Saturday, March 8, 2008

Hydrogen Powered Cars

Sorry for the intermittent postings going on lately, midterms took up a lot of my time. But, I'm back now, full throttle and have got lots to talk about. First is a press release from GM and Toyota that came out at the Geneva Auto Show stating that both companies feel that fuel cell technology (hydrogen) to power cars is not going to happen at all in the recent future and both companies are steering away from R&D in that sector. Both executives feel that the current technology that allows fuel cells to be produced is way too expensive for consumers and would be cost prohibitive. Instead, GM and Toyota are focusing on flex-fuel vehicles and hybrids in the near term and PHEV (plug-in electric vehicles) as a possible long term option after more research is concluded. Interestingly, Toyota and the rest of the hybrid producing companies saw a dip in hybrid sales for the month of February to 22,000 units sold. This is a year-on-year drop but could be a result of a sluggish economy in the United States as light-duty vehicles as a whole dropped nearly 6%, while the hybrid drop is closer to 2%.
With Toyota and GM's announcement, I think automakers and researchers should move away from fuel-cell technology research and focus on integrating hybrid and flex-fuel technology as seen in the Saab turbocharge vehicle that was referenced in an earlier post.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

E20 Blends

Research released today from the University of Minnesota has indicated that blends of 20% ethanol (E20) has no detrimental effect on performance or maintenance of cars and is safe to use in non flex-fuel capable cars. The tests were done on 40 models of cars over a 1 year period that tested performance and wear on components of the engine prone to problems in high-ethanol blended gasoline when used in non flex-fuel engines. The same group is still working on tailpipe emissions and fuel economy studies from these cars to see if they duplicate an earlier study by South Dakota State University that found blends of E20 or E30 actually increased mileage in non flex-fuel cars even with the decreased energy density in ethanol.
The key to this study from the U of Minnesota is that E20 seems to be safe for cars. Minnesota as a state has mandated that 20% of its gasoline be composed of ethanol by 2013, whether the blend comes from using E10 and E85 or from using E20 in all gasoline. However, in other states and particularly in order to get the whole nation on board, I think the big automakers such as Ford and GM should conduct the same tests on each of their new models. Once they get the results, they should sign off on each new car produced and include the warranty up to E20. Until they do this, I fear that the U of Minnesota will be nothing more than an interesting read for those that might have the courage and ability to put E20 in their tanks. Over the past few hours the internet sites devoted to ethanol have been full of comments saying that Minnesota studying E20 feasibility is foolish since much of the nation is not exposed even to E10. I disagree. I think that in the Midwest, going to E20 when we know it is a safe fuel for current non flex-fuel vehicles will allow more of the region to use the ethanol produced in our backyard and reduce the strain on transportation that the industry is experiencing. If Minnesota wants to go E20, this study has said that it is safe and I say more power to them. Hopefully more research will go into this aspect of the ethanol debate so that more states can join with Minnesota to encourage the usage of this environmentally friendly, domestic fuel.

Here is a link to a summary of the Minnesota report:

Monday, March 3, 2008

My Dream Car

I mentioned this before but I'm just so glad to see these things come to reality. While the energy debate lately has taken a turn for the worst -- i.e. people adopt tunnel vision and think that ethanol, hybrid, and hydrogen transportation fuels are mutually exclusive -- Saab and GM are bringing the debate back on track. Saab released its new concept car at the Geneva Motor Show, the Saab 9-X Biohybrid, which is a continuation on its biopower line of cars. The 9-X uses a turbocharged engine to downsize the engine and reduce the weight of the car, while utilizing the ethanol-capable systems and a sophisticated computer to correctly time the direct injection of fuel and allow the reduction of knock in the smaller engine. The result is a small engine that is equivalently powerful to engines much larger, (200hp and 207 lb-ft of torque), that reduces tail-pipe emissions when run on E85, (117 grams of CO2 per kilometer versus 105 g CO2/km on E85). Keep in mind that the previous numbers are tailpipe emissions, where the benefit of E85 is usually not seen -- ethanol's GHG emissions benefit is seen in the fact that the carbon emitted is the same as the carbon trapped during the previous year's growing season.

Although the car is completely flex-fuel so that any proportion of ethanol/gasoline can be used, the mileage is less when running on E85. The engine gets 48mpg on gasoline and 37mpg on E85, however the gasoline fueled engine does not perform as well as the ethanol fueled engine. The cherry that tops off this desert is the fact that GM and Saab didn't stop there -- they installed a state-of-the-art hybrid system to combine the flex-fuel, turbocharged awesomeness with the added benefits of the hybrid technology. This is exactly the kind of innovative technology that is needed to put a dent in oil consumption and GHG emissions. With these two systems combined, car performance doesn't need to be sacrificed (like we see in those stupid European one-seater cars that look barely safer than driving one of my old micro machines on the interstate), and the gasoline displacement would be significant. Not to mention the amazingly high fuel economy even while running on ethanol and it is definitely a car for the next generation.

This type of car is still a few years off but the ideas are great. GM and Saab added that they aren't stopping at this concept car -- turbo downsizing, cooled EGR, and cam phasing are all indicated as techniques to lower emissions and raise mileage in the ethanol fueled car. This could lead to a truly E85 car that boasts lower emissions and increased mileage over gasoline. All-in-all, this type of story should be a huge boost of confidence for the innovation that will be coming down the pipeline in the next few years.

Here is a picture of the car: