2012 January 18 Wednesday
Car Friction Reduction Could Save Substantial Energy

A third of your gasoline goes toward overcoming friction. Over half of that friction might become avoidable within 15 to 25 years.

No less than one third of a car's fuel consumption is spent in overcoming friction, and this friction loss has a direct impact on both fuel consumption and emissions. However, new technology can reduce friction by anything from 10% to 80% in various components of a car, according to a joint study by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in USA. It should thus be possible to reduce car's fuel consumption and emissions by 18% within the next 5 to 10 years and up to 61% within 15 to 25 years.

There are 612 million cars in the world today. The average car clocks up about 13,000 km per year, and in the meantime burns 340 litres of fuel just to overcome friction, costing the driver EUR 510 per year.

Electric cars lose far less of their energy to friction. So they have less to gain from friction reduction. So reduced friction loss will improve the relative advantage of cars buring liquid hydrocarbon fuels versus electric cars.

Of the energy output of fuel in a car engine, 33% is spent in exhaust, 29% in cooling and 38% in mechanical energy, of which friction losses account for 33% and air resistance for 5%. By comparison, an electric car has only half the friction loss of that of a car with a conventional internal combustion engine.

Annual friction loss in an average car worldwide amounts to 11,860 MJ: of this, 35% is spent in overcoming rolling resistance in the wheels, 35% in the engine itself, 15% in the gearbox and 15% in braking. With current technology, only 21.5% of the energy output of the fuel is used to actually move the car; the rest is wasted.

One thought: on shorter trips it should be possible to avoid the need for a cooling air conditioner and gasoline power lost to it. Imagine when parked you could plug in the car and the electric power would operate a condenser to super cool some liquid. Then that frozen material could provide a source of cooling for, say, an hour or two.

Newer materials can cut friction. But what about the costs?

A recent VTT and ANL study shows that friction in cars can be reduced with new technologies such as new surface coatings, surface textures, lubricant additives, low-viscosity lubricants, ionic liquids and low-friction tyres inflated to pressures higher than normal.

Friction can be reduced by 10% to 50% using new surface technologies such as diamond-like carbon materials and nanocomposites. Laser texturing can be employed to etch a microtopography on the surface of the material to guide the lubricant flow and internal pressures so as to reduce friction by 25% to 50% and fuel consumption by 4%. Ionic liquids are made up of electrically charged molecules that repel one another, enabling a further 25% to 50% reduction in friction.

The payback will come faster in commercial vehicles that travel great distances every year. So are diamond-line carbon materials getting designed into engines or transmissions of any long distance trucks today?

By Randall Parker    2012 January 18 11:14 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2011 October 30 Sunday
Bike Trail Proximity And Transportation Policy

Julie Irwin Zimmerman in The Atlantic looks at evidence for high value which home buyers place on bike trail proximity.

The research, by planning professor Rainer vom Hofe and economics professor Olivier Parent, looked at houses along a 12-mile stretch of the Little Miami Scenic Trail, a former rail line that cuts across the northeastern portion of Cincinnati. The pair found that home buyers were willing to pay a premium of $9,000 to be within 1,000 feet of access to the trail.

It so happens I've spent a lot of time in Google Maps in one example city with a good few mile long bike trail comparing commute times by car, bike, and mass transit. If you haven't ever done this before try choosing starting and ending locations between housing and business offices in a city that offers at least car and mass transit options or car and isolated bike trail options. Here are some web pages with some urban bike trails to consider for comparisons in Google Maps. I'll be curious to hear any observations you come up with if you try this.

I chose office destinations and home locations that would put one near a bike trail at both ends. For people whose commute could be done mostly via a bike trail biking took much less time than taking a bus (said bus stopping at red lights and bus stops that don't stop bikes on a trail). Biking took about twice the amount of time of driving but mass transit was near double the biking time. Time walking to a bus stop, waiting for the bus, having the bus take a non-direct route, and stops along the way makes busing slower. Plus, you can only go when the bus goes. Biking seems like a much more attractive alternative to the car in areas where trails make bikes feasible. More bike and pedestrian overpasses and underpasses and trails would make biking and walking more feasible.

Now, if your drive doesn't involve much in the way of surface streets with stop lights and your local highway is not slow at rush hour then cars are going to offer a much bigger time advantage. Also, a bus in a HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane from a more distant starting point will beat a bike. But in the right locations bikes offer time advantages over mass transit and exercise and cost advantages over cars. Plus, bikes are like cars in that you can decide when to start your trip rather than be at the mercy of bus schedules.

Given trends in oil production a substantial improvement in the usability of bikes via trails isolated from surface car traffic will offer bigger advantages in the future.

By Randall Parker    2011 October 30 10:28 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2011 September 04 Sunday
Batteries And Hydrogen Fuel Cells For Canal Boat Power

A British canal boat has been retrofitted to run off a combination of hydrogen fuel cell and lead acid batteries.

One of the most efficient means of transporting freight is by ship. However, many of the ships sailing today are powered by ageing diesel motors fitted with neither exhaust cleaning equipment nor or modern control systems. Three years ago the University of Birmingham initiated an ambitious trial, converting an old canal barge to use hydrogen fuel. The old diesel motor, drive system and fuel tank were removed and replaced with a high efficiency electric motor, a battery pack for short-term energy supply and a fuel cell with a hydrogen storage system to charge the batteries. In September 2007 the converted boat, the "Ross Barlow", was launched on its maiden voyage on Britain's 3500 km long canal system. Last year the barge made its longest voyage to date, of four days duration and 105 km length, negotiating no less than 58 locks.

No mention of prices for all the replacement drive train parts. Likely the total cost is higher than the costs of diesel engine and diesel fuel. But we can expect declining costs due to advances in battery and hydrogen storage technologies. I'd bet on battery cost reductions before hydrogen storage cost reductions just because of the huge existing volumes in battery markets for phones, tablets, and laptop PCs. Plus, the market for HEV, PHEV, EV cars is growing.

This report puts long term shipping costs in a different light. It would be more practical for canal and river transportation to switch to battery electric and/or hydrogen power than for ocean-going transport to do the same. Canal boats and river boats can stop at many places along the way for recharge using electric power from existing electric power generator plants. Booms along a river or canal could be built fairly cheaply to swing out electric lines to plug into boats or ships to recharge. Ocean-going vessels do not have that option. Though in theory floating electric generator plants (wind, nuclear, or solar) could recharge ships at stations in the middle of the ocean.

The hydrogen storage contained enough hydrogen to generate about 50 kwh of electric power - which is enough to drive a compact electric car about 200 miles (assuming 0.25 kwh/mile). The boat also contained enough lead acid batteries for 47 kwh electric power..

The capacity of the fuel cell was, however insufficient to power the boat directly, so the "Ross Barlow" was also fitted with a 47 kWh buffer battery. Lead acid batteries were used for this purpose since they are low maintenance, low-priced and easy to charge. The weight of the battery pack is of no consequence when used in an inland waterways vessel.

The hydrogen supply for the fuel cell was provided by hydride storage system developed by Empa and partly financed by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). This device can store hydrogen with an energy content of 50 kWh, which is equivalent to 20 pressurized gas cylinders each of 10 Liter capacity.

Sounds like the hydride storage system will last for over 1200 refueling cycles.

The reliability and operational lifetime of the metal hydride storage system was tested in the laboratory during its development. In practical terms this means that when used to power the "Ross Barlow", if the ship is assumed to travel 650 km per year through the British canal system, it would need refueling once a month with hydrogen. In this case the hydrogen storage system would have an operating lifetime in excess of 100 years, and would therefore comfortably outlast the useful lifetime of the barge itself.

Do not be misled by the expected 100 years lifetime. If this hydrogen storage system was used for ships that ply big rivers (e.g. ships that travel up and down the Mississippi River) it would be reasonable to expect refuelings on a rate approaching a daily basis. Given that, if the metal hydride storage wears out how much money is saved by recycling it to create new storage containers?

Lead acid battery life would be a concern if used for shipping. One source claims 550 discharge cycles for marine batteries if discharged 50% each time. But if discharged 80% the number of discharge cycles drops in half. Note that even longer lasting lead acid batteries exist which have pure lead plates. Don't know how many discharge cycles they can handle.

As the price of oil goes up and the prices of assorted substitutes go down the ease of our migration away from oil will be determined the price points where each substitute become cheaper than oil for each use.

By Randall Parker    2011 September 04 09:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2011 May 13 Friday
Modest Proposal To Expand Railroad Usage

When Warren Buffett decided to buy the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad my reaction was that Warren must see rail as a great Peak Oil bet. Rail is a few times more energy efficient that trucks per ton-mile. He's certainly willing to invest to expand rail capacity. So my modest proposal: Warren should buy all the US railroads. Imagine the results. Warren would shift more freight to rail on a massive scale. That would cut oil usage, make highways safer and less crowded, and he'd earn a lot of money doing it. All this he'd do without taxpayer subsidies.

Burlington Chief Executive Officer Matthew K. Rose is determined to take advantage of the industry's improved climate and the flexibility he gets by having only one shareholder—Buffett. This year, Rose is boosting capital spending by 31 percent, triple the increase of other major rails. He's buying about 200 locomotives and building more huge transfer facilities where rail freight containers are switched to and from trucks before and after their transport by train. Rose's goal: to bolster the second-largest U.S. railroad's competitiveness relative to long-haul truckers.

Increasing the number of places that truck loads can be moved onto rail cars will cut the distance freight will need to travel via truck. More freight moved by rail will cut total oil usage.

As the price of oil goes higher in the coming years rail will take more freight traffic from trucks. But if the price of oil goes up too fast and pushes the US into a recession then total freight volume will drop faster than freight shifts to rails. I would be very curious to know how Buffett weighs these possibilities.

By Randall Parker    2011 May 13 11:40 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (31)
2011 March 12 Saturday
The Problems With Passenger Rail

A New York Times story looks at why the Tampa-to-Orlando high speed rail project lost political support.

The story of the line’s rise and fall shows how it was ultimately undone by a tradeoff that was made when the route was first selected.

The Tampa-to-Orlando route had obvious drawbacks: It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars, and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving. But the Obama administration chose it anyway because it was seen as the line that could be built first. Florida had already done much of the planning, gotten many of the necessary permits and owned most of the land that would be needed.

These cities were too close together to have air service between their airports. It would have stopped many times. So the time savings over driving would have been small. Upon arriving at either city the need for a car would have been so great that car rental would be necessary.

The fantasy for passenger rail advocates is Europe. But in reality the fantasy does not exist. In much more densely populated Europe the governments encourage mass transit use with high gasoline taxes and large government subsidies for passenger rail and other mass transit. In spite of these conditions cars still account for most miles traveled. A 2007 UK government report on transportation "Are we there yet? A comparison of transport in Europe" contains a chart in chapter 2, "Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003", that speaks volumes about mass transit in Europe:

Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003

Only in Switzerland is more than 10% of passenger miles from rail. In the far less densely populated USA we can't get anywhere near those levels of mass transit penetration.

I like railroads. My first trip between America's coasts was on an Amtrak train. Trains are cool. I love to watch them lumbering by. I used to live next to a train track and did not mind the sounds of their passing. But if one's goal is to reduce reliance on oil (and that need seems urgent given fairly stagnant world oil production and yet large non-OECD oil consumption growth since 2000) then one has to consider the marginal costs of cutting demand for oil in all the ways it could be cut (e.g. more hybrids, lighter weight material in cars, bikeways, technology to allow trucks to run automatically in groups on highways to cut wind resistance).

Multi-billion dollar passenger rail projects should not be undertaken just because they've got all their permits lined up and a few politicians and passenger rail enthusiasts are excited. Resource limitations and a $1.6 trillion US budget deficit call for setting a high bar for expected benefits from taxpayer-funded transportation spending.

Even in the realm of rail policy other options loom more tempting. The most obvious: policies aimed at shifting more freight traffic to rail. Rail in the US saves oil by pulling freight away from less energy-efficient trucks (while saving lives just as passenger rail can). A 2009 study for the Federal Railroad Administration found that trains are 1.9 to 5.5 more fuel efficient for freight movement than trucks.

For all movements, rail fuel efficiency is higher than truck fuel efficiency in terms of ton-miles per gallon. The ratio between rail and truck fuel efficiency indicates how much more fuel efficient rail is in comparison to trucks. As illustrated in Exhibit 1-1, rail fuel efficiency varies from 156 to 512 ton-miles per gallon, truck fuel efficiency ranges from 68 to 133 ton-miles per gallon, and rail-truck fuel efficiency ratios range from 1.9 to 5.5.

That link contains more about the causes of differences in rail and truck fuel efficiency than most of you want to know. One factor influencing train fuel efficiency is whether a train route allows double stacking. Well, if the US government wanted to shift more freight traffic to trains it could offer to pay part of the costs of lifting bridges or reworking tunnels (e.g. with accelerated depreciation of investment costs) to accelerate the trend toward more double-stacking. Also, more crossings could be reworked so that trains and cars get separated by bridges. Doing this will speed up freight rail while also saving lives. Faster speeds would both cut rail freight delivery times and increase the total shipping capacity of rail lines. This would cause a shift of more freight to rail. Not as fun as a high speed train ride. But probably far more cost effective as a way to cut both oil usage and highway deaths.

Many passenger rail advocates are uninterested in trade-offs between different ways to spend taxpayer dollars. The cognitive deficiencies that lead them to their way of looking at things are probably not tractable without decades more of advances in genetic engineering and nanotechnology. But there's another approach that might work with a subset of them: passenger rail's role as an energy saver is far from clear.

When Amtrak compares its fuel economy with automobiles (see p. 19), it relies on Department of Energy that presumes 1.6 people per car (see tables 2.13 for cars and 2.14 for Amtrak). But another Department of Energy report points out that cars in intercity travel tend to be more fully loaded — the average turns out to be 2.4 people.

“Intercity auto trips tend to [have] higher-than-average vehicle occupancy rates,” says the DOE. “On average, they are as energy-efficient as rail intercity trips.” Moreover, the report adds, “if passenger rail competes for modal share by moving to high speed service, its energy efficiency should be reduced somewhat — making overall energy savings even more problematic.”

Add in the regulatory demands for higher car efficiency and rail's energy efficiency advantage for moving people becomes even less clear when Prius-level vehicle fuel efficiency becomes the norm. Another source finds poor energy efficiency from light rail.

Since I see reduction in oil usage as far more urgent than reduction in overall energy usage electrified passenger rail could still provide an advantage over gasoline-powered cars. But how long will it take for a passenger rail system to pay back the energy that would go into its construction? Also, it is not clear in the year 2011 whether car battery costs will come down fast enough to remove that advantage from electrified passenger rail. My guess is that electrifying freight rail makes more sense than building out a massive infrastructure of passenger rail in a country with a fairly low population density.

By Randall Parker    2011 March 12 05:18 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (62)
2011 February 24 Thursday
Volvo Diesel Pluggable Hybrid

Occasionally someone brings up in the comments that a hybrid diesel would offer extreme fuel efficiency. But since diesel and hybrid both add costs the combination hasn't yet shown up in a car on the market. But now Volvo has build a V60 that lets you either cruise 30 miles on pure electric or 745 miles in diesel hybrid mode. In this new era of Arab oil producer revolutions this car offers obvious advantages. See the Wired article for more details.

In “Pure” mode, it’s a commuter car with a 70-horsepower electric motor driving the rear wheels. The 12-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack offers a 30-mile range and can recharge fully in under three hours at a 16-amp outlet. Switch the selector to “Hybrid” and banish range anxiety with an astounding 125-mpg equivalent rating and a 745-mile range — enough to get from Luleå to Malmö on one tank of diesel.

Volvo hasn't yet committed to a release in the USA.

Even if this car makes it across the Atlantic will it make sense? The incremental cost of the diesel engine has to be weighed against spending on a bigger battery for more pure electric range. But if do a lot of long range driving the diesel would pay itself back better than a bigger battery would. One wonders whether Volvo will also bring out a non-pluggable diesel hybrid.

I know a couple of guys with Jetta diesels who gush about the fuel economy. They both drive serious miles on road trips. The diesels just keep on going.

One consideration: Diesel prices sometimes go up more during oil price spikes. That's partly because diesel demand drops off more in recessions since industrial diesel fuel usage declines more than consumer gasoline fuel use in recessions. See the US Energy Information Administration page on US gasoline fuel prices for the last couple of years. As of February 21, 2011 gasoline is up 53 cents over the last year whereas diesel is up 74 cents. Though diesel is only 12% more than gasoline.

Update: Smart shows how not to price an electric car.

By Randall Parker    2011 February 24 09:12 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (30)
2011 January 25 Tuesday
VW Diesel Electric Hybrid 261 MPG

The XL1 concept car can get 261 miles per gallon of diesel fuel.

The mad scientists at Volkswagen have wheeled out a bullet-shaped diesel-electric plug-in hybrid that gets a stunning 261 mpg. VW claims it is the most fuel-efficient hybrid ever, and it shows what’s possible when you let your engineers run wild.

It has 2 seats and decent acceleration with electric assist.

Come Peak Oil I'd rather drive to work in a really small car than on a scooter or motorcycle. You get better protection from the elements in a car.

At 261 mpg even at $20 per gallon you'd spend only $766 on diesel to go 10,000 miles.

By Randall Parker    2011 January 25 10:20 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2010 December 15 Wednesday
Ford To Sell HEV, PHEV, And EV Versions Of Focus

Ford will make gasoline, hybrid, pluggable hybrid, and pure electric versions of the Focus. Finally we will be able to compare consumer reactions to those 4 choices in a more apples-to-apples fashion. This promises to be interesting.

Ford Motor Company's retooled Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., becomes the world's first plant to build not only fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicles, but three production versions of electrified vehicles – battery electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles

Production of the all-new global Ford Focus, in four-door and five-door versions, is under way with sales to begin early next year. The Focus Electric battery electric vehicle goes into production late next year followed by a new hybrid and plug-in hybrid in late 2012

Come much higher oil prices Ford has all its bases covered. If you buy a Focus you can use your choice of variant as a way to bet on the future price of oil. Fearing $200+ per barrel? Go EV. Expecting a retreat from the current $85+ per barrel? Go pure conventional gasoline.

Currently the Nissan Leaf EV (electric vehicle) and GM Chevy Volt PHEV (pluggable hybrid electric vehicle) differ not just as EV versus PHEV but also in assorted design choices of two competing car makers, price, and the probably in the size of the losses the companies take in selling each one. With the Ford Focus we will get to see how EV, HEV, and PHEV equivalents compare to a plain gasoline engine car. We will also get to see how many of each type sell. My guess is the HEV will outsell the PHEV and EV. But it is not clear now the PHEV and EV will fare versus each other. Any guesses?

It is curious that Ford is bringing out the EV before the HEV and PHEV. Anyone know why? Is it just easier to do? The PHEV is the most complex.

By Randall Parker    2010 December 15 10:49 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2010 June 13 Sunday
Chris Nelder: Replace Offshore Oil With Wind?

Chris Nelder looks at what it would take to replace US offshore Gulf of Mexico oil with a comparable amount of energy from wind power.

Federal offshore Gulf of Mexico has been our last great hope for domestic oil production against a four-decade declining trend. Offshore oil now accounts for 1.7 million barrels per day (mbpd), or over 30%, of our domestic production of 5.5 mbpd.What would it take to substitute wind for offshore oil? At 5.8 MBtu heat value in a barrel of oil and 3412 BTU in a kWh, 1.7 mbpd is equivalent to 2.9 billion kWh per day, or 1,059 billion kWh a year. By comparison, total 2008 wind generation was 14.23 billion kWh in Texas, and 5.42 billion kWh in California.

Therefore, to replace our offshore oil with wind, you’d need 195 Californias, or 74 Texases of wind, and probably 20 years to build it.

The comparison here between oil and wind electric power isn't exact for a number of reasons. On the one hand oil loses energy getting burned in engines and at other stages. On the other hand, wind doesn't always blow when you need it and electric power is hard to use for transportation. But these rough calculations at least start an analysis of oil substitutes. I'll go further with it below. But a full analysis of substitutes would require a write-up far bigger than a blog post.

Texas happens to have the most wind turbines of any US state. Multiply the number of existing Texas wind turbines (at least in 2008) by a factor of 74 to get a comparable amount of energy from wind power. Texas amounted of about a quarter of total US wind electric power in 2008.

In 2009 in the United States wind provided 70,761 thousand megawatt hours of electric power (70.8 billion kWh). Wind grew by 15,398 thousand megawatt-hours of actual output in 2009 or 28%. Compare that 15.4 billion kWh increase to the 1 trillion kWh per year of energy we currently get from the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) oil. If we built and installed wind turbines at a rate 10 times faster than the current rate we could produce as much energy from wind in about 7 years. Of course, you can't pour liquid electric power into your gas tank. A migration to wind power involves more than building wind farms. More on that below.

A rapid build-out of wind sites assumes these sites exist. Of course the transportation infrastructure in the United States is built to run on oil and conversion of that infrastructure to run on something other than oil couldn't happen in 7 years without a huge reduction in living standards to free up the industrial output to build the wind turbines, long distance electric power lines, batteries, electric cars, and other pieces needed to electrify transportation. A ramp-up of lithium mining to support such a large build of lithium batteries would take years to accomplish.

What about total cost? The first part of the cost equation is the wind turbines. Does anyone know of a good source for total sales of wind turbines (including installation) in the United States in 2009? Take that figure and multiply by about 65 to get a wind farm cost answer. But that might be low due to a need to use more lower quality wind farms. Also, there'd be some big cost (anyone have a good idea on how to estimate it?) for a big build-out of HDVC electric grid long range lines to deliver the electric power from the central plains states (where the wind is) to the coasts. I'll update the post with more cost info as any commenters find more or I find more.

The real problem (and the real reason we continue to so heavily rely on oil) comes when we try to use all that wind electric power. Most oil gets used in cars and trucks. Here's the problem in a picture: (data for 2008)

U.S. Primary Energy Consumption by Source and Sector diagram image

Aside: In 2004 only 67% of oil went for transportation as compared to 71% in 2008.Gradually many non-transportation uses of oil are getting squeezed out. This speaks to the difficult of substituting electric power for oil in transportation. Only oil's essential uses remain as prices rise. Transportation continues to make the cut.

Electric vehicles are not widely used mainly because batteries big enough to give them substantial range cost too much. With electric cars the batteries end up costing 2-4 times more than the electric power. Cars are the prime candidates for conversion to electric power because transportation is the biggest user of oil (about 71% of all oil in the US is for transportation). Since the question Nelder posed is only about how to replace GOM oil production (rather than all oil production) with electric power we do not have to figure out how to shift all transportation and chemical industry uses of oil to electric power. But we even then the going gets hard.

Suppose we do not include the 1.625 million barrels per day used by heavy trucks (and I'd really like to know what fraction of that oil is for long distance trucking). Trying to electrify trucking is much harder than electrifying cars because long haul trucks travel many more miles per day than the average car. Range is the big problem with batteries. Long haul trucks would need huge batteries and/or lots of stops for battery swapping. If we just aim for commuter and other local car usage we can focus on pluggable hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) like the Chevy Volt (range 40 miles on battery) and pure electric vehicles (EVs) such as the Nissan Leaf (range 100 miles on battery). If we make PHEVs and EVs as the main tools for electrification then we'd probably need to replace tens of million cars with PHEVs and EVs. That'd take years since not all vehicles could practically be PHEVs or EVs. Plus, the added cost of PHEVs and EVs would slow the adoption rate. Figure $5000 added cost per car we are up in trillions of dollars to make the transition. Possible if we are willing to pay the price.

