and alternative fuel sources that really could help us out. I want to preface that I looked at ALL the items mentioned below with an eye toward reducing our dependency on foreign oil. Some of the technologies will cost more to adopt and use that buying oil at well over $100 a barrel. It is a shame, but fossil fuel is still the most economic way to motivate a vehicle, as long as your determination is the cost of the technology in the vehicle versus the cost of the fuel you have to add to the vehicle for continued operation.

Infrastructure

Before we go too far into alternatives to the traditional gasoline fueled, internal combustion engine vehicle we need to talk about infrastructure. Two major infrastructures need to be addressed. First is the vehicle itself, second is fuel delivery.

Approximately 15 million vehicles are sold in this country every year (give or take a couple million). The average lifespan of a new vehicle is approximately 10 years. That's 150 million cars and light trucks over that time frame. If any of the possibilities below require replacing internal combustion engines with something else it will take 10 years to completely transition to that new form of propulsion for our daily drivers. I will remind you of this fact as we cover technologies that look very promising, but requires such a drastic change in the status quo.

Fuel delivery is another major infrastructure issue that people rarely think about. Does anyone remember how hard it was to buy diesel fuel in the late 70's and early 80's. You basically had to learn which fuel stations carried the stuff for fear of running very low and pulling into a station and not being able to get diesel. Diesel is common today, and most stations carry it. If any of the possible solutions listed below are to become widespread, or even commonplace, we will need to completely revamp the entire "gas station" paradigm. Think about how many gas stations you pass everyday on your way to work. All of them will have to transition into carrying something other than the traditional fossil fuel based gasoline that has us so dependent on foreign sources. This may be harder than a change from internal combustion engines. How many vehicles will need to be on the road for a "gas station" to justify the cost in converting to handling an all new fuel? 10%, 25%, 50%? Those that do buy into an alternative early will definitely feel this pain for being early adopters.

It is very important to keep these things in mind as we move forward. There are technologies below that will literally pit these two infrastructures against each other, while others require both infrastructures to be changed. In the end it may come down to which infrastructure has the best chance of changing, or the technology that requires the least amount of change.

Let's get on with the various fuel sources and technologies that could help us in our fight for foreign oil independence.

Ethanol (E85)

Ethanol is a form of alcohol, ethyl alcohol. I will not get too deep into all the variations of ethanol here. Feel free to read in depth information on Wikipedia's Ethanol page. Let's just get down to the point of using ethanol in this country as an alternative fuel to gasoline.

E85 is the most common form of ethanol used in this country. Basically it is a mix of 85% ethanol with 15% gasoline. You can buy many cars today that will run on E85. These are commonly called Flex Fuel vehicles.

The good thing about ethanol is that is can be made from renewable resources. This has the possibility of decreasing our dependency on foreign oil. It is also relatively simple to convert an existing gasoline engine to run on ethanol. Ethanol has a much higher octane rating than gasoline, typically around 100-105. In fact, its octane rating is as much as some racing fuel.

Unfortunately there are many problems with ethanol. Let's start with the simple ones. Ethanol contains approximately 30% less energy per gallon than gasoline. This is a problem because "Flex Fuel" vehicles that are capable of running on gasoline or ethanol will require 30% more ethanol to go the same distance as with gasoline. That's right, your gas mileage will drop by about 1/3 when running on E85 in your Flex Fuel car or truck.

Remember we said that ethanol has a higher octane rating than gasoline. When we modify a gasoline engine to use ethanol we don't modify it enough to make use of the octane rating. The octane rating of fuel is its measure of how well it suppresses detonation (ping, knock) in an engine. If we fully modify an engine to take advantage of E85 then we can gain back the lower energy. This would require raising the compression ratio at the least, and probably adjusting camshaft timing as well. Unfortunately, these changes to an engine would make it incompatible with traditional 91 or 93 octane gasoline. The bottom line is that a gasoline car can run on ethanol, but a car specifically designed to run efficiently on ethanol would not be able to run on gasoline as the detonation would destroy the engine in a matter on a few miles.