We could electrify trains much more easily (relatively speaking, still with a big price tag) than we could electrify trucks. But trains only use about 220,000 barrels of oil per day. So train electrification would not do much to eliminate our dependence on oil unless we shifted a lot more shipping onto trains (and probably build more train tracks or moved closer to train tracks).

You can listen to an interview of Chris Nelder on the Financial Sense News Hour. He sees peak oil as imminent and therefore a migration away from oil as necessary but very difficult.

By Randall Parker    2010 June 13 01:54 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (57)
2010 May 20 Thursday
Rail Freight Highly Energy Efficient

An announcement from the Association of American Railroads from last month reports the very high fuel efficiency of rail for moving freight.

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 22, 2010 — The Association of American Railroads today announced that the nation’s freight railroads in 2009 averaged 480 ton-miles to the gallon when moving a ton of freight. Ton-miles-per-gallon is the railroad measurement for fuel efficiency, like autos use miles-per-gallon. Overall, freight rail fuel efficiency is up 104 percent since 1980. In 2009, railroads generated 67 percent more ton-miles than in 1980, while using 18 percent less fuel.

To give you a sense of just how efficient that is imagine you drive a 2 ton SUV. It wold have to get 240 miles per gallon to be as efficient - and it would not be carrying a load. The load would be the SUV itself. Or imagine you drive a half ton pick-up with a half ton load. It would have to get 960 miles per gallon to be as efficient. Railroads are incredibly efficient at moving freight.

"I’m pleased to report on Earth Day that the nation’s freight railroads not only haul the goods that America depends on every day, but they do so while benefiting the environment and reducing our dependence on foreign oil," said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger.

While there are many environmental benefits from moving more people and goods by rail, fuel efficiency is where it all starts, Hamberger noted citing the federal government’s finding that railroads are four times more fuel efficient than trucks. "Railroads are moving more while consuming less fuel, which means we’re emitting fewer greenhouse gases and easing highway congestion."

When world oil production starts declining more freight will move by rail. The cost of living will be lower near freight rail facilities where rail freight gets transferred to trucks. However, if the rate of decline in oil production is steep enough the total volume of freight moved by rail will probably decline due to overall economic contraction.

By Randall Parker    2010 May 20 10:28 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2010 May 06 Thursday
Big Truck Fuel Efficiency Improvements Possible

A report by the US National Research Council finds large truck fuel efficiency increases are technologically possible and cost effective.

The report also estimates the costs and maximum fuel savings that could be achieved for each type of vehicle by 2020 if a combination of technologies were used. The best cost-benefit ratio was offered by tractor-trailers, whose fuel use could be cut by about 50 percent for about $84,600 per truck; the improvements would be cost-effective over ten years provided gas prices are at least $1.10 per gallon. The fuel use of motor coaches could be lowered by 32 percent for an estimated $36,350 per bus, which would be cost-effective if the price of fuel is $1.70 per gallon or higher. For other vehicle classes, the financial investments in making improvements would be cost-effective at higher prices of fuel.

For tractor-trailers I am surprised such a large improvement in efficiency is possible. Unlike, say, a large SUV which includes lots of unused space a long distance truck and trailer are designed with cost effectiveness as a top priority. So I would expect new truck efficiency would be close to optimal for return on investment. Would a halving of fuel consumption be done mostly with new or existing technologies? Anyone know?

By Randall Parker    2010 May 06 11:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2010 January 08 Friday
Boston Consulting Group On Electric Car Battery Costs

Boston Consulting Group says car battery costs will not fall far enough in the next 10 years to allow a massive shift toward electric vehicles.

Although electric-car battery costs are expected to fall sharply over the coming decade, they are unlikely to drop enough to spark widespread adoption of fully electric vehicles without a major breakthrough in battery technology, according to a new study by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

The study, released today, concludes that the long-term cost target used by many carmakers in planning their future fleets of electric cars--$250 per kilowatt-hour (kWh)--is unlikely to be achieved unless there is a major breakthrough in battery chemistry that substantially increases the energy a battery can store without significantly increasing the cost of either battery materials or the manufacturing process.

"Given current technology options, we see substantial challenges to achieving this goal by 2020," said Xavier Mosquet, Detroit-based leader of BCG's global automotive practice and a coauthor of the study. "For years, people have been saying that one of the keys to reducing our dependency on fossil fuels is the electrification of the vehicle fleet. The reality is, electric-car batteries are both too expensive and too technologically limited for this to happen in the foreseeable future."

BCG isn't just saying cost is a problem. They also see weight as holding back EVs. That makes sense. The 400+ lb battery in the Chevy Volt provides a 40 mile range on electric power. To go 200 miles in electric power would require 2000 lb just for the battery. Forget about the typical car's 400+ mile range until battery energy density goes up by some multiple.

BCG says currently prices are between $1,000 and $1,200 per kwh. To put that in perspective a compact or midsize car might use a quarter of a kwh per mile. So at current prices a 100 mile range will require 25 kwh or at least $25,000. The cost is worse than that since batteries are not typically allowed to run all the way down.

Most electric cars in the new decade will use lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter and more powerful than the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries used today in hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Citing the current cost of similar lithium-ion batteries used in consumer electronics (about $250 to $400 per kWh), many original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) hope that the cost of an automotive lithium-ion battery pack will fall from its current price of between $1,000 and $1,200 per kWh to between $250 and $500 per kWh at scaled production. BCG, however, points out that consumer batteries are simpler than car batteries and must meet significantly less demanding requirements, especially regarding safety and life span. So actual battery costs will likely be higher than what carmakers predict.

The OEMs are hoping for a substantial price decline once volumes go up. Will that happen in just a few years?

BCG talked to many major players to come up with their cost numbers. Any optimists want to dismiss this report in the comments section? (you know who you are)

The report, titled Batteries for Electric Cars: Challenges, Opportunities and the Outlook to 2020, is a companion piece to a report BCG published in January 2009 on the future of alternative power-train technologies (The Comeback of the Electric Car? How Real, How Soon, and What Must Happen Next). The new report's findings are based on a detailed analysis of existing e-car battery research and interviews with more than 50 battery suppliers, auto OEMs, university researchers, start-up battery-technology companies, and government agencies across Asia, the United States, and Western Europe. The report also draws on the firm's extensive work with auto OEMs and suppliers worldwide.

BCG's numbers seem hard to dismiss.

Only $360-$440 per kWh by 2020 if BCG gets it right.

To show how battery costs will decline, BCG uses the example of a typical supplier of lithium-nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA) batteries--one of the most prominent technologies for automotive applications. BCG's analysis suggests that by 2020, the price that OEMs pay for NCA batteries will decrease by 60 to 65 percent, from current levels of $990-$1,220 per kWh to $360-$440 per kWh. So the cost for a 15-kWh NCA range-extender pack would fall from around $16,000 to about $6,000. The price to consumers will similarly fall, from $1,400-$1,800 per kWh to $570-$700 per kWh--or $8,000-$10,000 for the same pack.

Batteries could still conceivably go into wider use in 2020 if the availability of oil becomes so limited that pluggable hybrids become the preferred way to get to work. 40 mile range on electric power ala the Chevy Volt would allow most people to do their commutes without gasoline. Pure electric cars with 100+ mile range are going to maintain more of a niche status unless prices fall even farther.

Note that a premium electric sports car maker can sell an electric car with batteries that do not last as long as mass market customers expect. So an exotic sports car maker can use lower priced lithium batteries designed for computers. But a company like General Motors needs to achieve a much higher durability and reliability in a mass market design.

Update: The real cost of electric car batteries continues to be debated on web logs and in the press. Back in March 2009 Jon Lauckner of GM criticized a CMU study on electric cars by claiming that $1000 per kwh is hundreds of dollars too high. So why is BCG, which certainly knows about GM's claim, citing a higher figure?

At its core, the study’s conclusion is based on an incorrect assumption of the cost of battery packs. In the CMU study, the so-called “base case” used a Lithium-Ion battery cost of $1,000 per kWh ($16,000 for a 40 mile Volt pack) that was cited in earlier academic articles. The problem is this cost is many hundreds of dollars per kWh higher than the actual cost of the Volt pack today. Moreover, our battery team is already starting work on new concepts that will further decrease the cost of the Volt battery pack quite substantially in a second-generation Volt pack. Unfortunately, the impact of dramatically lower battery costs (to $250 per kWh) was treated only as a “sensitivity” in the CMU study when it probably should have been highlighted as THE critical element that would dramatically change the cost-effectiveness of plug-ins with greater electric-only range.

What's behind these conflicting prices on EV batteries?

Update II: Here is the new study (PDF).

By Randall Parker    2010 January 08 08:08 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (44)
2010 January 03 Sunday
UPS Hybrid Diesel Cuts Costs

A UPS 1st gen hybrid delivery van boosts fuel efficiency 28.9% and cuts cost per mile by 15%.

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has collected and analyzed fuel economy, maintenance and other vehicle performance data from UPS’s first generation hybrid diesel step delivery vans powered by an Eaton Corp. electric hybrid propulsion system.

The diesel hybrid delivery vans improved the on-road fuel economy by 28.9 percent resulting in a 15 percent improvement in total cost per mile while maintaining similar reliability and operational performance as compared to conventional vehicles.

The vans did well in a 12 month eval in Phoenix. So they must be able to handle the heat.

Funded by the DOE's Advanced Vehicle Testing Activity (AVTA), NREL's Fleet Test & Evaluation (FT&E) team performed a 12-month evaluation of six of these hybrid vans at a UPS location in Phoenix.

The report released this week details the year-long demonstration project, including how the FT&E team collected and analyzed fuel economy, maintenance and other vehicle performance data on the vans, which are being used in delivery service.

UPS has ordered 200 of the hybrids. With such large savings why is the order so small?

UPS has recently ordered an additional 200 Eaton hybrid electric powered vans.

200 hybrid delivery trucks still amount to small potatoes compared to the over 100,000 vehicles which a 2006 articles says UPS operates.

UPS deliver 15 million packages per day in over 200 countries. UPS has over 100,000 vehicles and 600 airplanes. UPS employs over 400,000 people. UPS is the ninth largest airline on the planet. They are experts at reducing the cost and fuel usage of moving millions of packages. Over 1,700 of those vehicles use alternative fuel, savings millions of gallons of oil and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2000, UPS alternative-fuel vehicles have logged 108 million route miles — enough to circle the Earth more than 4,300 times. These 1,700 vehicles run on natural gas, propane and hydrogen. (www.community.ups.com/environment/fuels.html)

Big fleet. UPS as the 9th largest airline. Wow. I had no idea.

That 2006 article provides some idea of how much fuel each hybrid will save per year.

UPS has ordered 50 hybrid delivery trucks, which will reduce fuel consumption by 44,000 gallons per year.

Okay, that's 880 gallons saved per year per vehicle. Suppose this latest design can save as much as the 2006 article expected. If UPS could replicate that across 100,000 vehicles they might be able to save 88 million gallons of fuel per year.

By Randall Parker    2010 January 03 01:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2009 December 29 Tuesday
Canadian Equivalent Of Pickens Plan For Natural Gas

T. Boone Pickens had bad luck in timing his proposed Pickens Plan to transition from oil to natural gas for vehicle power. The financial crisis, recession and associated temporary decline in oil prices took the momentum out of his plan soon after it was announced. But a Canadian natural gas producer might succeed in implementing a smaller scale version of what Boone proposes.

Over the past few months, EnCana Corp. (ECA-T34.49----%) has been in talks with government officials about a plan to build a network of hundreds of compressed and liquid natural gas fuelling stations between Windsor, Ont. and Quebec City, Canada's busiest highway corridor.

EnCana wants to migrate some trucks over to natural gas. Long haul trucks make a good first target for large scale natural gas roll-out because they use a fairly small subset of all gasoline stations - mostly really big truck stops on interstates that have large areas to handle trucks. A relatively small number of long haul truck stops connected to natural gas pipelines could enable a large shift from diesel to natural gas burning.

Diesel demand varies more over the course of the business cycle than gasoline demand. In the last big surge in oil prices the price of diesel went up much more than the price of gasoline. I watched a gallon of diesel go from 28 cents less than gasoline to 96 cents more by July 2008 in a Shell station near where I live. That's gotta hurt the truck drivers. If the world economy can get strong enough to push up the price of oil up above $100 per barrel again then the economics for natural gas powered trucks will look a lot more favorable.

In the long run Peak Oil is going to force a big shift toward natural gas for cars and trucks. But natural gas also offers a health advantage: Far less particulate pollution. You'll breathe cleaner air on road trips and daily commutes to the extent that trucks shift from diesel to natural gas.

By Randall Parker    2009 December 29 11:46 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (17)
2009 September 17 Thursday
VW Diesel Hybrid Gets 170 MPG

Volkswagen has developed a concept car that will get 170 miles per gallon. It probably wouldn't pass current US safety standards. But it would probably be safer than a motorcycle.

Volkswagen is redefining the automobile with the L1, a bullet-shaped diesel hybrid that weighs less than 900 pounds, gets an amazing 170 mpg and might see production within four years.

The L1 concept car unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show pushes the boundaries of vehicle design and draws more inspiration from gliders than conventional automobiles.

In the United States 95% of energy used for transportation comes from oil. The approach of Peak Oil poses a big problem for our lifestyles and living standards. But since our current cars are so big we have plenty of room for downshifting into smaller and more efficient vehicles.

When oil production starts dropping every year cutting industrial uses of oil will prove more problematic than cutting personal transportation uses. Why? There's more room for improved efficiency in personal uses of oil than in commercial uses because industry places higher importance on efficiency already. Industry uses trucks and trains that are much closer to max efficiency than personal cars. Decisions in industry are driven more by cost and less desire for status or comfort. So, for example, trucks have far less room to increase efficiency than cars do.

By Randall Parker    2009 September 17 11:32 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2009 August 12 Wednesday
Supercritical Diesel 10% More Efficient

Thought diesel efficiency might be topping out already? Apparently not. Internal combustion engines still have more room for improvement.

Researchers in New York have demonstrated a supercritical diesel fuel-injection system that can reduce engine emissions by 80 percent and increase overall efficiency by 10 percent.

With the approach of Peak Oil we need every advantage we can find with fuel efficiency. 95% of all transportation energy comes from oil. So the transportation sector is most vulnerable to high oil prices.

By Randall Parker    2009 August 12 12:47 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2009 August 03 Monday
Nissan Leaf Electric Car 100 Mile Range

Will $20 per gallon gasoline cause the death of suburbs? Why should it? If you can commute between suburbs in an electric car then no need to move to crowded, polluted, noisy, and stressful cities.

YOKOHAMA, (Aug. 2, 2009) - Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. today unveiled Nissan LEAF, the world's first affordable, zero-emission car. Designed specifically for a lithium-ion battery-powered chassis, Nissan LEAF is a medium-size hatchback that comfortably seats five adults and has a range of more than 160km (100 miles) to satisfy real-world consumer requirements.


How can this range only satisfy the daily driving requirements of 70% of the world's consumers? Just how many people drive more than 50 miles each way to work and back?

Extensive consumer research demonstrates that this range satisfies the daily driving requirements of more than 70% of the world's consumers who drive cars.

You can do a 100 mile round-trip commute (if you are so unlucky) and recharge it while you sleep.

And, Nissan's approach makes charging easy and convenient. Nissan LEAF can be charged up to 80% of its full capacity in just under 30 minutes with a quick charger. Charging at home through a 200V outlet is estimated to take approximately eight hours - ample time to enable an overnight refresh for consumer and car alike.

The 200V outlet will require an electrical wiring upgrade in most American homes. The long range commuters will have to pay for a home electrical upgrade.

Ah, but there's the price.

However, we do know that the Leaf’s advanced battery—good for 100 miles on a charge—costs $10,000 on its own. Nissan plans to lease customers the battery, produced in partnership with NEC, when the Leaf goes on sale in late 2010. According to the New York Times, other EVs will follow.

My periodic debate partner, Jim Motavalli at the New York Times’ Wheels blog, reports that the Leaf will fall somewhere between the Nissan Sentra and the Nissan Altima in size. Price-wise, that probably means the sticker will be something like $25,000-$30,000, assuming that the EV technology will add to the cost.

Dan Neil, accomplished car reviewer for the LA Times, reports the battery stories 24 kwh. If it costs $10k then we are talking $400 per kwh. That high?

This first results of that effort debuted Aug. 2, when Nissan unveiled the LEAF, a five-seat compact, all-electric hatchback with lithium-ion batteries (24 kWh energy storage and max output of 90kW), giving the car a top speed of 90 mph and nominal range of 100 miles – a magic number, Nissan figures, in Americans’ driving psychology.

Here's how I see it: Peak Oil will push more lower class people into cities while the upper middle class upgrades to electric cars and stays in the suburbs. People on the economic edge of suburban financial viability can switch to electric bicycles and avoid the downsides of cities. Even if you didn't do the electric bicycling every day for every trip you could still use it to slash total fuel costs.

Update: If Nissan leases the battery but sells the car then a $30k price is higher than it looks. The Leaf's competition is a Prius that gets 50 mpg. At what price gasoline does it make more sense to drive a Leaf rather than the most efficient gasoline-powered or diesel-powered car? That price (whatever it is) puts an effective ceiling on the cost of commuting. If you can afford to commute at that price then you do not need to make other big adjustments to your lifestyle such as moving to a city once Peak Oil hits.

By Randall Parker    2009 August 03 08:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (22)
2009 July 15 Wednesday
ExxonMobil To Pump $600M Into Biofuels Using Algae

This latest announcement from Exxon fits into a larger trend where the big oil companies pull back from solar photovoltaics and other non-liquid energy forms and instead focus their efforts on liquid hydrocarbons.

Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. is making a major jump into renewable energy with a $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels.

Exxon is joining a biotech company, Synthetic Genomics Inc., to research and develop next-generation biofuels produced from sunlight, water and waste carbon dioxide by photosynthetic pond scum.

But let us put that in perspective. In 2008 ExxonMobil had $443 billion in sales and $45 billion in earnings. So $600 million is chump change for them. I wonder what odds they place on this effort working.

Other recent biofuel venture fundings included oil refinery operator Valero as an investor for Solix Biofuels.

There were also at least two funding rounds in June. Solix Biofuels Inc. closed on $16.8 million to complete construction of a demonstration-scale facility, with investors including Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd., London-based I2BF Venture Capital, Bohemian Investments, Southern Ute Alternative Energy LLC, petroleum refiner Valero Energy Corp. and Infield Capital. Solazyme Inc. added $12 million in an interim round standing at $57 million, which was led by Braemar Energy Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners and brought in new investor VantagePoint Venture Partners.

The oil companies are best thought of as companies that specialize in liquid hydrocarbons. The convenient storage and energy density of liquid hydrocarbons make them the single most widely used fuel for transportation with no other fuel even coming close.

What is not clear: can genetically engineered algae ever become a cost effective energy source with a favorable ratio of energy return on energy invested?

By Randall Parker    2009 July 15 01:04 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
Diesel And Hybrid Cars Seen As Cost Effective

Several diesel and hybrid cars beat regular gasoline counterparts in operating costs.

An annual study by IntelliChoice.com shows most 2009 model-year hybrid and “clean diesel” vehicles deliver a lower cost of ownership compared to their gasoline-burning counterparts. The company concluded that clean diesel technology — included in the survey (.pdf) for the first time this year — could be a “game changer” in North American, especially if the Obama Administration adopts a tax program to encourage use of the fuel.

The most surprising result: The VW Jetta TDI diesel beat the Toyota Prius for first place in money saved. Whether a Jetta TDI purchased today will cost less to operate than a Prius purchased today depends on a few factors:

  • Non-fuel operating costs. Note that diesel engines last a long time. But Toyota wins overall on quality against VW.
  • Whether you drive more city or highway miles. The Prius is going to win in lots of stop-and-go traffic. The Jetta will shine on the highway.
  • The relative costs of gasoline and diesel fuel.

The last point is the one I find hardest to call. Just a quarter mile from where I sit in SoCal the Shell station is selling diesel for 20 cents a gallon less than gasoline. But in the summer of 2008 the price of diesel soared over that of gasoline and at that same Shell station diesel briefly cost 96 cents more than gasoline per gallon. I saw an even larger premium for diesel in Michigan last year. The economic downturn has suppressed trucker demand for diesel by more than car driver demand for gasoline. But what will be the relative prices of gasoline and diesel 1, 2, 3, 4 years from now? I don't know.

In Morgan Downey's excellent book Oil 101 (which covers the basics of the oil industry) I learn from chapter 7 that 22% of US oil refinery output goes to diesel versus 27% worldwide. So there's some room for expanding diesel fuel output. But there are limits to how much of a barrel of oil can get turned into diesel. What I'd like to know: how much of America's car fleet can be switched to diesel? Other governments pushing diesel already cause US refineries to export diesel and import gasoline during some (all?) periods of time. So I see signs of limits for diesel supply on a global level already.

By Randall Parker    2009 July 15 12:26 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2009 June 06 Saturday
Electric Motorcycles When Oil Gets Scarce?

How to get around when oil becomes scarce and expensive? Electric motorcycles are much cheaper than pluggable hybrid cars. You can get the Electric Motorsport GPR-S for $8500 for a 60 mile range. That'd work for most commuters, especially if you have a way to recharge at work.

In that slide set the longest range bike (and the only listed at over 100 miles range per charge) is very expensive. The Mission Motors Mission One is going to cost $68,996 in 2010, will have a 150 mile range, and with 220V it will take 2.5 hours to recharge. This is not a road trip bike unless you are only going 150 miles to your destination.

Any readers know of longer range rechargeable motorcycles and scooters? Or more affordable electric bikes? A company called Neodymics is evaluating whether to sell a kit to upgrade a conventional bicycle to an electric moped. See that web page for details. What would you pay for such a kit? It would provide 10-20 miles of range depending on speed (26-17 MPH). For short haul commuters that would work.

By Randall Parker    2009 June 06 01:08 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2009 June 01 Monday
High Speed Rail Rarely Turns A Profit

Only two high speed rail routes in the whole world turn a profit. Parenthetically, the higher the speed the lower the energy efficiency.

Such benefits, however, come with a huge price tag. By 2020, Spain plans to spend close to 100 billion euros on infrastructure and billions more on trains. That figure could give pause to places like California, a potential high-speed corridor whose area and population are about four-fifths the size of Spain’s.

“High-speed rail is good for society and it’s good for the environment, but it’s not a profitable business,” said Mr. Barrón of the International Union of Railways. He reckons that only two routes in the world — between Tokyo and Osaka, and between Paris and Lyon, France — have broken even.

I'd like to know how much energy each of the high speed rail lines use per passenger mile as compared to airplanes traveling those same distances.

The biggest benefit I can see for high speed rail: For lines that are electrified they avoid the need to use liquid fossil fuels. Once we hit Peak Oil (and maybe we already have) the ability to move around on electric power will become a big advantage. We can generate electricity from many energy forms. We will have plenty of electricity post-peak.

That 100 billion euros for Spanish trains works out to about 2174 euros per person or about 200 euros per year per person. Spain's 91/km² population density is almost identical to California's 90.5/km² population density. But California's growing more rapidly.

If you really want fuel efficiency electric bicycles beat any train or car or bus or airplane. You will see at that link that a 747 is more fuel efficient than an Amtrak train too.

Update: Contrary to popular impressions mass transit plays a small role in moving people around Europe. See this page at Figure 1: Motorised Travel (passenger-kms per capita per annum) in 2003 where it compares many European countries for public transport use. Then scroll down in that same document and look at percentage contributions to moving people around in Europe in "Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003". After all the mass transit subsidies and high taxes on gasoline well over 80% of passenger miles traveled on the ground in Europe still are done by car. The convenience of cars wins out.

Update II: Since California is broke the bond market is going to say no to a high speed rail system between LA and SF.

By Randall Parker    2009 June 01 12:21 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (49)
2009 May 23 Saturday
Lithium Sulfur Batteries To Make Electric Cars Viable?

Technology Review reports on technological advances that might make viable lithium sulfur batteries with 3 to 10 times the storage capacity of existing lithium ion batteries.

Lithium-sulfur batteries, which can potentially store several times more energy than lithium-ion batteries, have historically been too costly, unsafe, and unreliable to make commercially. But they're getting a fresh look now, due to some recent advances. Improvements to the design of these batteries have led the chemical giant BASF of Ludwigshafen, Germany, to team up with Sion Power, a company in Tucson, AZ, that has already developed prototype lithium-sulfur battery cells.

Read the full articles for the many details. They haven't solved all the problems yet. For example, the existing lithium sulfur design is good for only 50 recharges. At 300 miles range per recharge that only gets you 15,000 miles before you need to buy a new battery.

On the bright side, the sulfur is incredibly cheap, close to free in fact. Lots of sulfur gets removed from tar sands and other fossil fuels and there's no shortage of the stuff.

With the coming of Peak Oil we face a liquid fuels shortage. Viable batteries that can power cars for hundreds of miles would go far to ease our transition away from oil. We are in a race between oil field depletion and the technological advances we need to migrate to electric power sources. We have enough natural gas, coal, uranium, wind, and sunlight to generate the electricity we need. The future is electric.

By Randall Parker    2009 May 23 12:49 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (27)
2009 May 06 Wednesday
Fleet Pluggable Hybrids Disappoint On Fuel Efficiency

A few months ago I did a post on how cars converted to run as pluggable hybrids to run in fleets are disappointing on fuel efficiency. Wired magazine picks up on this development with a story on how fleet pluggable hybrids are disappointing in Seattle.

Having racked up some 17,000 miles, the plug-in Prius hybrids are averaging just 51 mpg. That's raising uncomfortable questions about the value and effectiveness of plug-in technology, even as President Obama pledges to have 1 million of them on the road by 2015.

"Getting 51 miles per gallon sounds fine compared to most gas cars," railed Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat. "But it's a black eye for a technology that trumpets it will get twice that."

Well, it works great in theory. It works great when hypermilers are behind the wheel. But most people can't be bothered to be hypermilers.

Is Seattle an exception? Nope.

Idaho National Laboratory is seeing similar results among the plug-in fleets it is monitoring nationwide.

Also see my original post and you can check out Google's pluggable hybrids fleet.

One problem with the existing pluggables is that they shift over to gasoline power if pushed hard. A pluggable that can accelerate rapidly under pure electric power will do better than a converted Prius. So we can expect better results from a Chevy Volt for example.

Another problem is that one has to bother to plug in the car. People don't want to add another daily ritual to their lives. Come home, pull out a cord, plug in, and only then go inside. The come out to go to the store (need ketchup or steaks for dinner) and do not forget to unplug. Then come back and plug in again. Is this the last errand tonight? Maybe not. So don't bother to plug in. Then forget to plug in before going to bed. It is this frequent nagging task that people will resist.

We can look at Europe to see what high gasoline prices will do to modify behavior. Mostly people shift down to smaller cars with manual transmissions. They also live closer to work. Contrary to popular impressions mass transit plays a small role in moving people around Europe. See this page at Figure 1: Motorised Travel (passenger-kms per capita per annum) in 2003 where it compares many European countries for public transport use. Also see "Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003". What leaps out at me is that after all the mass transit subsidies and high taxes on gasoline well over 80% of passenger miles traveled on the ground in Europe are done by car.

By Randall Parker    2009 May 06 02:57 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2009 January 26 Monday
Carbon Dioxide Emissions When Cars Get Built

Carbon dioxide emissions of new vehicles start before you first drive one.

A 2004 analysis by Toyota found that as much as 28 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions generated during the life cycle of a typical gasoline-powered car can occur during its manufacture and transportation to the dealer; the remaining emissions occur during driving once its new owner takes possession.

An earlier study by Seikei University in Japan put the prepurchase number at 12 percent.

If you are a very low mileage driver you can probably reduce your environmental impact by driving an old car.

I'd like to know what the energy cost is for making NiMH and Li ion batteries for hybrid, pluggable hybrid, and pure electric cars. How many miles do you have to drive each kind to achieve a net reduction in carbon emissions as compared to driving the same number of miles with a conventional internal combustion engine car?

A shift to pluggable hybrid and pure electric vehicles combined with a shift to nukes, solar, wind, and geothermal electric power generation is the way to most drastically reduce fossil fuels usage. Throw in a shift to heat pumps for heating and our use of fossil fuels would plummet.

By Randall Parker    2009 January 26 10:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2008 December 14 Sunday
US Driving Decline Continued In October 2008

The American driving behavioral changes caused by high oil prices earlier in 2008 have not reversed yet with declining oil and gasoline prices. At least through October 2008 driving continues to decline.

WASHINGTON - Americans drove more than 100 billion fewer miles between November 2007 and October 2008 than the same period a year earlier, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, making it the largest continuous decline in American driving in history.

That's a few hundred miles per person. But not everyone drives. There are about 250 million registered vehicles in the US. So that works out to about 400 fewer miles per vehicle. Another way to look at it: about 200 million licensed drivers work out to about 500 fewer miles per year per driver. That's about 10 fewer miles per week. The difference is even greater if one looks at long term trends where typically vehicle miles traveled increases due to population growth and changing lifestyles (e.g. more McMansions in the exurbs). Obviously lifestyles have begun changing in a different direction. How long will this last?

"As driving decreases and vehicle fuel efficiency continues to improve, the long term viability of the Highway Trust Fund grows weaker. The fact that the trend persists even as gas prices are dropping confirms that America's travel habits are fundamentally changing. The way we finance America's transportation network must also change to address this new reality, because banking on the gas tax is no longer a sustainable option," said Secretary Peters.

The sharpness of the decline suggests that the financial crisis plays a big role. My guess is fear plays a big role. People are pulling back even if they haven't lost their jobs yet.

The Secretary noted that Americans drove 3.5 percent less, or 8.9 billion fewer vehicle miles traveled (VMT), in October 2008 than October 2007, making it the sharpest decline of any October since 1971.

For the second month in a row, the data show the South Atlantic region - a bloc of eight states and Washington, D.C. - experienced the biggest decline of any region, 5.0 percent fewer VMT compared to the previous October. At 8.4 percent fewer VMT, Montana led the nation with the largest single-state decline that month. Utah and South Carolina followed with declines of 7.4 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively.

It says something about the high inelasticity of oil supply in the short term that a substantial destruction in oil demand due to less travel caused oil prices to fall by two thirds. Oil projects take years to construct and make operational. But this big change in driving behavior today is setting us up for lower oil production in the future and at least a partial recovery in oil prices. Drivers who were scared by the high prices this summer who need to buy a new car ought to look at hybrids.

Thought hybrids were too hard to buy? Not any more. Hybrid sales are down even more than the rest of the market.

Altogether, automakers sold 16,536 gas-electric hybrids last month, down from 21,979 in October.

To make matter worse, consumers purchased twice as many hybrids - 33,063 of them - in November 2007, when there were several fewer models available.

Hybrids' market share dropped to 2.21 percent in November, down from 2.62 percent in October and 2.82 percent in November 2007.

Car makers have more hybrid designs in the pipeline. The next one to hit the market is the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid which will be out in early 2010. Note the improved efficiency in regenerative braking. Hybrid tech is still improving. I could stand to drive this.

On the other hand, I usually walk to work. So highly fuel efficient vehicles are wasted on me.

By Randall Parker    2008 December 14 09:57 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2008 September 04 Thursday
Neighborhood Electric Vehicles Grow In Popularity

US state governments are changing regulations to allow “neighborhood ­electric vehicles” (NEVs) onto many roads.

At least 40 states have now passed laws to permit NEVs to operate on many state roads with more working on new regulations. Meanwhile, some 40,000 NEVs are operating nationwide, says the Electric-Drive Transportation Association. Kentucky and Massachusetts are considering regulations to permit low-speed vehicles (LSVs) on state roads. LSV is a federal designation that includes NEVs, and also some gas-powered vehicles.

Federal standards established for LSVs in 1998 set equipment requirements and operating standards. What separates NEVs from golf carts, for instance, includes minimum vehicle speed of 20 miles per hour and a top speed of 25 m.p.h. They must have windshield wipers, headlights, taillights, and turn signals, to name just a few differences.

State laws vary. In New Jersey, Pringle successfully lobbied the state to allow LSVs in 2004. Rhode Island and West Virginia permit them on roads posted at 25 miles per hour. Kansas allows them on roads up to 40 m.p.h. and Montana up to 45.

Some people expect the coming decline in world oil production to cause a collapse of civilization. I do not see it because I see so many ways we can cut back on energy usage while still maintaining civilized lifestyles. Scooters and small electric vehicles are two ways we can still get around while using far less energy. They aren't as comfortable or as safe as full sized cars. But they will keep us moving around.

By Randall Parker    2008 September 04 10:25 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2008 August 24 Sunday
New York Loses Direct Flights To 25 Cities

Even New York isn't big enough to maintain all its direct destinations.

Starting next month, nonstop flights between New York and 25 domestic and international cities will disappear, and service to another 55 cities will be sharply curtailed, according to FareCompare.com, an airline-ticket research site that analyzed fall flight schedules at the request of Crain's.

Bangkok Thailand is among the cities losing direct service to the Big Apple. Ditto Bologna, Naples, and Palermo Italy. You'll probably have to go via Rome. Tucson Arizona will lose direct service too. A lot more people will be taking connecting flights and spending more time in intermediate airports.

A couple of months ago I came across a report that if (or, rather, when) oil prices go high enough direct flights across the United States and over similar distances on other continents will become rare. Instead people will travel in aircraft that go in hops. The problem with direct flights is that the fuel for the last part of the journey has to get carried the entire distance. Carrying fuel uses fuel to push that fuel along. So airplanes if airplanes carry less fuel and stop more often they become more fuel efficient. The elimination of direct flights from New York is probably partly a reflection of this fact.

By Randall Parker    2008 August 24 08:25 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (17)
2008 July 29 Tuesday
US Vehicle Miles Traveled Down 3.7% In May 2008

US Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) declined 3.7% in May 2008 as compared to May 2007.

Secretary Peters said that Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in May 2008 than in May 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration data. This is the largest drop in VMT for any May, which typically reflects increased traffic due to Memorial Day vacations and the beginning of summer, and is the third-largest monthly drop in the 66 years such data have been recorded. Three of the largest single-month declines - each topping 9 billion miles - have occurred since December.

VMT on all public roads for May 2008 fell 3.7 percent as compared with May 2007 travel, the Secretary added, marking a decline of 29.8 billion miles traveled in the first five months of 2008 than the same period a year earlier. This continues a seven-month trend that amounts to 40.5 billion fewer miles traveled between November 2007 and May 2008 than the same period a year before, she said.

The drop was steepest in the North Central region at -4.5% and least in the West at -2.3%. That decline takes Americans back almost to May 2003 for total VMT. Given that the US population has grown about 5% in that time the vehicle miles traveled per person have probably dropped 5% from the amount Americans drove in 2003. That probably puts us back to around the year 2000 in miles driven per person.

As people find ways to restructure their lives to reduce the need for vehicle travel expect to see more reductions in VMT in coming months. A rise in gasoline prices takes time for its many effects to fully work their way through the economy.

US fuel consumption decline frees up oil for use in the parts of the world where oil consumption is still rapidly rising. This New York Times article provides an interesting tour of the countries of the world with big fuel subsidies and rapidly rising oil demand.

From Mexico to India to China, governments fearful of inflation and street protests are heavily subsidizing energy prices, particularly for diesel fuel. But the subsidies — estimated at $40 billion this year in China alone — are also removing much of the incentive to conserve fuel.

The oil company BP, known for thorough statistical analysis of energy markets, estimates that countries with subsidies accounted for 96 percent of the world’s increase in oil use last year — growth that has helped drive prices to record levels.

The big question: when will the subsidizing governments find they can not afford to subsidize any longer? When will the full weight of oil market prices reach Chinese, Indonesians, Indians, Saudis, Venezuelans, and others who pay below market prices for gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, and other oil products?

China accounts for almost half of rising oil demand.

China alone accounts for about 40 percent of the world's recent increase in demand for oil, burning through twice as much now as it did a decade ago. Fifteen years ago, there were almost no private cars in the country. By the end of last year, the number had reached 15.2 million.

SUV sales are booming in China.

But in China, the number of SUVs sold rose 43 percent in May compared with the previous year, and full-size sedans were up 15 percent.

I see the subsidies in these other countries as doing us a favor. They are forcing us to begin moving away from oil before world oil production starts declining. We need that kick in the pants to get us going to make the adjustments and investments we need to do to start our move beyond the oil era.

By Randall Parker    2008 July 29 12:00 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (31)
2008 July 27 Sunday
Aptera Typ-1 Electric Car Nears Production

The Toyota Prius is about to become the also-ran in ultimate environmental car chic. Aptera has raised enough money to begin production of their highly efficient 3-wheeled 2-seater cross between a car and a motorcycle.

CARLSBAD, Calif., Jul 24, 2008 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- Aptera Motors announced today that the company has raised more than $24 million at the close of its Series C round of venture funding. The new funds will be used to start initial production of its Aptera Typ-1, a radically different vehicle designed to marry advanced aerodynamics with light-weight composite technology creating an incredibly powerful, yet extremely safe vehicle that is a joy to drive. Additionally, the company plans to use the newly raised funds for a new manufacturing facility located in Vista, Calif., just a short distance from the company's present headquarters in Carlsbad.

Initially they will start selling only in California.

The Aptera Typ-1 will be the most efficient passenger vehicle in the world. The first production models are planned to be available in December 2008 with the production rate increasing throughout 2009. With a coefficient of drag literally one-third of a subcompact car and less than half the weight, the all-electric version will get up to 120 miles per charge, while the hybrid version, which will follow in about 12 months, will achieve close to 300 MPG. With these results, Aptera Motors aims to change the way the world thinks about personal transportation. Interest is already high as Aptera has received over 3,300 deposits from California-only buyers eager to be among the first to drive this new vehicle. With its commitment to efficiency and safety, Aptera Motors is positioned to be a leader in the new era of efficient vehicle design and production. California residents can reserve a vehicle now by placing a fully refundable $500 deposit at www.aptera.com.

Such a high fuel efficiency far surpasses that of motorcycles and even scooters. Will it turn out to be safer than a motorcycle too?

As oil production starts declining we are going to have a lot of options for ways to keep industrial societies functioning. Need to commute distances too long for a pluggable hybrid Chevy Volt? Drive an Aptera. Price will range from $27k to $30k.

How much will the Aptera cost?

The approximate price for the all electric version is $27,000 and the plug-in hybrid $30,000. These prices are subject to change any time before we begin production.

Why are you selling the Aptera only in California?

There are many reasons, including our dedication to seamless customer service. We will not have maintenance centers set up in other states until the expansion of our distribution as well state regulatory issues worked out. We are working hard to make the Aptera available to everyone, but in order for that to happen we need to solve any future contingencies on a regional level.

When are you starting production?

Our goal is to begin production of the all-electric in late 2008 and the hybrid in late 2009.

Aptera says this thing is registered as a motorcycle. Check out the details. But in California they say that a 3 wheeled vehicle does not require a motorcycle license. Plus, since it is enclosed it does not require a helmet. So it is legally classified as a motorcycle. But for practical purposes you can treat it like a car.

By Randall Parker    2008 July 27 11:14 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (42)
2008 June 29 Sunday
Many Commuters Shift To Motorcycles And Scooters

Some people who can't afford gasoline for commutes by car are shifting to motorcycles.

"As soon as [gas] hit about $3.50, it was no longer really affordable," said Watson, 27, who recently bought a 2002 Kawasaki KLR650 for $2,600, took a rider training course and started commuting via motorcycle two weeks ago. He gets to work in as little as 15 minutes, compared with the hour it could take in his 17-miles-per-gallon Jeep Liberty, thanks to the HOV lanes on Interstate 395. His bike gets about 50 mpg.

"I love it," Watson said.

Motorcycles cost less to buy and get higher fuel efficiency than almost all cars.

Motorcycles make simple economic sense, riders and advocates say. A new, stripped-down motorcycle cost an average of $8,290 in 2007, and motorcycles typically get 40 to 60 mpg, said Mike Mount, spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Heyser Cycle, a dealer in Laurel Maryland, lists the scooters Yamaha Zuma at 123 mpg and the Yamaha Vino at 89 mpg. They list the motorcycles Honda CBR 600RR at 45 mpg and the Kawasaki Vulcan also at 45 mpg. These are disappointing numbers for the motorcycles.

The thought that strikes me about scooters and motorcycles: People who are driving longer distances are going to tend to do so on highways and will lean toward motorcycles for commuting. So the scooters probably get driven shorter distances and so their higher fuel efficiency has less impact since people who drive shorter distances do not use as much fuel anyway.

Why aren't motorcycle fuel efficiency numbers higher? Do their shapes generate more aerodynamic drag? Or are they mechanically less optimized than a car?

The Missouri Highway Patrol finds Harley ElectraGlides get about 34 mpg in the city. Not so impressive unless they are compared to a Ford Crown Vic.

The improved fuel economy of the bikes -- they get about 34 mpg in the city, compared to 16 mpg averaged in the patrol's Crown Victorias -- is a side benefit, he said. "That was not the initial reason (for the project) ... but it has turned out to be a fuel-saving venture for us."

Another article puts these Harleys at 50 mpg on the highway. Okay, but a Prius can get 45 mpg on the highway and the 2009 Prius might go 12% further per gallon by one measure. So that would put it at least equal to the Harley in fuel efficiency on the highway and far better in the city.

In our high gasoline price environment and rising unemployment sales are down for Harley.

Harley-Davidson, which sells only heavyweights (651-cc engines and larger), saw its U.S. sales fall 6.2 percent last year, its first decline since 1986. Industrywide, heavyweight bikes were off 5 percent in 2007.

Harley's U.S. sales were down nearly 13 percent in the first quarter of 2008, while industry sales fell 11 percent, to 173,922. For heavyweight bikes across the board, that decline is 14 percent. In response, Harley announced it would cut about 25,000 bikes, or 7-8 percent, from production plans and 730 employees, 10 percent of its North American workforce.

But with the economy down and people tight with their money sales are up for much cheaper and more fuel efficient scooters.

Scooter sales, on the other hand, are climbing. The industry council says motorscooters jumped 24 percent in the first quarter, though it doesn't release a number. Scooter sales have doubled since 2004 to 131,000 last year, accounting for 12 percent of industry sales.

Vespa's sales are up the most and Vespa owners I know assure me that the Vespa is the coolest scooter out there.

Kevin Foley of Yamaha's scooter division said that sales are up 65 percent over last year, while Vespa's sales shop up a record-setting 106 percent. The scooter industry as a whole climbed 25 percent in the last quarter. Honda scooters sales are up 30 percent over last year -- which were already up 20 percent from 2006.

A Yamaha scooter with an engine big enough for freeway speeds has fuel efficiency no better than a Prius.

Yamaha has released one new scooter for 2009. The Tmax has a 4 gallon tank that gets about 47 mpg. The nearly 500cc engine makes it the biggest scooter Yamaha makes.

Update: What I wonder: Will rising oil prices reduce road fatalities by reducing miles driven and by reducing the SUV threat to smaller cars? Or will so many people shift to more dangerous motorcycles and scooters that net fatalities actually go up? In any event, a mile not driven is a mile where you won't get in an accident.

By Randall Parker    2008 June 29 07:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (42)
2008 June 21 Saturday
Driving Cutbacks Continue In America

American motorists continue to cut back in the face of high gasoline prices. The decline in driving in April was even larger than the decline in March 2008.

WASHINGTON – At a time of record-high gas prices and a corresponding surge in transit ridership, Americans are driving less for the sixth month in a row, highlighting the need to find a more sustainable and effective way to fund highway construction and maintenance, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters.

The Secretary said that Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April 2008 than at the same time a year earlier and 400 million miles less than in March of this year. She added that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on all public roads for April 2008 fell 1.8 percent as compared with April 2007 travel. This marks a decline of nearly 20 billion miles traveled this year, and nearly 30 billion miles traveled since November.

While miles driven have fallen only for the last 6 months the shift in driving habits looks even bigger when compared to an over 20 years run of 3% increase in vehicle miles traveled per year.

While total vehicle miles Americans traveled grew by nearly 3 percent a year from 1984 to 2004, the rate of growth slowed suddenly in 2005 and 2006 and has declined since then.

Transportation fuel costs as a percentage of after-tax income are almost as high as 1981.

Americans spent about 4.5 percent of their after-tax income on transportation fuels in 1981, according to Global Insight, a forecasting firm. As gasoline prices dropped and family incomes rose, that percentage dropped to 1.9 percent in 1998. Today, it is back to 4 percent or more.

The national price for unleaded gasoline would need to average $4.23 a gallon “to create the same economic pain as in 1981,” the Cambridge Energy report said. “Once unthinkable, such a level is now within view.” On Wednesday, gasoline averaged nearly $4.08 a gallon.

Gasoline prices have hit a tipping point for big vehicle sales.

Midsize SUV sales nationwide were down 24 percent for the first five months of this year compared to 2007. The decline for May was an especially steep 38 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

The June drop in big vehicle sales may be even steeper.

Sales of pickups and SUVs, the most profitable vehicles, may fall nearly 40 percent in June, said Michaeli, who is also based in New York. GM and Ford may report sales declines of 28 percent and 27 percent, respectively, he said.

Will the US domestic auto makers survive?

The huge shift away from SUVs and big cars has car makers scrambling to make more small cars.

Ford Motor Company, for example is running its Wayne, Mich., assembly plant on overtime and Saturdays in an effort to meet demand for the Focus.

General Motors had planned to add a third shift in September to its small-car plant in Ohio, but recently moved the start date up to August.

A Toyota spokesman said the Japanese automaker was limited by production to selling 175,000 Priuses in the United States this year, no matter how hot the demand.

Honda Motor will open a new plant in Indiana late this year that will increase its output of Civics by 200,000 a year. The automaker has already increased production of the car at factories in Ohio and Canada.

Supplies of smaller cars have shrunk.

Mr. Pipas said that Ford currently has a 20-day supply of Focuses nationwide, well below the 60-day supply that is considered the industry norm.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally does not think high oil prices are temporary.

"We view the move to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles as permanent, and we are responding to customer demand," Mulally said. "In the near term, we are adjusting production to the actual demand - increasing small cars and crossovers and reducing large trucks and SUVs. For the long term, we are moving fast to introduce more small cars, crossovers and fuel-efficient powertrains -- including more hybrids -- and we will adjust our manufacturing facilities to match our updated product lineup."

$4 per gallon gasoline is serving as a powerful wake-up call for many Americans. The price shock will get even bigger at $5 per gallon. The vast majority would change their driving habits at $5 per gallon.