To fully exploit ethanol we would need to completely replace gasoline with ethanol at the pumps. That infrastructure of fuel delivery issue. This would be similar to how we have diesel and gasoline now. As long as we keep making gasoline/ethanol "hybrids" we will never be able to fully realize the benefits of ethanol.

Finally, ethanol mostly comes from corn in this country. We do not have enough farm land to grow enough corn to make a serious dent in the volume of oil we import. There is also debate whether ethanol production is cost effective. Since we know that no alternative to gasoline is cost effective, going to ethanol is more an issue of decreased dependence on foreign oil than it is a truly effective means of being more "green."

Diesel & Biodiesel

Diesel is not truly an alternate fuel source in the sense that it is produced from crude oil just like gasoline. However, biodiesel is considered an alternative when trying to reduce our dependency on foreign oil.

Diesel engines are 30% more fuel efficient than gasoline engines. That's a fact. Diesel engines characteristics are very good low RPM torque with low engine speeds overall. This is why they are so popular in trucks and various towing vehicles.

Unfortunately there are growing issues with diesel power vehicles in this country. For starters, recently the cost of diesel fuel has risen to be more than gasoline. I have noticed that diesel seems to be hovering about 15-20% more than gasoline in the last 6 months. This negates about half the 30% improvement in mileage from this technology.

Remember, diesel fuel is refined from crude oil like gasoline. The amount of diesel fuel a refinery can make in proportion to gasoline is largely determined with the design of the refinery. A refinery built to produce 90%/10% gasoline/diesel respectively will not be easily converted to, say 50/50. In Europe their refineries do produce about 50/50 because a little more than 50% of all new cars are diesel.

Now comes biodiesel. We can use old vegetable oil from McDonalds to make biodiesel. This is hardly a scalable solution. In fact, even if we took all the waste vegetable oil in this country it would only amount to approximately 1% of the oil needed to eliminate our dependency on foreign supplies. So let's leave out the backyard conversions of grease to fuel for this article. It just isn't practical for everyone, but feel free to do your part if you want.

Biodiesel made from vegetable oil from agriculture is where we need to look. Crisco may be in trouble if this takes off, but so will the OPEC nations. Unfortunately biodiesel has its own problems. The two most important issues are 1) viscosity and 2) slickness. Viscosity is probably the worst of the two. Biodiesel congeals at low temperatures. I would not want to try and start my car loaded with biodiesel in the dead of a Chicago winter. This viscosity issue will impact storage and transportation of the fuel as well.

The slickness (I don't know a better word for slipperiness) of biodiesel I assume is more of an issue for existing diesel vehicles. See, for a long time diesel fuel was very dirty. Only in 2007 did we finally convert over to ultra low sulfur fuel. If you run biodiesel in your vehicle that has been running the "old stuff" it could be too clean and slippery and loosen all the old deposits in your fuel system and cause engine damage. Oops! Be careful you backyard grease monkeys.

Biodiesel will also suffer the same fate of ethanol, lacking enough agricultural land to create enough crop product to get the fuel from.

Diesel engines run at very high compression ratios. To support this the engines themselves are build much more sturdy than traditional engines. Add to this some upcoming expensive to meet tighter emissions requirements and the benefit of diesel is not looking like the panacea it once did.

Turbocharging

What, turbocharging? This is not an alternative fuel or technology to help with the oil situation. I beg to differ. It is a technology that can be used to improve mileage in a vehicle. Let's take a quick stroll down memory lane. In the seventies and eighties turbocharging (force induction driven by exhaust gases) was popular. We were in the tail end of the OPEC oil embargos and gas prices were high. Ford built the SVT Mustang with a turbocharged 4 cylinder engine that got the same horsepower as the V8 Mustang. Chrysler put a ton of turbos into many a K-Car. Buick built the fastest car sold in the US (in a straight line) with the GNX using a turbocharged V6 engine.

However, turbocharging is costly. We learned that back then. When fuel prices came down and settled in price turbocharging stayed in the performance arena. Other issues existed back then. Turbocharging was in its infancy. Some of those cars still used carburetors and they lowered compression ratios in the engines to keep detonation from self destructing them.