As the region's average price per gallon flirts with the $4 level, some Charlotte-area commuters like Gibson are discovering their tipping points – the price at which they say enough is enough – and are changing their driving behavior.

More drivers say they'll follow if the average price breaks through that psychological barrier, recent research shows. Nearly seven of eight said they would change at $5.

More car buyers are expected to buy diesel cars.

Automotive forecasting firm J.D. Power and Associates predicts clean diesel vehicles will comprise 3.5 percent of the U.S. light-vehicle market share this year, 4 percent in 2009 and 10 percent by 2015. It's also predicting the price gap with gasoline will shrink as refineries adapt refining processes to refine more diesel and less gasoline, increasing the supply of diesel and lowering the cost.

"It still makes sense to buy diesel instead of gasoline if all you're looking at is fuel economy," said Michael Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain for J.D. Power in Troy. "At really the break-even point, if gas is $4 per gallon, diesel would have to be above $5.20 per gallon for it to make sense to buy gas instead of diesel.

Commuter rail usage is up in southern California.

Commuter rail ridership broke an all-time record this week, and Caltrans reported a dip in freeway traffic as commuters across California struggled with record gasoline prices.

Metrolink recorded its highest number of riders in a single day Tuesday -- 50,232 -- a 15.6% increase over the volume on the Tuesday of the same week last year. Metro Rail ridership has also risen, shooting up 6% last month over May 2007, with the downtown L.A.-to-Pasadena Gold Line setting an all-time ridership record, said Dave Sotero, a Metro spokesman.

Although the region's rail lines have seen more commuters lately, bus ridership in Los Angeles is slightly down compared to last year, Sotero said. More than 1.2 million passengers boarded Metro buses on an average weekday in May, but compared with all of May 2007, ridership is down 5.37%.

Public transit usage is up nationally.

A report set for release today by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) shows trips on public transit January-March rose 3% over the same period last year to 2.6 billion rides. Light rails saw the biggest jump: 10% to 110 million trips.

Early figures for April show ridership going even higher as gas hovers near $4 a gallon, says APTA president William Millar.

In 2007, he says, "we had higher numbers than we've seen in 50 years, and the trend is continuing in 2008."

A survey shows drivers willing to make changes in how they get around as gasoline prices rise.

In a survey released last month by IBM's Institute for Electronic Government, a total of 31% of commuters who normally drive to work said they would change their transportation habits if gas were to cross $4 a gallon.

IBM also found that a total of 66% of drivers would seek other means of transportation if gas hits $5 a gallon.

Before you get excited at the prospects for mass transit options such as commuter rail and buses check out Europe's experience with substituting mass transit for cars. At the following link see Figure 3: Overall mode share of distance travelled (%) in 2003 where it compares many European countries for public transport use. In spite of gasoline prices more than double that of the United States at least 80% of passenger miles traveled on the ground in Europe are done by car (with Denmark, Austria, and Ireland as exceptions). Driving smaller hybrids and living closer to work will do more to cut fuel usage than will mass transit.

By Randall Parker    2008 June 21 12:45 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (30)
2008 June 16 Monday
Honda Hydrogen Car Goes Into Very Low Production

Only 200 FCX Clarity hydrogen cars will get built in the next 3 years.

Honda says its FCX Clarity can be filled easily at a pump, can drive 280 miles on a tank, almost as far as a gasoline car. It also gets higher fuel efficiency than a gasoline car or hybrid, the equivalent of 74 miles a gallon of gas, according to the company.

But the technology has faced many hurdles, not the least of which has been the prohibitive cost of the fuel cells themselves. Honda says it has found ways to mass produce them, which promises to drive down costs through economies of scale. On Monday, it showed reporters its fuel-cell production line, which resembled a semiconductor factory more than an auto plant with its humming automated machinery and white smocked workers in dust-free rooms.

The production cost is going to plummet in less than a decade from several thousand dollars to below $100k. Whoever said hydrogen cars are impractical? Any hundred millionaire can afford one.

Mr. Fukui said the cars cost several hundred thousand dollars each to produce, though he said that should drop below $100,000 in less than a decade as production volumes increase.

We are going to be well past Peak Oil before hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become practical. Improved lithium batteries and synthetic and biologically derived hydrocarbons will each do more to keep cars moving in the next 10 years. Since hydrogen gets made from natural gas you could get a natural gas powered Honda and use the natural gas more efficiently for a much lower cost.

The FCX will go 72 miles per kg of hydrogen.

The car can get a combined (city and highway driving) fuel efficiency of about 72 miles per kg of H2 which, according to Honda's own estimates, is the equivalent of getting about 74 mpg on a gas-powered car. The car can be driven for about 280 miles before needing to be refueled.

For a point of comparison, a Lawrence Livermore Laboratory team modified a Prius to use hydrogen and claimed an equivalent fuel efficiency of 65 mpg. The standard Prius of course already gets fourty some miles per gallon of gasoline.

The Prius, which has a combination electric motor and small internal combustion engine, traveled 653 miles on a tank containing almost 40 gallons of liquid hydrogen. The overall fuel economy for the driving conditions used by the Livermore team was about 105 kilometers per kilogram of hydrogen, which is equivalent to about 65 miles per gallon of gasoline. Coincidently, 1 kilogram of hydrogen has about the same energy content as 1 gallon of gasoline.

Hydrogen is just a storage medium. If hydrogen gets made from electricity generated by solar photovoltaic cells or nuclear power then it could help us move beyond oil.

Honda has made some strides with the latest design.

The Japanese company has been able to achieve this milestone in fuel-cell car production thanks to significant advances in the specialized technologies involved. With curb weight down to that of a current V6 Accord but sitting on a unique platform, the FCX Clarity is a hydrogen-powered technological tour de force. Engineers have increased driving range by 30 percent up to 280 miles, added 25 percent to the fuel economy reaching 74 mpg, have significantly downsized the fuel-cell stack but raised its power output by 50 percent, and have even recalibrated the electric motor — over the FCX prototype — to generate 8 percent more power, now delivering 134 hp. That propels the car from zero to 60 mph in around 8.5 seconds on the way to a top speed of 100 mph.

BMW's experimental 7 series hydrogen vehicle stores its hydrogen as a cooled liquid. If the car just sits parked the hydrogen gradually warms up and boils off. So some of the hydrogen gets used to generate electricity to cool the remaining hydrogen to keep it cold and liquid. But that means in a few weeks all the hydrogen gets used up doing the cooling. But the Honda FCX sounds like it uses compressed hydrogen gas and therefore should store much longer.

Four kilograms of hydrogen (the equivalent of about 4 gallons of gas) are stored in a 45-gallon tank compressed to 5,000 psi.

I am expecting the cost of solar cells to plummet in the next 10 years. Given cheap batteries (and when will that happen?) we will be able to recharge our pluggable hybrid cars with power from the sun. But the expense of batteries limits vehicle range. If hydrogen vehicle costs ever come down then hydrogen vehicles might make sense some day for longer range travel. But hydrogen as a fuel will need to compete with far more convenient and highloy energy dense liquid hydrocarbon fuels made from genetically engineered algae and from purely synthetic processes.

By Randall Parker    2008 June 16 10:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2008 June 04 Wednesday
New Train Designs Boost Rail Freight In Europe

A Fortune article highlights the problems that long distance freight rail faces in Europe with incompatible national systems. New train designs can operate over more national borders.

Engineers at Bombardier's facilities all over Europe set out to invent a new train that could traverse Europe's patchwork of voltage levels, signal systems and other local quirks - while keeping this feature-rich locomotive affordable.

Why am I doing a post about this? If this article is correct then an amazingly small percentage of freight in Europe gets moved by rail.

Bombardier and its chief competitor Siemens (SI), the German engineering giant, see a huge opportunity. In the United States, half of all freight is shipped by rail. In Europe, only 10% is carted by train. Meanwhile, European highways are clogged, and truckers now pay fees to help offset pollution.

Would you have expected this? Europe has a higher percentage of passenger movement done by rail than America. Yet Europe's use of rail for freight is lower.

By Randall Parker    2008 June 04 10:44 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2008 June 01 Sunday
Airlines Expected To Shrink As Peak Oil Bites

High oil prices have begun cutting down the size of the airline industry in the US and Europe with bankruptcies and route cancellations. What we've seen so far is only the beginning. The big airlines are losing money on every passenger and a combined market cap of just $17 billion.

To fully appreciate the impact that soaring oil prices have had on the nation's beleaguered airline industry, consider that U.S. carriers will likely spend $60 billion on jet fuel this year—nearly four times what they paid in 2000. Because of the spike in fuel costs, airlines now lose roughly $60 on every round-trip passenger, a slow bleed that puts the industry on pace to lose $7.2 billion this year, the largest yearly loss ever.

Not surprisingly, Wall Street has become so dour about the industry's prospects—can you say federal bailout?—that the combined market capitalization for the six major legacy carriers and Southwest Airlines has fallen to just over $17 billion.

Southwest is crowing that they locked in most of their 2008 fuel costs at the beginning of 2008 with big options buys. But in 2009 Southwest will be in the same boat as the rest of them.

Some experts expect a big cut in capacity up to 25%. But their estimates are on the low side of what is actually going to happen as oil production declines.

This consolidation will come with a cost: Experts believe that for the U.S. industry to shrink to a size that would allow the surviving carriers to earn a profit will require hefty fare hikes and a 20%-to-25% cut in capacity. That means fewer routes, fewer flights, and even more crowded planes.

Here's a twist I didn't expect. To reduce the amount of fuel that airplanes must carry long range aircraft will land partway through trips to refuel just as aircraft on long trips used to do decades ago.

Coast-to-coast flights will change, too. With roughly 30% of the weight of any transcontinental flight consisting of the fuel alone, meaning airlines are burning fuel just to carry fuel, carriers can be expected to replace many of those longer nonstops with one-stop flights, intended largely for refueling.

You might be thinking politically correct thoughts about the virtues of fuel efficient rail transport. Not so fast. Here are credible numbers from David Lawyer for passenger rail in the United States (historical and recent) getting 40-55 passenger miles per gallon. Well, two people in a Prius or a VW diesel will beat that easily.

The question still remains: Why aren't passenger trains more energy efficient if their rolling resistance is so low? There are a number of reasons, the major one being that trains are usually much heavier than autos (on a per passenger basis). Previously, the units used were rolling resistance per unit weight. If one takes into account the weight of the train per passenger, and then examines the rolling resistance per passenger, the advantage of rail over the auto drastically drops. For a very heavy passenger train, it will even favor the auto.

Just how heavy are passenger trains? There are various types of trains, some pulled by heavy locomotives and some that are driven by electric motors under each car. The ones pulled by locomotives tend to be very heavy and estimates made from US government data for 1963 (the government ceased collecting such data after that date) indicate about 3.7 tons/passenger. Automobiles are roughly one ton/passenger with an average of 1.6 persons/auto in an auto weighing 3,200 pounds. Thus rail was (in 1963) about 3.5 times heavier per passenger.

If one compares a lightweight auto with a lightweight train car, the train car weighs about twice as much per seat. A lightweight auto will weigh about 2,000 pounds with 5 seats (0.2 tons/seat). The (mostly aluminum) BART car (for the San Francisco rail transit) weighed 30 tons with 72 seats (0.42 tons/seat). The percentage of seats occupied by passengers on trains, is often not much different than for automobiles.

The Acela electric trainsets introduced by Amtrak in the early 21st century, are 2.1 tons/seat. This is ten times higher than that of a lightweight auto.

The heavy weight of trains not only increases rolling resistance, it also increases the energy used for climbing up a grade or accelerating from a stop. If the weight triples, so does such energy use.

Still, trains have a potential big advantage: The ability to be powered by electricity on electrified lines. We face more of a liquid fuel shortage than an general energy shortage. The cost of electricity is not going to rise as fast as the cost of oil.

For a continental trip trains have important advantages over cars including much greater safety and 24 hour per day operation. No need to stop to sleep. But the sleeper cars lower the ratio of passengers to train weight and therefore reduce energy efficiency and increase costs.

Jeff Radtke has done a very thorough comparison of fuel efficiency of different means of transportation. Go down past the graph and look at the table. In particular, see the person-MPG column. Note that the high numbers for freight-carrying vehicles (freight trains, oil tankers, etc) show how much more efficiently mass is moved when the mass in question is not humans. He has several numbers for trains from different sources. Some of his numbers are more like David Lawyer's referred to above. Those numbers make me think that rail advocates overestimate the fuel efficiency of rail for moving humans around. He shows a 747-8 with a full passenger load as more fuel efficient than some passenger trains. Still, rail powered by electricity could be powered by nukes, wind, and solar.

Note that Jeff has a 1936 era airship in his table with 224.96 passenger-miles per gallon. That surpasses passenger trains and passenger airplanes. So will peak oil lead to a revival of floating massive airships?

By Randall Parker    2008 June 01 12:57 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2008 May 24 Saturday
American Car Drivers Cut Back Distance Traveled

For the last few years in some quarters I've read claims that American drivers will drive themselves to financial ruin before they respond to higher gasoline prices and cut back on driving. I'm more of the school that people will restructure their lives (change jobs, move to be closer to jobs, do less recreational driving, etc) out of necessity. My view is that Americans can cut their gasoline usage in half once the need arises (and it will arise as Peak Oil bites harder). Well, with oil north of $100 per barrel and price shocks biting hard American drivers traveled 4.3% fewer miles in March 2008 than in March 2007.

WASHINGTON -- Americans drove less in March 2008, continuing a trend that began last November, according to estimates released today from the Federal Highway Administration.

“That Americans are driving less underscores the challenges facing the Highway Trust Fund and its reliance on the federal gasoline excise tax,” said Acting Federal Highway Administrator Jim Ray.

The FHWA’s “Traffic Volume Trends” report, produced monthly since 1942, shows that estimated vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on all U.S. public roads for March 2008 fell 4.3 percent as compared with March 2007 travel. This is the first time estimated March travel on public roads fell since 1979. At 11 billion miles less in March 2008 than in the previous March, this is the sharpest yearly drop for any month in FHWA history.

This is just the beginning. Note this comparison ends in March. Prices have gone much higher since then and still have higher to go this summer. So the cutbacks on driving will get even deeper. People will find lots of ways to cut back that take longer to do. They will move and choose jobs in order to cut back on commuter miles. Some will switch to buses and trains. Others will buy scooters and bicycles and give up cars for many uses.

Last time Americans cut back on driving was in 1979.

THE last time this happened Jimmy Carter was US president. In March, US driving fell an astonishing 4.3 per cent on a year earlier. It was first time driving has fallen in the month since 1979.

US driving began to taper off in November, according to Doug Hecox of the Federal Highway Administration, but at first it was thought the decline could be seasonal, because of bad weather. Then came March, and the largest year-over-year driving drop in the agency's recorded history, going back to 1942.

"We are beginning to see what we think is a very defensible trend beginning," Mr Hecox said.

People now get that the high gasoline prices aren't just a temporary spike. They've been hit hard enough for long enough that the psychology has shifted more toward fear. They don't want their road hogs pulling them down into poverty.

Cost of transportation fuels as a percentage of income is the really interesting number to watch. The portion of income going to transportation fuels is still below that in 1981. But that reflects a large growth in income and buying power that has taken place since 1981. In inflation-adjusted terms we are now paying more per gallon on gasoline than we were back then.

Americans spend 3.7 percent of their disposable income on transportation fuels. At its lowest point, that share was 1.9 percent in 1998, and at its highest, it reached 4.5 percent in 1981, said Ms. Johnson of Global Insight.


Also, Americans pay less to drive a mile today than they did in 1980, once the impact of inflation and gains in fuel efficiency are taken into account, said Lee Schipper, a visiting scholar at the transportation center of the University of California, Berkeley.

Mr. Schipper estimates that the cost of gasoline for each mile traveled will be about 15 cents this year. That is nearly three times the low of 5.6 cents a mile reached in 1998, when fuel efficiency peaked and prices were at their lowest. But it is still cheaper than the record paid in 1980 of 17.1 cents a mile, adjusted for inflation.

A shift toward smaller and more fuel efficient cars will lower the cost per mile traveled. Plus, people will find more ways to reduce the number of miles traveled. How fast all that happens determines how far up prices can go. The more demand destruction at any one price point the less the need for a still higher price point.

If we hit $200 per barrel then gasoline will cost $6 to $7 per gallon in the United States. It already costs that and more in Europe now. So the Europeans will be paying $10 per gallon when Americans are paying $6 per gallon.

If oil hits $200 a barrel, which is the upper end of Goldman Sach's prediction for prices over the next six months to two years, the gasoline picture changes quite dramatically. At $200 a barrel, crude alone would cost $4.76 a gallon. Add on the costs of refining and distributing as well as taxes, and pump prices could rise to a range of $6 to $7 a gallon.

SUV and truck sales are tanking.

According to sales tracker Autodata, full-size pickup sales were down 22% in April compared to a year earlier, while and large SUV sales plunged 32% over the same period.

Meanwhile subcompact sales are booming.

Autodata Corp. reports that sales of large SUVs fell 28 percent in the first quarter this year at a time when subcompact sales rose 32 percent.

Even if some new oil projects can boost world oil production by a few more million barrels of oil per day in the next few years that oil is headed for Asia. Rising Asian demand combined with rising demand in oil producer countries means less oil available for Western industrialized countries. Next time you buy a car get the most fuel efficient one you can stand to drive. We are years away from the point where the crisis eases and energy for transportation starts getting cheap again.

Update: The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) environmentalists have done an excellent job of blocking oil drilling off the US east and west coasts, the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, and other US lands. I thank them for preserving that oil for when we really need it (granted that was not their motivation). Because they tirelessly worked to preserve that oil for the future the shifting political winds caused by high gasoline prices will eventually unlock a substantial chunk of US oil for development.

Mounting concerns about global energy supply are fueling a drive by the oil industry and some U.S. lawmakers to end longstanding bans on domestic drilling put in place to protect environmentally sensitive areas.


In a report last week, the federal Bureau of Land Management stated that at current U.S. consumption levels there are four years worth of oil and 10 years worth of natural gas under federal lands. However, more than 90% of that energy was under lands either closed to development or open with significant environmental restrictions. The federal Minerals Management Service said an additional three years worth of oil and gas is in offshore areas where drilling isn't allowed.

It does not matter whether the bans get lifted this year. If $4 gasoline isn't enough to lift the drilling bans then surely $6, $7, or $8 gasoline will do the trick. I can't imagine that $10 per gallon gasoline will be necessary to make people tell their elected officials that they want the drilling rigs unleashed.

By Randall Parker    2008 May 24 11:43 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (25)
2008 May 21 Wednesday
Airports Lose Passenger Flights As Peak Oil Starts To Bite

In what is still the pretty early stages of the Peak Oil transition cities are losing passenger air service.

Financially strapped airlines are cutting service, and nearly 30 cities across the United States have seen their scheduled service disappear in the last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Others include New Haven, Conn.; Wilmington, Del.; Lake Havasu City, Ariz.; and Boulder City, Nev.

Over the same period, more than 400 airports, in cities large and small, have seen flight cuts. Over all, the number of scheduled flights in the United States dropped 3 percent in May, or 22,900 fewer flights than in May 2007, according to the Official Airline Guide.

For me the most surprising aspect of this trend is the level of traffic in January 2007 for airports that have now lost all commercial service. For example, Boulder City Nevada previously had 401 flights in January 2007 and now has none. Though big airports lost a much larger absolute number of flights. Chicago O'Hare lost 3,098 from 33,770 in January 2007 to 30,675 in January 2008.

The US Congress is in denial on the causes of high oil prices. Since less oil will be forthcoming we need to accept the need to use less of it. But rather than simply accept the need to use less fossil fuels in aviation some US Congress critters are trying to increase the amount of tax money allocated to subsidize commercial flights into rural airports.

Now, some lawmakers are pushing for more money for the air service program as part of a broader funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that is before the Senate. The House passed the measure last year.

This same Congress wants to sue OPEC for price fixing. This very same Congress puts obstacles in the way of Brazilian ethanol imports and also subsidizes US agriculture in other ways against foreign producers. But the hypocrisy is less important than the delusion underlying their stance: They at least pretend to believe that OPEC has control over oil prices. Almost all OPEC members are running at maximum capacity. They do not have pricing power.

Business executives face markets that force them to deal with reality. As a result more big cuts are in store for US passenger air transport capacity.

For now, we'll see more capacity-cut announcements. American said it will shrink its mainline domestic schedule in the fourth quarter this year by 11% to 12%. It had previously planned a 4.6% domestic reduction in the fourth quarter. American said it will retire about 75 jets – some regional jets, plus some wide-body A300s and some aging MD-80s narrow-body planes, the workhorse of its domestic fleet.

But I bet flights in China will continue to rise as the rapidly growing Chinese economy outbids the US economy for oil.

I'm actually encouraged by airline cutbacks and crashing sales of SUVs. People are making adjustments and using less oil. We need all that oil demand destruction, the sooner the better. Otherwise oil prices will need to go higher faster in order to force people and businesses to change their ways.

The latest new high for oil of $133.38 per barrel illustrates our need to start finding ways to use less oil.

Oil hits new record: U.S. light crude oil for July delivery rose as high as $133.38 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange before pulling back. Oil prices reacted to the weekly supplies report which showed a surprise drop in crude oil and gasoline inventories and a weaker-than-expected buildup in distillates, used in heating oil.

If you start making choices that lower your oil usage before you are economically forced to cut back then you'll be able to make less costly and less painful choices.

Update: Some people are excited by the prospect for rail. I'm watching for good articles on rail passenger traffic growth in the US and might do a post on it. While looking I came across an LA Times travel blog post about why Amtrak's pacific coast route The Coast Starlight runs so slow which is instructive about rail's pitfalls.

How bad is it? The Coast Starlight ran on schedule 50% of the time in December and 51.7% of the time in November, according to Amtrak statistics. While not great, the numbers are better than in December 2006 (25.8%) and November 2006 (23.3%). Since January, of course, trains have run irregularly because of mudslides, since cleared, that covered tracks in Oregon.

Construction issues: Years of track work by Union Pacific in Oregon and Northern California have contributed to delays on the Coast Starlight, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham. By late last year, a major portion of that work was finished, helping on-time performance, she explained.

Bottlenecks: Although the Coast Starlight gets priority, it runs on the same tracks as freight trains, said Graham and Zoe Richmond, spokeswoman for Union Pacific. And much of its route is on a single track. So if any train stalls, especially if it’s not near a siding, it backs up traffic. It’s like being on a one-lane road without a shoulder. And of course, bad weather can also wreak havoc.

Breakdowns by freight trains, accidents with cars, or assorted reasons to inspect tracks can cause hours of delay each time. Adding a lot more double track rail sections and sidings would help. Upgrades of tracks to allow higher speed operations would help too. But passenger rail today has lots of problems. A train line that runs on time 50% of the time comes on top of the slowness of rail as compared to airplanes.

By Randall Parker    2008 May 21 02:25 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (30)
2008 March 12 Wednesday
Electric Cars Will Not Need New Electric Power Plants?

Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers claim if pluggable hybrids don't get recharged until after 10 PM then they will require little or no additional electric power plants.

In an analysis of the potential impacts of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles projected for 2020 and 2030 in 13 regions of the United States, ORNL researchers explored their potential effect on electricity demand, supply, infrastructure, prices and associated emission levels. Electricity requirements for hybrids used a projection of 25 percent market penetration of hybrid vehicles by 2020 including a mixture of sedans and sport utility vehicles. Several scenarios were run for each region for the years 2020 and 2030 and the times of 5 p.m. or 10:00 p.m., in addition to other variables.

The report found that the need for added generation would be most critical by 2030, when hybrids have been on the market for some time and become a larger percentage of the automobiles Americans drive. In the worst-case scenario—if all hybrid owners charged their vehicles at 5 p.m., at six kilowatts of power—up to 160 large power plants would be needed nationwide to supply the extra electricity, and the demand would reduce the reserve power margins for a particular region's system.

The best-case scenario occurs when vehicles are plugged in after 10 p.m., when the electric load on the system is at a minimum and the wholesale price for energy is least expensive. Depending on the power demand per household, charging vehicles after 10 p.m. would require, at lower demand levels, no additional power generation or, in higher-demand projections, just eight additional power plants nationwide.

Since I suspect the world has already reached Peak Oil I expect the shift to electrically-powered vehicles will happen sooner than this study assumes. Also, total electric demand will grow more rapidly as dwindling oil supplies cause a big shift toward electrically powered equipment of all kinds.

The great difference in power plant usage between the afternoon and late night is partly a result of a lack of dynamic pricing. If electric rates for homes varied by the time of day based on relative levels of demand then people and companies would shift more of their electric demand toward the late night even before significant numbers of hybrid vehicles hit the market. Such a shift in demand would cause higher utilization of power plants at night and therefore less excess power generation capacity available to charge electric cars.

Fortunately thermal solar and photovoltaic solar will drop in prices and will become cost competitive sources of day time power. Electric cars will then preferentially get recharged in the morning sun before the peak business demand for electric power in the afternoon.

By Randall Parker    2008 March 12 11:06 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2008 February 13 Wednesday
Nuclear Powered Liquid Hydrocarbons For $4.60 Per Gallon

Synthesis of liquid hydrocarbons from atmospheric carbon dioxide and water could be nuclear powered.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed a low-risk, transformational concept, called Green Freedom™, for large-scale production of carbon-neutral, sulfur-free fuels and organic chemicals from air and water.

Currently, the principal market for the Green Freedom production concept is fuel for vehicles and aircraft.

At the heart of the technology is a new process for extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and making it available for fuel production using a new form of electrochemical separation. By integrating this electrochemical process with existing technology, researchers have developed a new, practical approach to producing fuels and organic chemicals that permits continued use of existing industrial and transportation infrastructure. Fuel production is driven by carbon-neutral power.

The New York Times reports that using nuclear power plants as an energy source to drive the process will yield liquid fuel for only $4.60 per gallon which is much cheaper than gasoline is projected to get under various doomer scenarios for Peak Oil.

This plan has a minor hurdle, too; the electricity for driving the chemical processes, according to a white paper describing the overarching concept, would come from nuclear power. The proposal says it’d be worth it to have a payoff of steady, secure streams of methanol and gasoline with no carbon added to the atmosphere (and a price for gasoline at the pump of perhaps $4.60 a gallon — comparable to petroleum-based fuels as oil becomes harder to find).

At $4.60 per gallon we can switch to hybrid and diesel cars and keep moving around just as much as we do now.

I see this as good news because it puts a long term ceiling on liquid fuels prices and also puts a long term ceiling on grain costs. Once grain-derived ethanol and biodiesel get above $4.60 a gallon the demand for grain biomass energy will flatten out and biomass energy demand for grains will cease to grow. But since nuclear power plant construction takes years we could still go through a period with much higher transportation fuels costs.

By Randall Parker    2008 February 13 06:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (16)
2008 January 05 Saturday
US Average Car Fuel Efficiency Rises

Rising gasoline prices boosted average fuel efficiency for new cars by 3.5% in 2007.

Amid record high oil prices and concerns about climate change, cars and light trucks sold in the United States hit a new mileage record for the 2007 model year, with average fuel economy improving almost 1 mile per gallon.

According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released late last month, fleet-wide fuel economy in the United States averaged 26.6 mpg, up 3.5 percent from the 25.7 mpg averaged in the 2006 model year. Passenger cars averaged a new high of 31.2 mpg, while light trucks averaged a separate record of 23.1 mpg.

So which companies paid fines for going over US government mandates for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards? Not American ones. Of course not Japanese ones. Germans: Daimler, VW, BMW, Porsche. They don't have the high European fuel taxes to incentivize their American customers to buy more of their smaller cars. Yes, even VW sells less fuel efficient cars in the US than the American big three. Also, Maserati and Ferrari paid fines too.

That average fuel economy on new cars was based on buying patterns over the whole year. I'm expecting a bigger shift in buyer preferences for the 2008 model year because where gasoline prices are at the start of 2008 and where they are likely to go by summer. Normally gasoline prices hit their bottom in winter and their top in summer. See this chart of weekly US gasoline prices from mid 2005 thru 2007. Note how starting in March each year gasoline prices surge into the summer driving season.

An LA Times article shows why we should expect higher prices this spring and summer:

Kloza said that nationally for the last 25 years, the difference in the price of gas from the winter low to the spring high has been about 59%.

"I don't think we will see a typical surge, and we don't have to," Kloza said. With an increase of just 30%, he said, "you're talking about 75 cents a gallon more from where they are now."

A 59% surge would take California over $5 and Alaska over $6. I'm expecting demand destruction to start becoming a lot more visible though. So prices will probably stay under $5 per gallon in the lower 48 American states. But however high they go they'll serve as a wake-up call to the American car buying public. Expect to see a lot more hybrids, diesels, and subcompacts sold.

While fuel efficiency increases will help what we need as a more permanent solution is to stop using oil entirely. The first real step in that direction (and, no, corn ethanol doesn't count) will come in the form of pluggable hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). General Motors will probably be the first car company to release a mass market PHEV in the American market with their Chevrolet Volt. But GM chairman Richard Wagoner isn't sure that GM can get the Volt design done and into production by the end of 2010.

"We continue to put massive resources into production as soon as possible," said Wagoner, responding in writing during an online chat session to kick off the automaker's 100th anniversary. "2010 would be great, but (we) can't guarantee that at this time. We'll keep you posted regularly on our progress."

GM vice chairman Bob Lutz told Jerry Flint of Forbes a similar story on the timing of the Volt introduction. GM is not sure they will get the Volt out by the end of 2010.

GM's current schedule calls for production in late 2010 or early 2011.

"It probably won't be a flawless launch," Lutz warns. Interpretation: Expect delays and possible teething problems.

On a scale of 1 to 10, he says his confidence level is a 9.5 that GM can build the Chevy Volt, the name of this hybrid electric car. The production date is another matter; Lutz's confidence drops to a 5.5. "We're holding people's feet to the fire for the very end of 2010 into 2011. But that can slip, depending on how the development goes."

I think it extremely likely GM will produce this car. It normally takes 3 to 4 years to develop a new car design. They are trying to develop one that includes radical innovations. So a schedule slip is to be expected under the circumstances. They sound pretty committed.

DETROIT — General Motors is down to the details on the production version of the Chevrolet Volt, says Edward T. Welburn Jr., the automaker's vice president of global design. Welburn told Inside Line on Thursday that the "Volt is our absolute highest priority."

My worry: world oil production might start declining before PHEV vehicles become available in the millions. We live in a world where the development of problems and the development of solutions are in a race. How big will the problems get before the solutions reach maturity? When it comes to Peak Oil the answer is still not clear to me. But I expect things will get worse for at least several years before getting better.

By Randall Parker    2008 January 05 02:47 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2007 December 27 Thursday
Diesel Car Sales Expected To Grow On High Energy Costs

A series of Popular Mechanics articles reviews the fuel efficiency diesels in very high fuel cost Europe and looks at diesels headed for sale in American showrooms. Like other makers Ford sells a lot of fuel efficient diesel cars in Europe.

FRANKFURT — Ford of Europe unveiled three new alt-fuel cars here, the first of which we’ll see is the Focus ECOnetic model in 2007. It combines the latest common-rail diesel powertrain and other engineering features to reduce CO2 emissions to the absolute minimum. Powered by a 109-hp 1.6-liter Duratorq common-rail turbodiesel engine with a diesel particulate filter, the ECOnetic is gunning for around 54 mpg.

We can see in the European car market how the United States could handle another doubling or tripling of oil costs. Smaller diesel cars would allow Americans to drive just as far to jobs and for fun. Granted, the bigger cars have advantages. But we don't have to abandon cars in order to double or triple our fuel efficiency. That we can afford to drive such big cars at today's gasoline prices means that we can still afford to get around (albeit in smaller and more efficient cars) once the world production of oil starts declining.

Prius is getting unseated as a fuel efficiency leader. The 2009 Jetta diesel is expected to get a combined 50 mpg city/highway when it comes on sale in the spring of 2008.

The new era of clean diesel in America will officially be ushered in by the new VW Jetta TDi when it goes on sale in a few months. Powered by a 2.0-liter four-banger that produces 140 hp and 236 lb.-ft. of torque, it will be the first automobile to meet the world’s most stringent emission control standards, California’s Tier II, Bin 5.

Those California emissions standards are one reason why we see fewer diesels in America than Europe. The Europeans lag on auto emissions standards and so the European car makers find it easier to create diesels that will qualify to pass European emissions regulations. The lowering of sulfur in US diesel fuel (to meet a US Environmental Protection Agency regulation) has made it possible to design diesel exhaust systems that can meet tougher US emissions standards.

A Popular Mechanics writer was more impressed by the Europe-only VW Polo which gets 60 to 70 mpg.

It’s also not the car that most impressed me. Nope, that honor goes to the Euro-only Polo, a Rabbit-like hatchback—only smaller—with plenty of room for four adults, a modest hatch that could swallow a weekend’s worth of gear, and a 1.4-liter, turbocharged diesel under the hood. Oh yeah, and a five-speed manual transmission.

Here’s the kicker: The Polo gets 60 to 70-plus mpg. And it’s really fun to drive. It’s got a good bit of turbo lag, so you need to keep the revs up for serious power, but once the turbo kicks in, acceleration is frisky.

The coming world decline in oil production, once started, will go on for decades and each year we'll see less oil produced than was produced the year before. As oil production declines liquid fuels will become more and more expensive. Therefore the use of diesels for commuting will be a transitional phase. In the long run I expect diesel cars to be used almost solely for longer trips and for freight hauling. For people who do average commutes (less than 40 miles per day) I expect rechargeable hybrid electric and pure electric cars to become the mainstays.

The wild cards in all this are methods to create liquid hydrocarbons. We can't get very far with biomass grain crops due to lack of land. But maybe other biological approaches such as genetically engineered algae for making diesel will become cost competitive. Though the capital costs of such an approach seem too high. Or perhaps nuclear reactors to produce hydrogen to then bind it to carbon will become cost competitive. Another possibility is that solar photovoltaics will become so cheap (and Nanosolar might make it happen) that solar electric could some day produce electric power cheaply enough to run processes to synthesize diesel fuel.

By Randall Parker    2007 December 27 08:40 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2007 October 28 Sunday
Venture Capital Start-Up Targets Electric Car Recharging

Time to start planning the infrastructure to support electric cars.

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 28 — Shai Agassi, a Silicon Valley technologist who was in competition to become chief executive of SAP, one of the world’s largest software companies, has re-emerged with a grand plan to reinvent the world’s automobile industry around battery-powered all-electric cars.

Others are developing green cars, like the Tesla and Chevrolet Volt. However, Mr. Agassi is not planning to make cars, but instead wants to deploy an infrastructure of battery-charging

He's got deep pocket investors lined up to the tune of $200 million.

Maybe A123Systems isn't really ready to start selling next gen lithium nanophosphate batteries to GM. But maybe existing lithium ion batteries are good enough for electric cars. Big maybes.

“If you listen to the car companies, they suggest there is a fix, but it’s not there yet,” said Stephen J. Girsky, a partner at the investment firm Centerbridge Partners who formerly served as an adviser to General Motors.

However, the new venture, which Mr. Agassi has named, for now, Better Place, would be viable even with existing lithium-ion battery technology, he said.

To make this venture viable it seems to me pure electric cars are needed. People will recharge their pluggable hybrids at home and run them on gasoline for longer trips. They'll even recharge their pure electric cars at home. So why electric recharging stations? A few reasons: Long trips most obviously. Also, some people live in places where they can't easily recharge while at home. Some people live in apartment buildings. Some park on streets and can't be guaranteed to find a parking space in front of their house. Some live in neighborhoods bad enough that an electric cable running from house to car would pose security problems.

Maybe Agassi can make a business out of home upgrades to install home electric charging equipment for electric cars. That seems like a hard business to do well though.

GM is talking a good game on their Volt pluggable hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).

The Volt’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that there is a lot at stake. G.M.’s environmental image suffered when it backpedaled on plans to build hydrogen-powered cars and stepped away from an earlier battery-powered car, the EV1.

“The company has taken a risk,” said Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt.

GM needs the battery technology to make this happen. They've hooked up with A123Systems as their battery supplier. But can A123Systems deliver? I haven't come across good public information that addresses just where they are at with their lithium nanophosphate battery.

GM is talking a really upbeat line on the Volt pluggable hybrid that they claim will go 40 miles between recharges.

“I’ve been unbelievably enthusiastic about this vehicle,” said Robert A. Lutz, vice chairman for product development at G.M. and arguably the vehicle’s most vocal promoter, despite his reputation as a fan of cars big and fast.

“I would be surprised, shocked and dismayed if we decide not to do it,” he said.

GM's expected battery supplier, A123Systems, has just got another round of VC financing. So are they ready? Have they solved the battery problem?

A123Systems, developer and producer of patent-pending Nanophosphate™ lithium ion batteries, today announced it has completed a $30 million round of funding, bringing the total capital invested in the company to $132 million. A123Systems will use these funds to increase production capacity for new contract awards for hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric and extended range electric vehicle design wins with major automakers including a contract to co-develop proprietary cells for the GM E-FLEX program. A123Systems continues to expand its fast growing power tool battery business with Black & Decker Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of cordless tools, where the company is helping drive the transition from nickel technology to doped Nanophosphate lithium ion technology.

Suppose GM manages to pull this off. I don't see the market for battery recharging stations. People could maybe stand to plug in their car when they get home every night. But they aren't going to go to an electric recharge station 3, 4, 5 times a week to recharge a vehicle that has only 40 miles range in pure electric mode. The Volts with 40 miles electric range will also have a gasoline burning engine to partially power the car and to recharge the batteries while cruising down the road. People will prefer filling up the tank for that engine at a much lower frequency.

By Randall Parker    2007 October 28 11:54 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
Mercedes Benz Diesel Hybrids Coming

Mercedes Benz is claiming 35 mpg on the highway for their new E class diesel car.

Since the nation-wide introduction of low-sulfur diesel fuel in October 2006, the E 320 BLUETEC has already been available in 45 U.S. states. The E 320 BLUETEC with its 165 kW/224 hp V6 engine has a fuel consumption as low as 6.7 liters per 100 kilometers (35.11 mpg) and covers a distance of up to 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) on one tank filling. These figures have been impressing American buyers – the proportion of the E 320 BLUETEC in E-Class sales in the U.S.A. is currently as high as 17 percent.

But even more impressive, Mercedes says they are going to come out with diesel hybrids in 2010 and the E class diesel hybrid will get as high as 46 mpg.

The combination of BLUETEC and modular hybrid drive will from 2010 tap additional potential in several Mercedes-Benz model series. This will start with the E-Class whose powertrain with a total output of 164 kW (224 hp) and maximum torque of 560 Newton meters will ensure unrestricted motoring pleasure. The fuel consumption of the BLUETEC hybrid in the E-Class will be as low as 5.1 liters of diesel fuel per 100 kilometers (46.12 mpg). The first gasoline hybrid – the ML 450 – will set a new benchmark among gasoline-engined cars in the SUV segment from 2009 with average consumption of 7.7 liters per 100 kilometers (30.55 mpg).

Granted, the Prius gasoline hybrid gets similar mileage burning gasoline. But the E320 is a bigger car with a much nicer ride and better performance.

These numbers should be compared to the gasoline Mercedes Benz E350 which gets 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. This suggests that a diesel hybrid combination can almost double fuel mileage.

Diesel hybrids will make sense in the post oil peak period. Also, galloping Chinese demand for fuel looks set to drive oil prices even higher.

By Randall Parker    2007 October 28 10:30 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2007 October 04 Thursday
Fuel Efficiency Decline Reverses In United States

The long term trend toward lower fuel efficiency cars in the United States appears to have stopped and slightly reversed in the face of more expensive gasoline and diesel fuel.

Compared with 1987, the average weight of the vehicle we drive has risen by 923 pounds, or 29%. The average time it takes for a vehicle to go from zero to 60 miles per hour time has dropped to 9.6 seconds -- the fastest since the EPA started compiling this data in 1975. Our average car or truck has 223 horsepower, and the most horsepower per pound on record.

There is some good news: The 17-year decline in the average fuel efficiency of America's new car fleet that began in 1987 appears to have stopped. The EPA forecasts that the average fuel economy of 2007 model cars and trucks will be 20.2 miles per gallon, the same as 2006 and slightly better than 19.9 mpg measured for 2005. That would make three straight years when the new vehicle fleet's fuel economy was no worse, or slightly better, than it was in 2004.

The writer is getting this information from a new US Environmental Protection Agency report Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2007.

The rise in vehicle weights and decline in fuel efficiency were mostly the result of rising affluence. If inflation adjusted fuel prices stay the same (and fuel prices both declined and rose during the study period) rising incomes will enable people to spend more on fuel. It takes declining living standards or large rises in fuel prices to change consumer demand. Taxes and regulations on gas guzzlers can force people toward more fuel efficient vehicles even if gasoline and diesel stay relatively cheap.

Of course, oil prices have quadrupled in the last 8 years and my guess is they are going to go much higher.

So should we be worried or angry that fuel efficiency of US cars and trucks got worse for so many years? Is the poor fuel efficiency of 4000 lb cars reason to expect US society to collapse once world oil production starts declining a few percent per year and oil exports start declining 5 per cent per year? Is doom and gloom straight ahead?

My take: Our profligate use of energy is a reason for optimism. That the average light duty vehicle sold in the US in 2007 weighed 4144 lb (up from 3221 lb in 1987 in spite of materials advances) means that we could greatly increase fuel efficiency by riding around in 2600 lb vehicles and still live fairly comfortably and drive quite a lot. That car acceleration from 0 to 60 mph increased from 14.4 seconds in 1975 to 9.6 seconds in 2007 means we could go back to 1975 rates of acceleration and gain even more fuel efficiency. Plus, we could switch to diesel hybrids and gain even more fuel efficiency. We could do all this before embracing pluggable hybrid electric vehicles. So it seems we could adjust to a halving of our current rate of oil consumption and still live pretty well.

A lot of people who forecast Peak Oil hitting either starting a couple of years ago or Real Soon Now will give you a very doomster view of the future. But especially for the countries that have the highest living standards there are huge margins for adjustment. Living standards will take a hit while we migrate to an electric economy and spend on efficiency enhancing technologies. But we have lots of suitable technology to help make the adjustments and more technological advances in the pipeline.

By Randall Parker    2007 October 04 07:24 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2007 July 29 Sunday
HCCI Improves Gasoline Engine Efficiency

MIT researchers are figuring out how to allow conventional 4 stroke gasoline engines to shift into a sparkless mode similar to diesel engine operation.

Many researchers are studying a new way of operating an internal combustion engine known as "homogeneous charge compression ignition" (HCCI). Switching a spark-ignition (SI) engine to HCCI mode pushes up its fuel efficiency.

In an HCCI engine, fuel and air are mixed together and injected into the cylinder. The piston compresses the mixture until spontaneous combustion occurs. The engine thus combines fuel-and-air premixing (as in an SI engine) with spontaneous ignition (as in a diesel engine). The result is the HCCI's distinctive feature: combustion occurs simultaneously at many locations throughout the combustion chamber.

One of HCCI's big advantages over diesel is the ability to avoid oxidation of nitrogen.

That behavior has advantages. In both SI and diesel engines, the fuel must burn hot to ensure that the flame spreads rapidly through the combustion chamber before a new "charge" enters. In an HCCI engine, there is no need for a quickly spreading flame because combustion occurs throughout the combustion chamber. As a result, combustion temperatures can be lower, so emissions of nitrogen pollutants are negligible. The fuel is spread in low concentrations throughout the cylinder, so the soot emissions from fuel-rich regions in diesels are not present.

Perhaps most important, the HCCI engine is not locked into having just enough air to burn the available fuel, as is the SI engine. When the fuel coming into an SI engine is reduced to cut power, the incoming air must also be constrained--a major source of wasted energy.

This design would boost fuel efficiency by a few miles per gallon.

The researchers estimate that the increase in fuel efficiency would be a few miles per gallon. "That may not seem like an impressive improvement," said Green. "But if all the cars in the US today improved that much, it might be worth a million barrels of oil per day--and that's a lot."

The HCCI mode might eventually provide a bigger fuel efficiency boost. Engines can only run in HCCI mode in a midrange of RPMs. At first glance that limits the efficiency gain possible from HCCI. However, marrying an HCCI-capable engine to hybrid electric components might provide a way to allow an engine to work in HCCI mode more of the time that it is running. At what would otherwise be lower RPM operation periods a car could get propelled by electric motors powered by the battery. Then the engine could get started up and put directly into HCCI mode to provide power to the car at higher speed and to charge the batteries. A car with sufficiently powerful batteries and electric motors could use the gasoline engine only to charge the batteries and to supply power to the electric motors. That could allow the engine to run at a constant and HCCI-capable RPM.

Ford is funding this research just as it is funding other MIT research on ethanol turbo injection to boost gasoline engine efficiency.

This research was supported by Ford Motor Company and the Ford-MIT Alliance, with additional support from BP.

Ford's executives think they can achieve near-diesel efficiency with gasoline engines and do so more cheaply. So Ford is not following the German makers in embracing diesel for passenger cars. My guess is that the Ford folks are correct.

We need all the efficiency improvements that can get squeezed out of internal combustion engines to complement advances made in battery technology. Out of the two I'm more worried about the speed of advance of the battery technology.

Update: A couple of months ago AutoblogGreen interviewed Dr. Gary Smyth, director of powertrain research at GM, about GM's research on engines and Smyth provided a look at why HCCI is better and what problems must be solved to make HCCI workable.

GS: Well, first of all it's a homogeneous charge compression ignition. So what it really is what I would call the next generation combustion process. So it's not a technology, it's really the process, it's the combustion process that we're developing and it really is, think of it as clean, efficient combustion. Like the two-stroke, the two-stroke by the way ran very lean and by the way we could run HCCI on the old two-strokes, we're not doing the same with the four-stroke where we are running the engine extremely lean and we're not using a spark plug, it's the whole combustion process is what we call kinetically controlled. It depends on the air fuel mixture in the cylinder. So, we're now controlling the combustion without a spark plug. We're running extremely lean and we need a number of enabling technologies to help us control the combustion. One is direct injection. The other is very wide-authority cam phasing. The other is very precise control. Another one is significant residuals or exhaust recirculation gases that we would take into the cylinder. So, much more complex from an engine perspective but allows us to really get the upper bound fuel economy potential of the four-stroke engine and do that with very low emissions.

The interviewer and Smyth both know engine technologies. The whole interview is very interested and delves into other approaches for boosting internal combustion engine efficiency.