Today, we have some pretty good turbocharged cars. But they are mostly for performance. Since we can have higher compression ratios due to direct injection fuel injection systems we should be able to build smaller engines with more power when needed, but that should cruise on the highway with little to no boost and get better mileage. This was the goal back in the 70s and 80s, but technology was not there. Also, the expense of building an engine this way for better mileage instead of better performance was not justified with low gas prices. Gas prices are high again so it makes sense to invest in this technology as a means to make cars more fuel efficient.

If you want to please read my previous article about this topic.

Hydrogen

Last month we debunked the water for gas fiasco of generating hydrogen on board a vehicle and using that to improve mileage. Just because those "get rich quick" scams won't work does not mean hydrogen in not a possible solution. When I talk about hydrogen powered cars I mean cars like BMW's Hydrogen 7, Honda's FCX or GM's Equinox.

When you look at hydrogen this way it comes down to two choices. You build an internal combustion engine that can use hydrogen (BMW) or you build an electric vehicle that gets its electricity from a fuel cell (Honda & GM).

Let's take a look at how you could use hydrogen as a fuel in a car. The issues becomes how to store the hydrogen on board the car. Three methods come to mind:

1) Liquid
2) Compressed Gas
3) Hydrides

BMW's car runs on liquid hydrogen. It requires a pretty substantial tank to store the hydrogen in liquid state. I am sure BMW built the "fuel" tank on the Hydrogen 7 to be tough enough not to be a safety issue. But that will add to the overall cost of the vehicle.

Hydrogen, even in liquid form, has significantly less energy density than traditional fuels. BMW's car has a 60 gallon tank to provide approximately 150 mile range. So, not only to you have to have a really strong gas tank, but a really large one. So much for those long trips across the country. Liquid hydrogen also evaporates. It does not stay contained. This means it will "boil off" slowly. Don't even think about going out of town for a week and coming home to a car with a full tank of "gas." It will have boiled off. This could be a serious issue for people running out of hydrogen during inopportune times.

Hydrogen as a gas has similar issues. Tanks need to be very strong. We don't want any more exploding Pintos. Hydrogen as a gas is very light (not dense). It will seep out of any current oil pipelines. In essence we would need to build an entire fuel delivery infrastructure just to transport the hydrogen to a "gas" station for you to fill up. Honda has its FCX Clarity that is supposed to be in the hands of about 200 people in California. This is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, so it is an electric car that gets its electricity from a fuel cell. I believe the FCX has a range of about 200 miles, but I don't know. Since hydrogen as a gas is not something you can put into a plastic container, you better not run out of it on the road.

I mentioned hydrides because someone told me of a system that uses solar panels to drive electrolysis, deriving hydrogen from water and storing the hydrogen safely in hydrides. I have not found enough information to determine if this is truly feasible, but the device I was told about was by a person that is thought to be "unscrupulous." The idea is that you store hydrogen in hydrides (compounds of hydrogen) in your home and transfer the hydrogen to hydrides in your car. You run the car off the hydrogen in your car. If this works it can solve the problems of liquid or compressed gas forms of hydrogen. Solar panels are expensive, and the "unscrupulous" system I managed to find out about was priced at $8000.

Hydrogen has one really big problem. Right now we get hydrogen from various processes that are fossil fuel based. Think about that for a moment. Oil or natural gas is burned in a factory to make hydrogen from water. The hydrogen is transported to a place you can take your car to fill up. Your car converts the hydrogen with the oxygen in the air to make electricity with the "exhaust" being water. We have two forms of energy conversion (water to hydrogen, hydrogen to electricity). The last time I checked every form of energy conversion is less than 100% efficient. So all we are really doing here is changing where the fossil fuel is being burned.

Hydrogen can only work if we can "make it" from renewable resources. There are three: solar, wind and nuclear. People have a lot of issues with nuclear power plants. Probably why we haven't built any new ones in over 20 years. I think we need to reconsider that. Also, we need to put research into getting solar power more affordable. If it was cheaper to build solar farms maybe that could be the cheap way to get hydrogen. I think this has great long term possibilities, but I do not know if I will see it happen in my lifetime.