By Randall Parker    2007 July 29 02:39 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2007 July 06 Friday
Prius Appeals As Personal Statement

The other hybrids do not sell as well because they do not shout "I'm a hybrid".

In fact, more than half of the Prius buyers surveyed this spring by CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore., said the main reason they purchased their car was that “it makes a statement about me.”

Only a third of Prius owners cited that reason just three years ago, according to CNW, which tracks consumer buying trends.

“I really want people to know that I care about the environment,” said Joy Feasley of Philadelphia, owner of a green 2006 Prius. “I like that people stop and ask me how I like my car.”

This is why better home insulation does not get the money spent on it that hybrids get. Your neighbors can't see that you spent thousands of dollars on R-60 walls and R-90 attics. Also, your house probably doesn't get seen by nearly as many people as see your car tooling down busy roads and highways.

This presents a business challenge: What sort of service would allow people to upgrade their houses to extreme levels of fuel efficiency in such a way that the huge reduction in heating and air conditioning energy usage would be highly visible? Solar panels on the roof are visible. But the most cost effective ways to decrease energy involve changes inside walls and attics and doors and windows.

By Randall Parker    2007 July 06 12:11 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (37)
2007 July 01 Sunday
High Oil Prices Drive Shift To Trains

Trains use a lot less energy than trucks to move goods the same distance.

As the price of oil climbed 37 percent in five months from Jan. 18, shares of Union Pacific, based in Omaha, Neb., the biggest U.S. railroad company, gained 24 percent. Shares of CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., the third-largest, rose 26 percent.

"Railroads typically are about three times more fuel-efficient than trucks," said Jason Seidl, a New York-based analyst at Credit Suisse. Higher fuel prices "will drive up the differential."


While trucks offer a cost advantage on most short hauls and can reach places not accessible by rail, they consume about four times as much fuel to move a shipment as a train does, according to U.S. Energy Department data. Shipping rates are about five times higher for trucks than trains, said Amin of TCI, which is the fifth-largest shareholder of CSX, according to Bloomberg data.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway now owns 11% of Burlington Northern. My interpretation: The smart money has begun to bet on Peak Oil happening sooner rather than later.

The energy advantage of trains leaves me with a question: Once oil production peaks how much of freight shipments will shift from trucks to trains? I live in a town that has a rail line passing through it that runs up and down the West Coast. But the train does not unload or load here. The containers just pass on through. How high would the price of oil have to get before it would make sense to build container box loaders and unloaders in towns with 100,000 or 200,000 populations? How does the cost in time, equipment, and labor for moving the containers onto tractor trailers compare to the cost saved on running truck engines to move cargo, say, 100 miles?

What I also wonder: Will we see a population shift toward train lines because the difference in cost of shipping will be substantial enough to make life near container unloader facilities cheap enough to influence moving decisions? Anyone have real cost numbers to plug into a consideration of this question?

I'm trying to figure out how soon world oil production will peak, how rapidly oil production will decline, and how high oil prices will rise as a consequence. The price peak of oil once oil production starts declining is the most interesting question. Some will argue for $150 and $200 per barrel oil. But I expect oil substitutes and conservation measures to put upper limits in prices that make $200 oil out of the question.

I could be wrong on the upper limits on oil prices for one reason that really bothers me: The US dollar could decline so much against other currencies that they'll see much smaller oil price rises that they'll be able to bid up the price of oil much higher in dollar terms.

T. Boone Pickens thinks world oil production has already peaked.

Q: Energy seems to be on everyone's mind these days, and you're an acknowledged expert. What do you see happening with oil and gasoline prices?

BOONE PICKENS: I think you'll see $80 oil before the end of the year. There's no question in my mind that oil has peaked. If you've already peaked, you'll start to decline. Can you replace it? Probably not. What happens then? The supply goes down, demand goes up, and price goes up. It will be a case of, how much does the consumer want to pay to get gasoline?

You could argue that we haven't hit Peak Oil yet. I'm not certain on this point. But a continued rise in energy prices due to growth in the world economy combined with rising costs of oil extraction make continued price rises likely. ConocoPhillips chairman and CEO James J. Mulva told the New York Times that he expects to see energy prices continue to rise.

Q. Drivers are concerned about rising gas prices. What can American drivers expect to pay at the pump in the short term, medium term and long term?

A. I would like to see gasoline prices decline. However, I believe that is somewhat unrealistic. Energy costs are going to continue to escalate as a result of the cost it takes to add new resources of energy.

Higher oil prices will make people buy smaller cars, take fewer trips, drive scooters, live closer to jobs, take jobs closer to home, and take other steps to cut their oil usage. How rapidly will the adjustments take place?

Existing fields are in decline. Mulva says to meet future demand with oil will require bringing more oil into production than is currently being produced.

June 12, 2007 -- To meet a projected 40% growth in demand for oil in just over two decade, ConocoPhillips said June 11 that "vast new areas" will have to be opened. Its CEO James Mulva said: "By 2030 we would have to bring on line 105 million barrels a day of new production. To meet this challenge, vast new areas will need to be opened and explored."

That will not happen. We need a massive effort to build nuclear power plants, better battery technology to enable nuclear to power vehicles, and much cheaper solar power.

Once big money becomes convinced that high oil prices (north of $50 per barrel) are a permanent fixture I expect a huge rush to invest in coal-to-liquid (CTL) plants. The CTL plants will put a lid on diesel fuel prices. But they'll do so at an environmental cost. If we scale up nukes faster then we can shift more of the economy away from fossil fuels and reduce the size of the coal surge.

By Randall Parker    2007 July 01 02:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (30)
2007 June 10 Sunday
MIT Electromagnetic Energy Beam

Energy beams are possible.

Researchers at MIT have shown that it's possible to wirelessly power a 60-watt lightbulb sitting about two meters away from a power source. Using a remarkably simple setup--basically consisting of two metal coils--they have demonstrated, for the first time, that it is feasible to efficiently send that much power over such a distance. The experiment paves the way for wirelessly charging batteries in laptops, mobile phones, and music players, as well as cutting the electric cords on household appliances, says Marin Soljačić, professor of physics at MIT, who led the team with physics professor John Joannopoulos.

Notice at the bottom of this post that I filed it under "Energy Transportation". Why? They achieved 45% efficiency. But at a shorter distance they achieved 70% efficiency. Suppose they can get this up to 90+% efficiency. That would open up the possibility of recharging an electric car automatically when it parks in the right spot. That would solve a basic problem with shorter range electric cars that are used for daily short range commuting. Drive a 10 or 20 mile daily commute, park in the garage, and next morning the car will be fully recharged by an electric power transmission magnet in the garage. Ditto for, say, special parking spaces at workplaces.

Sounds like this approach has the potential to have little of the energy leak away.

Moffatt, an MIT undergraduate in physics, explains: "The crucial advantage of using the non-radiative field lies in the fact that most of the power not picked up by the receiving coil remains bound to the vicinity of the sending unit, instead of being radiated into the environment and lost." With such a design, power transfer has a limited range, and the range would be shorter for smaller-size receivers.

They call it WiTricity.

In contrast, WiTricity is based on using coupled resonant objects. Two resonant objects of the same resonant frequency tend to exchange energy efficiently, while interacting weakly with extraneous off-resonant objects. A child on a swing is a good example of this. A swing is a type of mechanical resonance, so only when the child pumps her legs at the natural frequency of the swing is she able to impart substantial energy. Another example involves acoustic resonances: Imagine a room with 100 identical wine glasses, each filled with wine up to a different level, so they all have different resonant frequencies. If an opera singer sings a sufficiently loud single note inside the room, a glass of the corresponding frequency might accumulate sufficient energy to even explode, while not influencing the other glasses. In any system of coupled resonators there often exists a so-called “strongly coupled” regime of operation. If one ensures to operate in that regime in a given system, the energy transfer can be very efficient.

While these considerations are universal, applying to all kinds of resonances (e.g., acoustic, mechanical, electromagnetic, etc.), the MIT team focused on one particular type: magnetically coupled resonators. The team explored a system of two electromagnetic resonators coupled mostly through their magnetic fields; they were able to identify the strongly coupled regime in this system, even when the distance between them was several times larger than the sizes of the resonant objects. This way, efficient power transfer was enabled. Magnetic coupling is particularly suitable for everyday applications because most common materials interact only very weakly with magnetic fields, so interactions with extraneous environmental objects are suppressed even further. “The fact that magnetic fields interact so weakly with biological organisms is also important for safety considerations,” Kurs, a graduate student in physics, points out.

I find the ability to use cordless appliances less interesting than charging cars because this approach sounds pretty directional.

The car charging problem has other potential solutions. For example, imagine a garage where a robotic apparatus automatically come down from the ceiling or up from the floor to plug into a receptacle.

What I wonder: Is there any health risk to an electromagnetic energy beam?

By Randall Parker    2007 June 10 05:11 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2007 March 14 Wednesday
Biomass Plus Hydrogen For All Transportation?

Hydrogen generated by nuclear, wind, or solar electricity could greatly increase the quantity and energy density of liquid fuels made from biomass.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University chemical engineers have proposed a new environmentally friendly process for producing liquid fuels from plant matter - or biomass - potentially available from agricultural and forest waste, providing all of the fuel needed for "the entire U.S. transportation sector."

The new approach modifies conventional methods for producing liquid fuels from biomass by adding hydrogen from a "carbon-free" energy source, such as solar or nuclear power, during a step called gasification. Adding hydrogen during this step suppresses the formation of carbon dioxide and increases the efficiency of the process, making it possible to produce three times the volume of biofuels from the same quantity of biomass, said Rakesh Agrawal, Purdue's Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering.

The researchers are calling their approach a "hybrid hydrogen-carbon process," or H2CAR.

The resulting liquids would be more like gasoline than like ethanol since they'd be more chemically reduced and therefore more energy dense. That would remove one of the big downsides of biomass: ethanol only takes you two thirds as far as gasoline and therefore you have to go to gas stations more often if you burn ethanol.

Agrawal is essentially arguing to use electricity from wind, solar, or nuclear to make liquid fuels.

When conventional methods are used to convert biomass or coal to liquid fuels, 60 percent to 70 percent of the carbon atoms in the starting materials are lost in the process as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, whereas no carbon atoms would be lost using H2CAR, Agrawal said.

"This waste is due to the fact that you are using energy contained in the biomass to drive the entire process," he said. "I'm saying, treat biomass predominantly as a supplier of carbon atoms, not as an energy source."

The use of wind or solar photovoltaics to make liquid fuels rather than to supply electricity to home users would remove a big downside of wind and solar: they do not supply electric power reliably when people want it. On a short winter day with little wind photovoltaics and wind turbines aren't much use.

The use of nuclear electric to make liquid fuels would make nuclear more attractive as well. Nuclear power plants could operate liquid fuel generation plants at night and during the winter when demand for electricity is lower. That would enable nuclear plants to supply more electricity for afternoon peak electric demand periods since the nuclear plants would still have big customers for their electricity to make liquid fuels at night and during the winter.

If this process can be made cost effective (and that's a big if) then it would allow us to keep using high energy density liquid hydrocarbons for transportation while ending our dependence on oil and drastically reducing the net emissions of greenhouse gases.

The other alternative is batteries. This approach combined with pluggable hybrids and a total phase-out of coal in favor of nuclear, solar, and wind for all electricity would together eliminate the need for fossil fuels for transportation and electricity.

By Randall Parker    2007 March 14 11:01 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2006 November 26 Sunday
BMW 7 Series Hydrogen Vehicle Reviewed

BMW has developed a prototype 7 series car which runs on either hydrogen or gasoline. Read the linked review from MIT's Technology Review below for the details. The company plans to produce only 100 of these cars and lease them out to selected customers in the United States and Europe for several months at a time in order to get feedback and experience with hydrogen. The engine is a standard internal combustion design rather than a fuel cell because BMW couldn't find a fuel cell that could deliver the power and perform with the reliability needed in a production automobile. BMW's engineers had to compromise on both the gasoline and hydrogen performance of this engine in order to build an engine that'll run on both gasoline and hydrogen. But a couple of other characteristics of the vehicle stood out to me in the reivew. First off, if hydrogen leaks past the pistons into the crankcase it can blow up the engine.

Still, the company has gone further than any other in regulating the combustion of hydrogen. Just three years ago, the engine would run for several minutes and then break down with a big bang, says Melcher. "Boom. We love explosions!" he laughs. It turned out that a little bit of hydrogen was leaking past the pistons, mixing with oil, and exploding. That problem was solved by modifying the piston rings to prevent leakage. Engine control systems also had to be modified to deal with the far faster combustion of hydrogen--it burns 100 times faster than gasoline--and to regulate it in such a way as to keep emissions of combustion byproducts like nitrogen oxides to trace levels.

This isn't a problem on a fairly new engine. But after, say, 100,000 miles the rings and cylinders get worn. Hydrogen (H2) is a much smaller molecule than the hydrocarbons in gasoline. So the wearing on a cylinder and rings will start letting hydrogen through much sooner than they will start letting gasoline through. So I expect a failure mode of exploding engines. Am I wrong to expect this?

But the more fundamental flaw is due to the need to use liquified hydrogen in order to make it sufficiently energy dense. Hydrogen must be kept very cold to stay in a liquid state. This car's hydrogen storage container is extremely well insulated. But a half tank of hydrogen will still heat up fast enough to evaporate away in just 9 days. That just seems unacceptable to me.

As the hydrogen becomes gaseous, pressure rises inside the tank. At a certain point, a pressure-relief valve opens. A little bit of hydrogen gas vents out (about 10 to 12 grams per hour), goes through a catalytic converter to turn it into water, and exits the car through a special pipe in the rear bumper. If you aren't driving the car, it takes only 17 hours before this venting starts. A half-full tank will almost completely "boil off" in nine days.

Granted, once you've lost your hydrogen you can still operate the vehicle with gasoline from the gasoline tank. But the need for a back-up gasoline tank uses up more space, makes the vehicle heavier, and the lost hydrogen costs money.

Hydrogen has 3 big problems as an automotive power source, the first two of which are illustrated in this car:

  • Hydrogen fuel cells are not ready yet. Hydrogen internal combustion engines have downsides as substitutes.
  • Liquid hydrogen storage does not make the grade due to losses from evaporation while sitting and the need to use energy while operating to cool the remaining hydrogen back down again. Solid room temperature hydrogen storage is needed. But the physicists and materials scientists still haven't solved that problem.
  • Hydrogen is currently made using hydrocarbons and the net result is probably less energy efficient than just burning the hydrocarbons directly.

I do not know when the fuel cell and solid hydrogen storage problems will be solved. But my suspicion is that the battery problem for electric cars will be solved first.

Then there is the problem of how to produce hydrogen in ways that do not pollute. First off, if the environmental goal is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions (a more expensive goal to reach than the reduction of conventional pollutant emissions) then production of hydrogen from hydrocarbon fossil fuels makes it a lot easier to capture the carbon. The hydrogen production is done in large centralized facilities where the weight and durability of carbon capture equipment does not pose the problems that carbon capture would in cars.

Also, hydrogen could be produced from nuclear reactors designed to optimize the production of hydrogen. That might turn out to be the cheapest and environmentally friendliest way to produce hydrogen.

Hydrogen is not the only way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. Better batteries to enable the electric car is another approach. Also, biomass for liquid fuels is still another and more immediately adoptable approach.

Currently biomass is the big growth area. The high costs of fossil fuels seem likely to continue the shift toward biomass. But the increasing popularity of hybrid cars has increased the incentive for companies to develop better batteries. So I'm expecting battery technology to make some big advances in the next several years. Both biomass and batteries can advance by smaller steps driven by demand for existing products. Hydrogen has to make big strides on a multitude of problems without a current market to help fund its advance. So I'm much less optimistic about hydrogen in the short to medium term.

By Randall Parker    2006 November 26 01:28 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2006 October 27 Friday
Ethanol Fuel Cooling Allows 30% Fuel Efficiency Increase

MIT researchers and some collaborators at Ford Motor Company have found a way to boost conventional gasoline engine fuel efficiency 20% to 30%.

MIT researchers are developing a half-sized gasoline engine that performs like its full-sized cousin but offers fuel efficiency approaching that of today's hybrid engine system--at a far lower cost. The key? Carefully controlled injection of ethanol, an increasingly common biofuel, directly into the engine's cylinders when there's a hill to be climbed or a car to be passed.

These small engines could be on the market within five years, and consumers should find them appealing: By spending about an extra $1,000 and adding a couple of gallons of ethanol every few months, they will have an engine that can go as much as 30 percent farther on a gallon of fuel than an ordinary engine. Moreover, the little engine provides high performance without the use of high-octane gasoline.

Given the short fuel-savings payback time--three to four years at present U.S. gasoline prices--the researchers believe that their "ethanol-boosted" turbo engine has real potential for widespread adoption. The impact on U.S. oil consumption could be substantial. For example, if all of today's cars had the new engine, current U.S. gasoline consumption of 140 billion gallons per year would drop by more than 30 billion gallons.

The $1000 per year cost beats the heck out of the thousands of dollars extra for a hybrid design. The fuel efficiency becomes comparable with diesel (better?) and without the need to switch to diesel and deal with diesel's emissions problems.

A car company that can beat others to market with this technology would gain a huge competitive advantage.

"There's a tremendous need to find low-cost, practical ways to make engines more efficient and clean and to find cost-effective ways to use more biofuels in place of oil," said Daniel R. Cohn, senior research scientist in the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment and the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).

How does it work? The researchers inject ethanol to cool the fuel and thereby prevent premature firing (i.e. knock).

For decades, efforts to improve the efficiency of the conventional spark-ignition (SI) gasoline engine have been stymied by a barrier known as the "knock limit": Changes that would have made the engine far more efficient would have caused knock--spontaneous combustion that makes a metallic clanging noise and can damage the engine. Now, using sophisticated computer simulations, the MIT team has found a way to use ethanol to suppress spontaneous combustion and essentially remove the knock limit.

When the engine is working hard and knock is likely, a small amount of ethanol is directly injected into the hot combustion chamber, where it quickly vaporizes, cooling the fuel and air and making spontaneous combustion much less likely. According to a simulation developed by Bromberg, with ethanol injection the engine won't knock even when the pressure inside the cylinder is three times higher than that in a conventional SI engine. Engine tests by collaborators at Ford Motor Company produced results consistent with the model's predictions.

Elimination of knock enables 3 optimizations of engine design.

With knock essentially eliminated, the researchers could incorporate into their engine two operating techniques that help make today's diesel engines so efficient, but without causing the high emissions levels of diesels. First, the engine is highly turbocharged. In other words, the incoming air is compressed so that more air and fuel can fit inside the cylinder. The result: An engine of a given size can produce more power.

Second, the engine can be designed with a higher compression ratio (the ratio of the volume of the combustion chamber after compression to the volume before). The burning gases expand more in each cycle, getting more energy out of a given amount of fuel.

The combined changes could increase the power of a given-sized engine by more than a factor of two. But rather than seeking higher vehicle performance--the trend in recent decades--the researchers shrank their engine to half the size. Using well-established computer models, they determined that their small, turbocharged, high-compression-ratio engine will provide the same peak power as the full-scale SI version but will be 20 to 30 percent more fuel efficient.

The favorable economics would undermine demand for hybrids.

The ethanol-boosted engine could provide efficiency gains comparable to those of today's hybrid engine system for less extra investment--about $1,000 as opposed to $3,000 to $5,000. The engine should use less than five gallons of ethanol for every 100 gallons of gasoline, so drivers would need to fill their ethanol tank only every one to three months.

Hybrids still have an important advantage: They can capture energy lost in braking by use of regenerative braking. Hybrids also are an important step down the road toward pure electric cars. Hybrids increase the demand for better batteries and therefore are spurring a great deal of research and development to produce cheaper, longer lasting, lighter, and higher energy storage capacity batteries.

By Randall Parker    2006 October 27 05:13 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2006 August 29 Tuesday
Diesel Engines To Grow In Popularity?

GM has announced a new V8 turbo diesel that will fit in cars which currently use the GM small block V8 but will be 25% more fuel efficient. The engine is quiet enough to sound like a conventional gasoline engine and will meet all state and federal diesel engine emissions standards in 2010. The fuel efficient diesel will hit the market in 2010 or 2011.

Details are scanty, because GM is waiting to receive patents on some of the engine's technology, but Freese promised it would meet emissions requirements in all 50 states when it goes on sale. That's a significant accomplishment. The United States will have the most stringent limits on diesel emissions in the world in 2010.

GM is billing this engine as a premium diesel for use in Cadillacs and SUVs where the higher price for the diesel can be more easily justified.

• GM promises the engine will use 25% less fuel than a comparable gasoline V8.

• GM developed the engine to match or beat the world's finest diesels on power, fuel economy, sound and vibration. That makes it what Freese calls a premium diesel, like the ones that power most luxury sedans like the Audi A8, BMW 7-series and Mercedes-Benz S-class in Germany.

Diesels have not reached as wide a market in the US as they do in Europe in large part because diesels cost $1000 to $2000 more and the cheaper fuel in the US reduces the pay back for the more expensive diesel engines. Also, the diesels have been louder and smellier and their emissions have kept them out of cars in some states (most notably California). The higher cost of oil combined with technological innovations that lower noise and emissions might bring about a surge in diesel usage in the United States.

A reduction of allowed sulfur content of diesel fuels is making possible the use of emissions control technologies that reduce particulates emissions.

With these changes come a strengthened block and upgraded main bearings. All of these improvements will, however, require the use of new low-sulphur diesel, which is slated to hit fuel stations this fall. The new diesel is key to the particulate filters success, as it only contains 15 parts per million of sulphur, down from the current 550 parts per million. If our current diesel fuel were used, the engine wouldnt last long.

Quiet, low emissions, and high performance diesels for passenger cars will compete against gasoline hybrids as more fuel efficient alternatives to conventional gasoline cars. The most efficient liquid fuel burning car would use both a diesel engine and hybrid technology. But that pairing would combine the higher costs of diesels with the higher costs of hybrids. So I'm not sure we'll ever see hybrid diesel passenger cars in mass production.

Will the cost of hybrids fall far enough that by 2010 even very clean and quiet diesels won't be able to compete? If battery density increases enough then pluggable hybrids (i.e. hybrids that you can plug into an electric cord to recharge their batteries) might outcompete diesels due to the lower cost of electricity as a way to power an automobile.

Another competitive pressure for diesels is ethanol. Ethanol has a lower production cost than diesel fuel. If the production of ethanol scales up high enough then by 2010 ethanol (even adjusted for its lower energy density per gallon) might be so much cheaper than diesel fuel that a hybrid or conventional car powered by ethanol might cost less per mile traveled than a car powered by diesel.

By Randall Parker    2006 August 29 11:32 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
Hybrids Cars By Years To Pay Back Added Costs

Assuming $3 per gallon gasoline, 15,000 miles driven per year, and applicable hefty tax credits for buying a hybrid an Edmunds study finds that the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape Hybrid are the only hybrids whose higher costs pay off within 3 years.

Edmunds.com's study indicates that the higher purchase price is completely recovered for the Ford Escape Hybrid and Toyota Prius within three years of ownership, while buyers of the Honda Civic Hybrid, Saturn VUE Green Line and Toyota Camry Hybrid reach break-even within six years of ownership, in each case assuming the vehicle is driven 15,000 miles per year.

The Prius does not have an exact non-hybrid equivalent to compare to. The Prius pays off within 2.1 years when compared against the Toyota Camry LE. But when compared against the Toyota Corolla LE it takes 13.6 years to pay off.