Fuel Cells

As we mentioned on our hydrogen section, fuel cells can be used to drive cars. This basically makes your car an electric car. The electricity comes from a fuel cell. A fuel cell is an electrochemical conversion device. It produces electricity from fuel (hydrogen most likely in our case) and an oxidant (oxygen in the air), which react in the presence of an electrolyte.

Wow, this is perfect. You have a device that can practically generate electricity endlessly. Oh, it just needs a fuel, and hydrogen is most likely going to be that fuel. So we have to go back to the issues with hydrogen as the biggest downside to fuel cells.

Another downside to going with fuel cells is the need to convert all vehicles over to electric vehicles. Remember, approximately 15 million cars are sold in this country every year with life expectancy of 10 years. In that ten years we will replace 150 million vehicles. If we start going to fuel cell vehicles across the board it will take 10 years to get us completely away from the oil producing countries... assuming we get the hydrogen from a renewable resource.

Converting entire lines of cars to electric is a major task, one that would takes year to happen. That means it will e years before this even gets going. And in case you haven't read... the entire auto industry is hurting for money.

I like this (as I said above, with solar power used to generate the hydrogen), but I see this as a long term solution. I don't know if we will have large numbers of fuel cell vehicles in my lifetime. I hope so.

Batteries

Yes, batteries is an alternative to fossil fuel. If you are charging your car's batteries in your garage at night from electricity from a nuclear power plant (or better a solar farm) you are using an alternative to fossil fuel.

Batteries have the same downside as fuel cell vehicles... the car must use electrical motors for motivation. So you have to convert all the internal combustion vehicles to electric. Instead of hydrogen or some other fuel device you just have a battery pack that can store enough juice to run the car.

Of course batteries have their own battery (pun intended) of problems. First, we currently don't have batteries that hold enough electricity to motivate a car far enough. Well, at least batteries small enough. Let's look at gas/electric hybrids that use batteries. The batteries are heavy. For instance, Chevrolet's hybrid Tahoe. The battery for this vehicle weighs 500 lbs. They went through the vehicle to reduce weight by 500 lbs to account for the battery, otherwise performance would suffer. What if they removed the battery and just saved 500 lbs. What would that do for mileage. This is with a hybrid, how much heavier would the battery need to be to motivate the car. 1,000 lbs, 2,000 lbs. As the battery gets heavier it must hold enough electricity to move the vehicle and itself. The more weight you add the more energy you need. It is close to a catch-22 situation.

Next on the list of problems with batteries is the time it takes to recharge them, which is currently impractical for a 5 minute fill up on your way across the country for that family vacation. If it takes hours to recharge a huge, heavy battery then it will not make for a truly go anywhere vehicle. This means that most electric cars are going to be extra cars for those that can afford more than one vehicle. What if you forget to plug it in at night. What if you run out of power halfway home. It's not like you can walk a mile or two to a gas station, buy a gas can and a couple of gallons of fuel to get you to the gas station for a fill up. You will have to get towed if you are not careful.

Although batteries have a number of other minor issues, the last one I will mention is their impact on the environment. Batteries are nasty things in a land fill. Now image loading up that land fill with 10's of millions of batteries when they go bad. Remember our automotive infrastructure says we need at least 15 million cars a year (in this country alone). After those batteries start wearing our there is a very expensive replacement for the owner and the land fills start getting batteries at a rate over a million a month. Do we have the ability to handle battery waste safely. This could lead to a lot of unhealthy cost cutting to save lots of money on battery disposal.

Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet VoltThis is the only car that gets its own section. That is a shame because Honda's FCX deserves just as much praise. So why does the Chevy Volt get higher praise than the Honda FCX? Volume. Honda is only leasing about 200 of the FCX, and not selling them. Chevrolet is going to sell the Volt in volume.

The Volt is very close to the proper hybrid vehicle I described back in 2000. Chevrolet is finally getting it.

This is a car that will run on an electric motor powered by battery. Cool! The battery will be charged in your garage at night. Not bad! But it only has a range of approximately 40 miles. Oops! Chevrolet is overcoming this by putting a small gasoline engine in the car that will run a generator that can supply the electricity to move the car down the road (as I wrote).

I have a hundred questions about this car. Here are a few:

  1. Can the engine recharge the batteries at the same time it provides the motivation for the car?
  2.  If the answer to question 1 is yes, how long does it take for the engine to recharge the batteries so the engine can be shut down again?
  3.  If the answer to 1 is yes, will the engine keep turning on and off for a few minutes at a time to provide just enough gasoline sourced electricity to get you home at the least cost in gas?
  4. Since the gasoline engine can run the car what would it take to get the smallest possible gasoline engine in the car to turn the generator so that enough electricity is generated that we can eliminate the batteries (per my hybrid suggest)?
  5. What kind of mileage does the volt get when running off its gasoline engine?
  6.  If battery technology improves will it be possible to replace the 40 mile range battery with a 100/200/400 mile range battery at a later time.

With some answer we can start thinking about the next steps. From a hot rodders view... Let's say the car travels 40 miles at 70 MPH, that's 34.2 minutes on battery power. If we double the battery capacity can we travel 80 miles at 70 MPH for 1 hour 8.4 minutes? Can we modify the electronics and get the car to travel 140 MPH for the original 34.2 minutes? How about 210 MPH for 22.8 minutes.

O.K., That is not realistic at all. We all know it takes much more than twice as much power to go from 70 MPH to 140, and more than 3 times as much power to get to 210 MPH. But it opens the possibility. Let's say it takes 4 times as much power to go from 70 to 140. And it takes 9 times as much power to go from 70 to 210. With the original battery could the car be modified to run 140 MPH for 8.55 minutes, or 210 MPH 3.8 minutes. And if we could multiply battery capacity by ten (400 miles at 70 MPH) could we go 210 MPH for 15.2 minutes. What is the record at Nürburgring? What would it take to get a really hot lap at Nürburgring on electric power only?

The mind just goes crazy with the thought of this new car. The range of the Volt at 40 miles is 10 miles more than the average commute in this country, which is 30 miles. Many people can buy the Volt and never run its gasoline engine (I suggest using fuel stabilizer if this is the case). This makes it an electric car for many people. Having a truly electric vehicle is a necessary first step toward getting away from internal combustion engines, which will help other alternatives mentioned in this article.

Autoweek printed this "GM has not said how many miles per gallon the Volt would deliver when it is running on its gasoline engine. But the size of the Volt's fuel tank and the range GM says the vehicle can travel points to a gasoline-only fuel economy of between 35 and 50 mpg after the car's first 40 miles on pure electric power."

I can't wait until we learn more about this car. The most recent photos of this car are not promising. The original concept car was radically styled. The current photos are far too conventional. The Volt needs to be a radical design. Like with the Toyota Prius, the public wants a such car to stand out.

Hybrids

For the purposes of this article, hybrids are cars that run off both electricity and some form of fossil fuel (gas or diesel). Most hybrid vehicles use a gasoline engine in combination with an electric motor for motivation. The gasoline engine charges a battery that is used for one of two purposes: A) to motivate the car with the engine shut down for brief period (Toyota Prius), or B) To provide extra power to the gasoline engine for passing power or to enable cylinder deactivation (Honda Accord). Either way you have a complicated means of combining the two separate power plants into motivating the automobile. Plus you have the complexity of batteries. And you still don't have a car that can run solely without fossil fuel.

Hybrids may have there place, but ultimately I think they are slowing down progress. R&D money spent on expensive hybrids is preventing R&D into other technologies that could have a better long term possibility of getting us off of fossil fuels.

Conclusion

In case you couldn't tell by my completely unbiased, factual representation of the the alternatives above I really like a long term plan that includes fuel cells running off hydrogen derived from solar farm power plants. I also see the first step in that direction the Honda FCX (a fuel cell vehicle) and the Chevrolet Volt, the first mass produced electric car bound for normal automotive transportation.

Next month we will cover what has been going on in the last 40 years and what can be done in the meantime prior to any of the above technologies becoming commonplace.

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