The rest of the hybrids take over 5 years to pay off. Some have abysmally long pay-off periods. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited takes 15.5 years to pay off.

Full tax credits are only provided to consumers until shortly after each manufacturer has sold 60,000 hybrids. After that threshold is reached, the tax credit gets cut in half. For Toyota and Lexus buyers, that threshold has been reached — so anyone who buys a Toyota or Lexus hybrid after September 30, 2006 will only qualify for half the tax credit. The credit for these models will drop to 25% in April 2007 and then to zero in October 2007.

"If you're in the market for a hybrid, right now is the best time to buy," said Joanne Helperin, Senior Editor of Edmunds.com's Fuel Economy Guide. "It will take buyers much longer to break-even if their tax credit is halved."

These results do not represent the triumph of the free market. Even the impressive Prius pay-off period is due to a few thousand dollar US federal tax credit. (see this article for a summary table of results)

But beware: The numbers here include the Prius' gigantic $3,150 federal tax credit, which will drop to $1,575 in October, because the number of total Toyota hybrids sold has reached a 60,000-unit-per-manufacturer cap.

Commuters who put an average 25,000 miles on their vehicle will find their break-even times dramatically shortened (see chart below); those who drive significantly less than 15,000 miles per year will find it takes even longer to reach the break-even point.

I'm guessing the big hybrids have longer pay-off periods in part because their tax credits do not scale up as their prices do. So the tax credits end up representing a smaller percentage of total purchase price.

For low yearly mileage drivers (e.g. FuturePundit) hybrids are not worth the money. But if you are stuck driving long miles and can buy one before the tax credits decline the best hybrids can pay off in a few years. They'll pay off even faster if the price of gasoline goes even higher.

What is the biggest value of the current crop of hybrids? It is not that they save fuel. They are too few in number to have much impact on total fuel demand. It is not that they reduce air pollution. Again, they are too few in number to reduce the total amount of air pollution by all that much. Also it is not that they allow some people to feel morally superior or more better about their effect on the environment. No, none of those things. The biggest value of the current crop of hybrids is that they provide incentives for battery makers and entrepreneurs to create better hybrids.

By Randall Parker    2006 August 29 06:26 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2006 July 20 Thursday
Tesla Roadster 100% Electric Goes 250 Miles Per Charge

Telsa Motors, located south of San Francisco and funded by Silicon Valley's famous Sand Hill Road Menlo Park venture capitalists, claims their new all electric Roadster sports car will go 0 to 60 mph in about 4 seconds and costs just 1 cent per mile in electricity to operate. For someone who drives 15,000 miles per year that'd cost $150. It goes on sale in California in the summer of 2007 and in Chicago in fall 2007 with other locales coming later. This is not a car for the masses. The Tesla Roadster wll cost from $85,000 to $100,000.

Tesla Motors, a four-year-old Silicon Valley start-up, has raised $60 million and spent about $25 million developing a two-seat roadster that will sell for $85,000 to $100,000.

It goes from zero to 60 miles per hour, or 96 kilometers per hour, in four seconds - "wicked fast," said the company's chairman, Martin Eberhard. Because it is an electric, the driver does not have to shift into second gear until the car hits 65 miles an hour, he said.

The long charge time makes it unsuitable for long trips.

The car comes with a kit that connects to a 240-volt circuit and fully charges dead batteries in three and a half hours. It can also be charged on a normal 110-volt household outlet, though that takes longer.

A house with only 110 volts would need an electrical upgrade for an outlet which can provide 240 volts. Still, even at 110 volts a car could easily charge overnight. You could even take it on a 200 mile trip if you were going to stay overnight somewhere you could charge it up.

The penny per mile cost is based on an cheap night rate that isn't available to most who have regular home electric service. Tesla CEO Martin Eberhard says that at 13 cents per kwh the car costs 2.6 cents per mile. He's in California and therefore pays a lot more than the average in America for electricity.

Tesla's Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list claims the batteries will last for 500 recharging cycles. In theory that gives 100,000 miles before replacement. In practice you might get less since most people aren't going to want to run their batteries all the way down and therefore will charge up less than every 250 miles.

Lotus Design in Britain will build the cars.

Just before Christmas 2004, 30 employees and board members from Tesla came to Eberhard's Woodside, California, house to decide what the car would look like. He had commissioned four top automotive designers to draw sketches, which he taped to his living room wall. He gave everyone three red stickers and three green and told them to flag what they liked and didn't like. By the time the eggnog was gone, the green dots had coalesced around a drawing by Barney Hatt of Lotus Design in England. This is how a Silicon Valley startup does car design.

Lotus had manufactured cars for GM, in addition to its own lightweight aluminum sports car, the Elise. So Eberhard contracted the company to assemble his new vehicle, codenamed Dark Star (after a classic low-budget sci-fi movie). The electric motor would be built in Taiwan, and engineering and R&D would be conducted in a San Carlos warehouse.

Part of the choice to build a sports car was probably driven by the idea that upper class people will pay a lot of money and accept some trade-offs to buy a eco-friendly high performance sports car. But another reason they went with the sports car approach is that they didn't have to provide much room for passengers or luggage. So more space could be given over to batteries. In other words, a 250 mile range electric sports car does not demonstrate that more common sedans and SUVs could get built to operate with that range.

What I'd like to know: First, how much do the batteries cost? Second, how quickly will the battery costs drop? Third, how quickly will the energy density go up for lithium-based batteries?

While this car is interesting and will provide a lot of fun for some highly affluent people the hybrid vehicles, because they generate mass production volumes, are much more important for driving development of better batteries. Battery makers and venture capitalists are funding battery research in order to chase after really big purchase orders from Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, and Nissan. Hybrids are the path we will take to eventually reach all electric high production volume cars.

I would go even further: Hybrids are less important for the fossil fuel they save in the short run than they are for the battery technology innovations they will spark. Those innovations will enable mass produced pure electric cars. More efficient ways to burn gasoline just lead to bigger and faster cars with little net gain in fuel efficiency. Pure electric vehicles will enable the use of non-fossil fuels for transportation. That will be the greatest legacy of hybrids.

By Randall Parker    2006 July 20 07:30 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (63)
2006 July 19 Wednesday
Car Fuel Efficiency Gains Used For Speed And Size

Technological gains that in theory could increase vehicle fuel efficiency instead get used to make cars bigger and faster at the same average level of fuel efficiency.

The Environmental Protection Agency said in its annual report, based on sales projections provided by automakers, that the estimated average fuel economy for 2006 vehicles was 21 miles per gallon, the same as 2005 models.

Since they are using sales projections they are weighting for number of units sold. High oil prices? Expensive gasoline? Yes, but faster acceleration is just so much fun.

Even as Toyota ramps up hybrids production it is ramping up bigger cars even faster for a net loss in fuel efficiency per mile travelled.

Honda Motor Co. had the highest fuel economy rating by manufacturer, 24.2 mpg, followed by Toyota Motor Corp., with a 23.8 mpg average. But both Japanese automakers saw their averages drop from the previous year as they placed more of an emphasis on larger vehicles.

6 speed transmissions, engines that turn off some cylinders while cruising, hybrids, new lighter materials, and other innovations plus the big rise in oil prices were not enough to change the average fuel economy of new cars. Attempts to increase efficiency get undermined in at least 3 ways by consumers:

  • People choose bigger cars and SUVs.
  • People choose models that accelerate more rapidly.
  • People drive more miles.

Most of the increases in wealth due to productivity increases are going to those who already earn higher incomes. The gaps between the classes are widening. Upper class folks are less affected by higher gasoline prices. At the same time, they buy a disproportionate fraction of all new cars. So new car buying patterns haven't shifted as much in response to higher oil prices as you might expect. Lower class folks tend to buy used cars. So the fuel economy of used cars is lowered by the upper class folks who buy new cars.

Auto pricing changes also have reduced buyer responses to higher fuel costs. The auto makers have higher profit margins on larger vehicles. They've partially compensated for higher gasoline prices by lowering prices more on less efficient large vehicles. So the buyers effectively haven't seen as large an increase in total vehicle ownership costs as you might think if you look at gasoline price increases alone.

Fuel economy has changed little since 1992 even though automotive technology has advanced.

Since 1992, average real-world fuel economy has been relatively constant, ranging from 20.6 to 21.4 mpg. This 21.0 mpg value is five percent lower than the fleet-average fuel economy peak value of 22.1 mpg achieved in 1987-1988. For model year 2006, cars and light trucks are each projected to account for about 50 percent of vehicle sales. After two decades of steady growth, the light truck market share has been relatively stable for five years. New technologies have maintained fuel economy while supporting the heaviest and fastest new vehicle fleet since EPA began compiling data in 1975. Recent technology developments, such as hybrid-electric vehicles, clean diesel technology, improved transmission designs, and engines equipped with variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation, hold promise for stable or improving fuel economy in the future.

There's also a type of higher efficiency gasoline engine under development that uses compression for ignition like diesel does. The gasoline engines of this type do use spark at lower and higher engine speeds but not at mid range engine speeds.

Buyers have shifted from cars to heavier trucks.

Between 1975 and 2006, market share for new passenger cars and station wagons decreased by over 30 percent. For model year 2006, cars are estimated to average 24.6 mpg, vans 20.6 mpg, SUVs 18.5 mpg, and pickups 17.0 mpg. The increased market share of light trucks, which in recent years have averaged more than six mpg less than cars, accounted for much of the decline in fuel economy of the overall new light-duty vehicle fleet from the peak that occurred in 1987-88.

Customers use improved drive trains to allow them to get bigger faster vehicles at the same level of fuel efficiency per distance travelled.

Vehicle weight and performance are two of the most important engineering parameters that determine a vehicle’s fuel economy. All other factors being equal, higher vehicle weight (which can be a proxy for some vehicle utility attributes) and faster acceleration performance (e.g., lower 0 to 60 time), both decrease a vehicle’s fuel economy. Improved engine, transmission, and powertrain technologies continue to penetrate the new light-duty vehicle fleet. The trend has clearly been to apply these innovative technologies to accommodate increases in average new vehicle weight, power, and performance while maintaining a relatively constant level of fuel economy. This is reflected by heavier average vehicle weight, rising average horsepower, and faster average 0-to-60 mile-per-hour acceleration time. MY2006 light-duty vehicles are estimated, on average, to be the heaviest, fastest and most powerful vehicles than in any year since EPA began compiling such data.

The gap is closing between the more and less fuel efficient auto makers with most of the gap closing coming as a result of more rapid deterioration in fuel economy among the makers with higher average fuel efficiency.

For MY2006, the eight highest-selling marketing groups (that account for over 95 percent of all sales) fall into two fuel economy groupings: Honda, Toyota, Hyundai-Kia (HK), and Volkswagen all have estimated fuel economies of 23.5 to 24.2 mpg, while General Motors, Nissan, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler all have estimated fuel economies of 19.1 to 20.5 mpg.

Each of these marketing groups has lower average fuel economy today than in 1987. Since then, the differences between marketing group fuel economies have narrowed considerably, with the higher mpg marketing groups in 1987 (e.g., Hyundai-Kia, Honda, and Nissan) generally showing a larger fuel economy decrease than the lower mpg marketing groups (e.g., Ford and General Motors). Two marketing groups (Toyota and DaimlerChrysler) show a slight increase in average fuel economy since 1997. For MY2006, the six top-selling marketing groups all have truck shares in excess of 40 percent; only Hyundai-Kia and Volkswagen have a truck market share of less than 40 percent and the Hyundai-Kia truck share is increasing rapidly.

Clearly people have a strong preference for bigger and faster. Technological advances will eventually enable a big drop in the cost of hybrids and other fuel efficiency enhancing technologies. When that happens cars will get faster, bigger, and moderately more fuel efficient all at the same time. Plus, people will drive more. But the only way we can substantially reduce the use of fossil fuels in transportation is to develop ways to use non-fossil fuels for transportation.

To repeat: Fuel efficiency increases are not a panacea for reducing fossil fuel usage. Only the development of competitive non-fossil fuel energy sources can make a very big impact on fossil fuels consumption.

By Randall Parker    2006 July 19 11:03 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (25)
2006 May 19 Friday
MIT Team Sees Thermophotovoltaics As Car Power Source

Here's an unusual approach for generating electricty in a car: Imagine burning fuel to generate an extremely bright light so that the light can strike photodiodes to generate electricity for the various subsystems in cars that need electricity.

MIT researchers are trying to unleash the promise of an old idea by converting light into electricity more efficiently than ever before.

The research is applying new materials, new technologies and new ideas to radically improve an old concept -- thermophotovoltaic (TPV) conversion of light into electricity. Rather than using the engine to turn a generator or alternator in a car, for example, the new TPV system would burn a little fuel to create super-bright light. Efficient photo diodes (which are similar to solar cells) would then harvest the energy and send the electricity off to run the various lighting, electrical and electronic systems in the car.

Such a light-based system would not replace the car's engine. Instead it would supply enough electricity to run subsystems, consuming far less fuel than is needed to keep a heavy, multi-cylinder engine running, even at low speed. Also, the TPV system would have no moving parts; no cams, no bearings, no spinning shafts, so no energy would be spent just to keep an engine turning over, even at idle.

"What's new here is the opportunity for a much more effective energy system to be created using new semiconductor materials and the science of photonics," said Professor John Kassakian, director of the Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems (LEES), where the work was conducted. The idea is to create intense light, let it shine on new types of photo diodes to make electricity, and bounce any excess light back to the light source to help keep it glowing-hot. In theory, Kassakian said, efficiency could be as high as 40 percent or 50 percent.

Of course the "In theory" part means they haven't yet achieved such a high level of efficiency. But I'm surprised that burning fuels could be made to emit such a high percentage of their energy as photons to even make possible such a high efficiency for electric generation. If such a high level of efficiency could be achieved then it would have a lot of other practical uses. How about burning fuel to generate electricity for houses or commercial buildings? Or why not use the electricity to power the car rather than use an internal combustion engine?

By Randall Parker    2006 May 19 04:32 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2006 April 16 Sunday
Hybrid Cars Not Always More Fuel Efficient

Jamie Lincoln Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, argues in a New York Times article that for some hybrids are so large they are still big fat pigs.

Lately, right-minded people have been calling me and telling me they're thinking about buying the Lexus 400H, a new hybrid S.U.V. When I tell them that they'd get better mileage in some conventional S.U.V.'s, and even better mileage with a passenger car, they protest, "But it's a hybrid!" I remind them that the 21 miles per gallon I saw while driving the Lexus is not particularly brilliant, efficiency-wise — hybrid or not. Because the Lexus 400H is a relatively heavy car and because its electric motor is deployed to provide speed more than efficiency, it will never be a mileage champ.

Kitman points out that federal, state, and local proposals and enacted laws that give preferences to hybrids in tax rebates, high occupancy vehicle lane access, and other advantages are rewarding some drivers who buy big hybrids at the expense of those who buy much more fuel efficient smaller vehicles. Right he is.

Kitman also points out that for highway driving hybrids provide little or no benefit.

The car that started the hybrid craze, the Toyota Prius, is lauded for squeezing 40 or more miles out of a gallon of gas, and it really can. But only when it's being driven around town, where its electric motor does its best and most active work. On a cross-country excursion in a Prius, the staff of Automobile Magazine discovered mileage plummeted on the Interstate. In fact, the car's computer, which controls the engine and the motor, allowing them to run together or separately, was programmed to direct the Prius to spend most of its highway time running on gasoline because at higher speeds the batteries quickly get exhausted. Indeed, the gasoline engine worked so hard that we calculated we might have used less fuel on our journey if we had been driving Toyota's conventionally powered, similarly sized Corolla — which costs thousands less. For the owner who does the majority of her driving on the highway, the Prius's potential for fuel economy will never be realized and its price premium never recovered.

People who buy a Prius who do little driving aren't doing themselves any favors either. If you drive just a few thousand miles per year or mostly on the highway then you'd be better off spending the price premium of a Prius on solar hot water heating or photovoltaic panels. Or you could opt for better home insulation via a number of methods such as more fiberglass insulation material, caulking up leaks (which is a cheap thing to do), and dual pane or even triple pane argon windows. Or replace old appliances and your hot water heater with the most efficient models on the market.

Still, if people want to spend their money on a hybrid then as long as there is not a tax incentive for doing so then why not? Others spend their money on trips to Nepal or turning their small homes into McMansions or buying a large SUV and driving it cross country. A hybrid is just another way to conspicuously consume (and I just saw a Prius with a bumper sticker that said "Question Consumption!" - oh the irony). But if your goal is truly to reduce your fossil fuels energy consumption you ought to take a wider ranging look to find the most cost effective ways you might accomplish that.

One question which a reader has raised: How much energy does it take to make the Nickel Metal Hydride batteries used in hybrids? How long does it take for a hybrid to save enough energy to make back the cost of the batteries? Anyone know?

Similarly, a friend asks how much energy does it take to make solar photovoltaic panels and how long does it take for the panels to earn back the energy used to produce them and to produce the costs of shpping and installing them and their support equipment? Anyone know?

By Randall Parker    2006 April 16 11:45 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (24)
2006 March 08 Wednesday
Most Hybrid Cars Do Not Pay Back Higher Costs In 5 Years

Most hybrids do not pay.

Consumer Reports is revising the cost analysis in a story that examines the ownership costs and financial benefits associated with hybrid cars. The story, titled "The dollars and sense of hybrids," appears in the Annual April Auto issue of CR, on newsstands now.

Consumer Reports is correcting a calculation error involving the depreciation for the six hybrid vehicles that, in the story, were compared to their conventionally powered counterparts. The error led the publication to overstate how much extra money the hybrids will cost owners during the first five years.

The Prius and Civic hybrids produce a net savings of a few hundred dollars in 5 years but only with US federal tax credits.

CR's revised analysis shows that two of the six hybrids recovered their price premium in the first five years and 75,000 miles of ownership. The Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid provide a savings of about $400 and $300, respectively, when compared with their all-gas counterparts - as long as federal tax credits apply. But extra ownership costs during the first five years and 75,000 miles for the other four hybrids ranged from an estimated $1,900 to $5,500, compared to similar all-gas models.

I also suspect that Toyota is selling the Prius with a lower profit margin in order to build good will with governments and the public.

People who buy a hybrid in the United States now do so to make a statement or to satisfy themselves that they are saving energy. By a strict economic calculation hybrids would not make sense without a higher tax on gasoline such as is the case in Europe.

Toyota executives are blunt about the real allure of hybrids.

In Japan and Europe, the extra costs were approximately balanced by fuel savings.


“When you just use the argument of fuel efficiency, the purchase of a hybrid car is not justified. But this car has other interests, for instance environmental protection.”

Another Toyota executive was more blunt in his analysis: “Buying a hybrid is about political correctness, it is not about the money,” he said.

Toyota does not expect to get hybrid costs down to a level that cost justifies them for the American market until 2010. They must be expecting substantial advances in battery technology over the next 5 years.

Edmunds also found net costs from owning hybrids in the first 5 years.

By Randall Parker    2006 March 08 09:53 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (45)
Falling Carbon Fiber Costs May Be Key To High Car Fuel Efficiency

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is pursuing technological advances that will allow lightweight carbon fiber to replace most of the steel in cars.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., March 6, 2006 — Highways of tomorrow might be filled with lighter, cleaner and more fuel-efficient automobiles made in part from recycled plastics, lignin from wood pulp and cellulose.

First, however, researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, working as part of a consortium with Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, must figure out how to lower the cost of carbon fiber composites. If they are successful in developing high-volume renewable sources of carbon fiber feedstocks, ORNL's Bob Norris believes they will be on the road to success.

"Whereas today the cost to purchase commercial-grade carbon fiber is between $8 and $10 per pound, the goal is to reduce that figure to between $3 and $5 per pound," said Norris, leader of ORNL's Polymer Matrix Composites Group. At that price, it would become feasible for automakers to use more than a million tons of composites - approximately 300 pounds of composites per vehicle - annually in the manufacturing of cars.

That 300 lb of composites would replace 1500 lb of steel for a net 1200 lb weight savings.

The big advantage of carbon fiber is that it is one-fifth the weight of steel yet just as strong and stiff, which makes it ideal for structural or semi-structural components in automobiles. Replacing half the ferrous metals in current automobiles could reduce a vehicle's weight by 60 percent and fuel consumption by 30 percent, according to some studies. The resulting gains in fuel efficiency, made in part because smaller engines could be used with lighter vehicles, would also reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions by 10 percent to 20 percent.

All of this would come with no sacrifice in safety, as preliminary results of computer crash simulations show that cars made from carbon fiber would be just as safe - perhaps even safer - than today's automobiles. Today's Formula 1 racers are required by mandate to be made from carbon fiber to meet safety requirements.

Combine the carbon fibers with next generation diesel electric hybrids and lithium-based batteries and the fuel savings would be even more dramatic. Doubling fuel efficiency seems plausible.

Here's a message bound to displease environmental puritans who think we should get right with the environment by making big sacrifices in our profligate and wasteful high energy lifestyles. In a recent speech at MIT Amory Lovins argued that carbon fibers could make even SUVs fuel efficient.

Even the quintessential gas-guzzling SUV could become energy-efficient if it weighed a lot less and was run by a hybrid engine or a fuel cell, according to noted author and environmentalist Amory Lovins, who spoke Monday, Feb. 27, to a packed crowd in Wong Auditorium.

Lovins is the founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit organization that "fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources to make the world secure, just, prosperous and life-sustaining."

By increasing efficiency and substituting fuels such as biodiesel and natural gas saved through increased efficiency, the United States can be oil-free by 2040, said Lovins, featured speaker at the third colloquium sponsored by the Energy Research Council (ERC) and the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment (LFEE).

In a talk that shared the title "Winning the Oil Endgame" with his 29th book, Lovins presented a picture of an energy future in which more American cars will be manufactured that are competitive in the world marketplace, emissions will be drastically reduced, the economy will improve and the United States will be freed from its dependence on Middle East oil -- all with no radical shifts in government policy, taxes or regulations.

The catch? Cars, trucks and planes, which consume 70 percent of the U.S. oil supply, will virtually all have to be made of lightweight carbon composites or new ultralight steel.

Toward that end Lovins promotes the Hypercar concept.

I prefer solving problems through advances in technology to bring us even higher living standards over heeding calls for sacrifices and suffering to atone for our sins. So I'm adding acceleration of carbon fiber materials research to the list of accelerated development efforts I'd like to see in energy-related technologies. I'd also like to see lighter weight and higher energy density batteries, cheaper and higher conversion efficiency photovoltaics, cheaper and less waste generating nuclear reactor designs, and advances in building insulation technologies to make it cheaper to design extremely efficient buildings.

By Randall Parker    2006 March 08 09:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (16)
2006 January 31 Tuesday
Diesel Electric Hybrid Prototype Boasts High Fuel Efficiency

A compact diesel hybrid could get nearly 70 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving.

PSA Peugeot Citroen unveiled Tuesday two prototype cars featuring its new diesel-electric hybrid powertrain, the Peugeot 307 and the Citroen C4 Hybride HDi.


The cars achieve 25 percent better fuel economy than a comparable gasoline-eletric hybrid - 3.4 liters of diesel fuel per 100 km (roughly 69 mpg combined city/highway).

The problem is that it costs too much.

"Our objective is to reduce the cost by a factor 2.5 to 3 so that the difference a consumer has to pay for a diesel hybrid is the same as that between a petrol and a diesel car -- because the gain in fuel economies and emission reduction is the same," CEO Jean-Martin Folz told reporters.

The cost difference between the demonstration vehicles and a conventional diesel model is about $9,700, or about 8,000 euros at current exchange rates, now and has to be cut to $1,800 to $2,400 (1,500 to 2,000 euros).

Cost is the simple reason why more hybrid models aren't for sale already. A segment of the market will pay for a Prius as a lifestyle choice. But most people aren't going to make as big of a sacrifice for fuel efficiency. The payback takes too many miles.

The previous article says Ford, Toyota, and DaimlerChrysler are all pursuing diesel hybrid development for larger cars.

Half the cars sold in Europe now come with diesel engines.

High-tech diesel engines (HDi) have grown steadily more popular in Europe since the late 1990s. One out of every two passenger cars bought is now equipped with a diesel engine, compared with one out of four in 1998. In some countries, including France, the percentage of diesel cars reached 70% in 2005. This ongoing growth shows that there is strong consumer demand for vehicles that are both affordable and offer low fuel consumption without compromising driving comfort.

By contrast, emissions regulations have kept most diesel car models out of California and New England as well as New England states have increasingly patterned their emissions regulations after California. Though newer diesel technology (and if memory serves, changes in diesel fuel formulations) might allow diesels to meet emissions regulations in some of the tougher US states.

By Randall Parker    2006 January 31 10:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (25)
2005 May 20 Friday
Growth Rate For Electric Hybrid Vehicle Market Debated

An article in the Christian Science Monitor examines a variety of scenarios for the growth of hybrid vehicle sales. The most optimistic scenario has non-hybrids as the exception by 2015.

For example: If consumers keep snapping up hybrids and automakers begin to integrate the technology throughout their product lines - including pickup trucks - then hybrids might quickly reach 20 percent of new vehicle sales by 2010 and 80 percent by 2015, according to another Booz Allen Hamilton report. That's the most optimistic of three scenarios the management consulting firm laid out. In the "high adoption" scenario, hybrids would save 2 million barrels of gasoline a day by 2015; in the "medium adoption" scenario, 800,000 barrels of gasoline.

The Department of Energy offers a less optimistic projection for the rate of growth of hybrids. But Walter McManus, an economist and Director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, expects big savings in oil by 2010.

But with gasoline use increasing 1.7 percent a year through 2025, hybrids' impact on oil consumption will be small, according to the latest outlook by the US Department of Energy. It predicts only 1.1 million hybrids will be sold in 2025. Even in the most optimistic case, assuming rapid adoption of hybrid and other car technologies, the US would still chop only 172 million barrels of oil a year by 2025 - about 2.5 percent of expected oil imports that year. On the other side, Mr. McManus predicts more hybrids will be sold in 2010 than the DOE's 2025 estimate.

However, McManus expects Americans to take advantage of efficient cars by driving more.

McManus has a blog Walter's Brain on Sustainable Mobility on the Hybrid Cars web site. There he discusses in greater detail future scenarios for different levels average vehicle fuel efficiency.

"Status Quo Forever" assumes no further improvement in light vehicle fleet fuel economy (so it stays at 20mpg), and a 2% per year increase in the real price of gasoline. This scenario also assumes that hybrids fizzle and stop being built. The rising price of fuel limits the growth of vehicle miles traveled from population and income growth. By 2030 we would be consuming 73% more fuel than in 2004.

"Hybrids (30mpg)" assumes very aggressive growth in hybrids. It makes the same assumption about rising fuel prices. The average hybrid is assumed to achieve 30 mpg, and hybrids are assumed to be available across all segments. By 2015 this scenario assumes hybrids are 50% of new vehicle sales, and by 2030 that they are 100%.

The figure shows that by 2030 there would be significant savings (25%) of fuel compared to "Status Quo Forever," but fuel consumption would nevertheless rise compared to today, but by only 30%. The annual savings would not pass 10% and hybrids would not be more than 50% of all vehicles on the road until 2028.

McManus claims that only 30% of a reduction of fuel consumed per mile becomes a reduction in fuel consumed.

THE 10% INCREASE IN FUEL ECONOMY WOULD RESULT IN ONLY A 3% DECREASE IN GALLONS OF FUEL CONSUMED. Drivers would collectively take most (70%) of the increase in fuel economy in the form of more driving. This is called the "rebound effect" by researchers.

There is some practical limit on how far the "rebound effect" would extend in part because people don't want to spend their entire lives on roads. But more efficient powertrains also enable consumers to move up to driving larger vehicles.

The larger longer term impact of hybrids will come not from greater fuel efficency but rather from a shift toward using electric power outlets to recharge vehicle batteries. The move to hybrids will create such a large demand for lighter weight, higher energy capacity, and longer lasting batteries that the development of battery technology will accelerate. This acceleration of advances in battery technology will usher in the use electric generation plants (whether nuclear, coal, wind, or solar photovoltaics) as sources of energy for transportation.

That electric powered transportation future has already begun. Some Toyota Prius owners already started converting their Priuses to pluggable hybrids that they can recharge at home. Pluggable hybrids lead us down a road away from oil. While oil demand will continue to rise for some years yet to come we are now in the beginning of a shift away from liquid hydrocarbons and toward other sources of energy for transportation. The rapidity of that shift depends on the rate of advance of battery technology. Anyone wishing to accelerate the phase out of oil should support accelerated battery research and development efforts.

Update: McManus corrects his earlier calculation and claims a rebound effect of only 30% of the increase in fuel economy.

Using 2002 as the base again, a 10% increase in MPG would reduce fuel consumption by 7%, rather than the 3% suggested by the crude model.

I stand corrected. The rebound effect would consume 30 percent of the improvements in fuel economy, rather than the 70 percent I claimed in my earlier post.

So most of the increase in fuel efficiency would translate into reduced demand for gasoline. Note, however, that there is an increase in yearly demand due to population growth. The United States population is growing by almost 1% per year.

By Randall Parker    2005 May 20 08:26 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (66)
2004 June 24 Thursday
Cars More Energy Efficient Than Trains?

The energy efficiency advantage of trains is not clear cut.

The Lancaster University research found that if you are journeying from Edinburgh to London by standard Intercity train with all the seats taken, you will be using slightly more fuel per passenger - about 11 litres of fuel per passenger compared to about ten litres - than you would if you made the same journey by car, with all the seats occupied.

By using more fuel, you are causing more damage to the environment through emissions not to mention through using up more of the planet’s natural resources.

And if you choose to travel on one of the soon-to-be-launched higher speed trains, you would be using slightly more fuel than a plane - about 22 litres of fuel per passenger compared to about 20 litres - and more than twice as much fuel per head than the car, at ten litres.

Of course the average train over that particular journey probably has a higher load factor than the average car travelling between that same pair of cities.

Regulations and higher speeds are making British trains less fuel efficient. Roger Ford, of Modern Railways magazine, provides the awful truth to environmentalists.

The introduction of crumple zones, disabled lavatories and seating rules for trains travelling over 100mph had added weight and reduced capacity.

"I know this will generate howls of protest, but at present a family of four going by car is about as environmentally friendly as you can get."

Of course the argument can be made that the average car on a long trip does not have most of its seats occupied. But at what percent occupancy does the average long range train in America, Britain, or Europe operate at? I've ridden across the United States on an Amtrak train that was at maybe 5% or 10% occupancy. Heck, that is a lower occupancy rate than a car can manage. One would need a 10 seat vehicle to get down to 10% occupancy with just a driver and a 20 seat vehicle to get to 5% occupancy with only the driver in the vehicle. Still, in Europe the train load factors are probably higher than the car load factors on average. But if you are going to load up a whole family to go tripping and you have concerns about the environment the good news is that you don't have to feel any worse for taking the car.

The UK Daily Telegraph's editors say take a car, save the planet.

May we make a modest suggestion? "Save the planet. Jump into your car."

However, there is still a reason to take the train: the death rate per hundred miles travelled is probably much lower. Plus, you can get up and walk around. Plus, there are some train routes that go through some breathtaking scenery where there are no roads. I'm told the Chicago to San Francisco Amtrak goes through some such scenery in the Rockies and it is on my list of trips to take.

By Randall Parker    2004 June 24 04:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (16)
2003 August 05 Tuesday
Compressed Air Hybrid Car Could Increase Fuel Efficiency

UCLA researchers have developed a method to add a compressed air energy storage system to cars for a low cost and low weight increase.

Air hybrid cars could bring big fuel savings for city drivers, according to a recent study released by UCLA engineers. Experiments based on modeling and simulations showed that the air hybrid engine improved fuel efficiency by 64 percent in city driving and 12 percent in highway driving. The study also suggested that by adopting the air hybrid approach, carmakers could avoid some of the manufacturing costs associated with the more common electric hybrid design.

Tsu-Chin Tsao, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and graduate student Chun Tai have been collaborating with engineers at Ford Motor Co. and consultant Michael M. Schechter for more than a year on an air hybrid vehicle design that uses a camless valvetrain. Tai presented the team's findings at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in March.

Like its cousin the electric hybrid, air hybrid vehicles are being explored as a more fuel-efficient means of traveling the nation's roads, especially in urban areas, where stop-and-go traffic leads to a wasteful use of gas. During a typical day of city driving, fuel energy used to accelerate the vehicle is partially wasted during deceleration, when kinetic energy is converted into heat in the friction brakes.

Fuel economy could be greatly improved, say researchers, if that braking energy could be captured, stored and later used to help the vehicle speed up, for instance.

To make the air hybrid design work, Tsao introduced a few clever modifications to a traditional 2.5 liter V6 engine, including a valve design that allows the engine to not only burn fuel more efficiently, but to compress and expand air captured during braking as well. When it is compressed, air can store energy that is neither toxic nor explosive. Once the air is expanded, the burst of energy that is released can be used to help accelerate the car.

The concept is closely tied to that of electric hybrid vehicles, which are becoming an increasingly well-known alternative to traditional automobiles and have already proven capable of reusing braking energy. While still fueled by gasoline, the electric hybrid vehicle's engine and transmission combination is augmented by an energy conversion and storage system housed in a black box under the car's hood. This collection of sophisticated electronic components captures brake energy, stores it as electricity and then releases it when it is needed.

The additional hardware required to make it work includes a battery and a supplemental electric motor, which adds weight to the car and drives up costs. Manufacturers are forced to reduce weight in other ways.

"Automobile manufacturers are turning to more expensive lightweight materials like aluminum to compensate for the added weight involved with the electric hybrid approach," Tsao said. "With an air hybrid you don't have to worry about that."

Thanks to Tsao's innovative valve design, the air hybrid can achieve similar fuel efficiencies but needs only an air storage unit weighing no more than 30 kilograms.

"The air hybrid does not require a second propulsion system," Tsao said. "This approach allows for significant improvements in fuel economy without the added complexity of the electric hybrid model."

The UCLA researchers avoid the need for an additional motor by introducing greater functionality into the engine's valve system. During conventional combustion engine operation, the camshaft causes the intake and exhaust valves to open and close in a synchronized fashion to let in air and fuel and to let out exhaust. The camshaft is designed to perform in a predictable and fixed way. The same operation occurs over and over — nothing more.

Tsao's industrial collaborators designed an electrohydraulic camless valvetrain system that allows for more variable valve operation, with greater control over when a valve opens and for how long. Tsao developed methods to precisely control the valve operation over a wide temperature range. This, in turn, makes it possible for the traditional engine to do more than just burn fuel.

Tsao's proposed valve system allows the engine to operate in four different modes. When a vehicle decelerates, the engine is used as an air compressor to absorb the braking energy and store it into the air tank. Whenever the vehicle stops, at a red light for example, the engine is shut down. Once the light turns green and the driver touches the accelerator pedal, the engine is started by compressed air. As the car speeds up, the engine is used as an air motor to drive the vehicle until the compressed air is depleted, at which point the engine is switched to conventional combustion mode and begins burning fuel.

Road tests are needed to prove Tsao's concept, and other challenges need to be addressed before air hybrid vehicles become widely accepted. "We want to optimize the size of the air storage tank, and begin testing the air hybrid operation using a diesel engine," Tsao said.

Compressed air for vehicle propulsion is already being explored by others. Ford is even exploring compressed air hybrids. There is even a group exploring compressed fluids to store energy for vehicles. But this latest report looks like it might point the way for the development of a cost effective compressed air hybrid design.

The ability to add refinements to the basic internal combustion engine model of vehicle propulsion is a major reason why the prospects for hydrogen power cars are overrated. This latest report is another example of why this is the case.

By the way, there is another reason why the life of the internal combustion engine might eventually be greatly extended: the development of a technique to use either light or electricity to drive a reaction to fix carbon from carbon dioxide and hydrogen from water to make synthetic liquid fuels could remove one big environmental argument against hydrocarbon fuels and internal combustion engines. A major objection to the use of hydrocarbon fuels (whether gaseous or liquid) is that the fuels are almost always (one exception being subsidized corn-derived ethanol - which may cost more energy to produce than it provides) derived from fossil fuels and hence their burning adds to the total carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. But if liquid fuels were made from atmospheric carbon then the effect would be to create an artificial carbon cycle that mirrors the natural carbon cycle of plants and animals. The use of liquid hydrocarbon fuels would no longer cause a net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

How efficient could the process of converting electrical energy to hydrocarbons be made? How hard is the problem to solve for large scale production? Is the problem easier or harder to solve than it is to develop and build fuel cells and all the components of a hydrogen economy?

By Randall Parker    2003 August 05 05:35 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (58)
2003 March 02 Sunday
Hydraulic Energy Storage Hybrid Engine Developed For Trucks

The business case for electric hybrid cars is pretty weak because so many heavy batteries are required and replacing them when they wear out is expensive. Another approach to energy storage is compressed air. Ford is taking this idea and pursuing compressed air hybrids. Still yet another approach uses hydraulic fluid compression to store energy.

Chandler noted that, "This smaller, lighter version of Permo-Drive's Regenerative Drive System (RDS) offers significant fuel savings, reduced emissions and improves brake life to the trucking industry and major fleet operators, including the U.S. military."

A U.S. Army vehicle equipped with the Permo-Drive system recently underwent three weeks of intensive testing. Preliminary results show a 27 percent improvement in fuel economy, a 36 percent jump in rapid-acceleration or "dash" capability and a 60 percent improvement in deceleration when comparing hydraulic-system deceleration rates to engine-braking.

Dennis J. Wend, executive director of the U.S. Army National Automotive Center, recently noted that, "In our modeling and simulation work to date, parallel hybrid-hydraulic systems show the potential to provide significant fuel-economy savings for future generations of trucks."

The US Army has a greater incentive than private industry to boost fuel efficiency of its vehicles because of the logistical cost and enormous difficulty of delivering fuel to remote battlefields. Therefore it is not surprising that the Army would be testing this technology.

Chandler pointed out that the company's hybrid hydraulic system also has been tested on commercial vehicles in Australia, where it achieved fuel economy gains of 33 percent or more. Permo-Drive's system captures normally wasted energy generated during braking, then releases it back into the vehicle's driveline when additional power is needed.

RDS technology can be applied to new or existing trucks. Key design features include an innovative inline axial-piston pump/motor, high-pressure accumulator energy-storage devices that utilize special composite materials, ultra-light-weight metals and advanced hydraulic and electronic engineering. The Permo-Drive system integrates vehicle dynamics, hydraulics, mechanical engineering, accumulator technology, material science, computer telemetry and electronics.

Computer control advances combined with materials advances are probably both essential enabling technologies that are making designs based on this type of hybrid technology possible.

The Permo-Drive RDS storage system includes two hydraulic fluid "accumulators" -- a high-pressure tank (up to 5,000 PSI) and a low-pressure reservoir. As braking takes place, energy is captured with the flow of oil from the low-pressure tank to the high-pressure accumulator. A central processor later controls the release of the oil during acceleration to enhance overall fuel economy and reduce emissions.

Technologies that capture braking energy would useful as a way to decrease fuel usage even in vehicles powered by fuel cells or batteries.

By Randall Parker    2003 March 02 11:25 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2003 February 24 Monday
GM: Production Fuel Cell Vehicles by 2010

General Motors is optimistic that it can go into production with fuel cell vehicles by 2010.

Fuel cell-powered vehicles could be widely available by 2010, not 2020 as President Bush has suggested, General Motors said on Monday.

The White House said last week it hopes experts will be able to decide by 2015 whether hydrogen-powered fuel cells are commercially viable. And Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the Bush administration believes automakers could bring fuel cell vehicles to showrooms by 2020.

But Larry Burns, the head of GM's research and development, said his company plans to keep its 2010 timetable. "You've got to put it out there because the main message is if you're not driving to make this viable on a high volume, profitable, affordable basis, you shouldn't be doing it," Burns said.

New York Times Writer Nicholas Kristof was able to drive GM's $5 million dollar fuel cell prototype Hy-wire.

It's called Hy-wire, and it's a one-of-a-kind prototype: a four-door sedan fueled by hydrogen, capable of speeds of 100 miles an hour, whisper-quiet, and emitting no pollution at all — only water vapor as exhaust. It looks like a spaceship, with glass all around and no pedals or steering wheel.

Jeff Wolak, the engineer who travels with Hy-wire and mothers it, explained that it is drive-by-wire, controlled by electronics and computers rather than cables and hydraulics. To accelerate, you rotate the handgrips. To steer, you move the grips up or down.

The automotive equivalent of aircraft fly-by-wire comes to cars. This also brings us closer to the day of automated computer driving. No physical human force would be needed to operate any of the controls. One can imagine hybrid steps where, say, a single car on a freeway is networked to a line of cars behind it and the driver of the front car chooses a path and speed that all cars behind also follow.

Some argue for interim use of hybrid vehicles with gasoline engine plus electric and battery in combination. The problem holding back electric powered cars has always been weight and cost of the batteries. Hence the need for a hybrid design in order to use electric at all. Batteries are not the only way to store energy however, French company Moteur Developpement International (MDI) has developed a prototype vehicle that runs on the energy stored in compressed air. Compressed air storage hits up against similar capacity problems that batteries have. This has led Ford Motor Company and some collaborators to propose compressed air hybrid vehicles.

A soon-to-be-released study projects that an air hybrid engine could improve fuel economy 64 percent in city driving and 12 percent in highway driving. Scientists from the University of California, Ford Motor Company and consultant Michael M. Schechter will present their findings during the SAE 2003 World Congress, March 3 - 6, Cobo Center, Detroit, Michigan, USA.

Unless a really high energy density battery or a more efficient means of compressed air storage can be developed the future for vehicle propulsion is probably going to belong to fuel cells.

In spite of GM's aggressive schedule to begin using fuel cells in production cars it still seems more likely that fuel cells will be used as stationary power sources before they are used in transportation. Late in 2002 some researchers at Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory announced development of an alloy that will dramatically decrease the cost of stationary fuel cells.

The alloy is manufactured using the same process used to make metal filters that work in high temperature applications. Powdered steel is fired in an oxygen-free environment, which creates a porous metal. This stainless steel alloy is much stronger than ceramic, and unlike ceramic, it can be welded, brazed, hammered, and crimp-sealed. This translates to increased design flexibility and reduced manufacturing costs. Furthermore, the cost of stainless steel is approximately $2 per pound, while zirconia is between $30 and $60 per pound.

Alloy construction offers other advantages. A stable, high performance cathode can be operated at between 600 and 800 degrees Celsius. Efficiency loss due to current collection is minimized. And the alloy increases a fuel cell's strength as well as its electronic and thermal conductivity.

But does the design meet the $400 per kilowatt target? First, there's more to a fuel-cell-based generator than fuel cells. Roughly speaking, one-third of a generator's cost lies in the actual fuel cell stack, the other two-thirds lies in external "plumbing" such as insulation and a DC-to-AC inverter. This means the fuel cell stack can't exceed $130 per kilowatt if the entire unit is to meet the $400 per kilowatt target. No problem there: the raw materials for the Berkeley Lab stainless steel-based fuel cell are only $37 per kilowatt.

"The low cost of a metal-based SOFC's raw materials, and its design flexibility, should allow a stack to be manufactured below the $130 fuel cell target," Visco says.

To meet the $400 generator target, the Berkeley Lab fuel cell must now be developed into planar and tubular stack designs, and paired with a low-cost inverter and other supporting technology.

Ultimately, such technology could play a key role in meeting the nation's growing demand for power without incurring a proportional jump in air pollution. According to a recent Department of Energy report, annual energy demand will increase from a current capacity of 363 million kilowatts to 750 million kilowatts by 2020.

Fuel cells will provide many benefits. They will provide more efficient ways to convert fossil fuels into electricity. They will do so with less pollution as well. But they are also an enabling technology for other energy technologies. When photovoltaics drop far enough in price then fuel cells will enhance the value of photovoltaics. Photovoltaics will be used to generate electricity when the sun in shining and the electricity will be storable by using hydrolysis to generate hydrogen gas from water. Then the hydrogen can be burned back into water when stationary electricity or automotive electricity is needed.

Fuel cells have a very bright future.

By Randall Parker    2003 February 24 03:52 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2002 November 11 Monday
Vehicles May Become Much More Efficient

The MIT Technology Review has an article entitled "Why Not a 40-MPG SUV?". It reviews a number of promising technologies that could make the standard internal combustion engine vehicle much more efficient. For example, electromechanical actuators could replace standard camshafts for controlling valve opening:

But the ultimate move toward optimization throws the camshaft away. Instead, electromechanical actuators would provide software-driven control for each valve (see “The Camless Engine,” below). By providing full control over the timing, lift, and duration of each valve motion, such a camless engine optimizes power delivery with the least possible fuel at every engine-rotation speed. The payoff is huge: a camless engine could improve fuel economy by 10 to 18 percent while also increasing engine torque by 15 to 20 percent at low speeds for faster acceleration.

The problem is that to prevent excessive wear and minimize engine noise and vibration, valves must decelerate before landing. A camshaft, though relatively inefficient, does this quite well, thanks to its ovoid shape, which produces a corresponding acceleration and deceleration in the valve motion. Actuators are different; they slam up and down, on and off.

The way to make actuators as gentle as camshafts involves a combination of hardware and software, and many companies are working on the problem.

It is surprising just how much more refinement can be done to the design of the internal combustion engine.

By Randall Parker    2002 November 11 07:58 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2002 September 23 Monday
Cars powered by compressed air

French company Moteur Developpement International (MDI) has developed a car powered by compressed air. The air expands to push pistons and then the pistons drive a crankshaft in a way similar to the way an internal combustion engine works. The vehicle has a compressor driven from plugging into an electric socket that recharges the compressed air in 3 to 4 hours. From an MIT Technology Review article:

Negre, who was interviewed through an interpreter, explains that, in the tanks, the air is both cooled to minus 100 degrees Centigrade and compressed to 4,500 pounds per square inch. Then it’s injected into a small chamber between the tanks and pistons, where it’s heated up by ambient outside air that forces it to expand into a larger chamber situated between the small chamber and the pistons. That heat exchange between the two chambers, he continues, creates the propulsion that drives the up-and-down strokes of the engine’s four pistons. Finally, the air is passed through carbon filters like those in scuba diving tanks and expelled as pollutant-free exhaust. The dynamic is not unlike that of a spring that takes in energy when it’s compressed and gives it back when it expands.

The MDI "How It Works" web page has a picture of the 4 cylinder engine and an animated image of the engine's operation.

By Randall Parker    2002 September 23 09:01 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (94)
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