Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ethanol or Hybrids? — The Real Story, Part IV

Hey Dude! Are you still driving that old clunker? Don’t you think it’s time to get wheels that reflect your true personality, hidden character, and flamboyant attitude? Admit it! It’s really past time. So, as the old-time barkers used to say, “Do I have a car for you!” — an automobile you’ve seen only in your dreams. Small problem! — the one I have in mind has not even been produced — yet. But if you want an idea of what it will look like, here is a picture of the car that is scheduled to be delivered some time this year.

While Lotus, the British car company, is the designer, the guts of the car were the brainchild of a start-up group in California, Tesla Motors, who named this beauty the Tesla Roadster. (For the derivation of the name see the notes below). But I must be honest; there are a few obstacles that may dissuade you from considering this new dream car. For one thing, it’s a two-seater sports car, so no foursomes are possible for the Early Bird dinners. For another, it’s not likely that you will wish to park it at Publix, because the riot police might have to be called to control the crowds — Nieman Marcus? — maybe. Another, not so minor problem may be the price — in the $100,000 neighborhood. If you are impatient, a major drawback exists; production of the first hundred limited edition “Signature” cars for 2007 have not only been sold out, the demand is so great, the company has binding orders for an additional 120 cars, and there is now a wait list for delivery in 2008.

So what’s the buzz about this automobile that makes it so unique, so desirable that celebrities such as George Clooney, Larry Page and Sergey Brin (founders of Google), Elon Musk (Paypal), and Michael Eisner (former Disney) are probably on the buyer’s list? How about these statistics: Zero to 60 mph in 4 seconds (even a Ferrari can’t do that); a top speed of 135 mph; there is no engine noise and no tail pipe emissions (in fact there is no tailpipe); there is only one moving part in a motor that is about the size of a watermelon weighing only 70 pounds; only two forward and one reverse gears; and gas mileage? — let’s put it this way, operating cost will be one penny per mile. How can that be? It’s simple — the car is powered completely by a 6,831 cell lithium-ion energy storage system (basically, electric batteries) and a network of computers to control them; and it’s re-charged by plugging it into an electric outlet. Incredibly, a three-hour charge will be good for some 250 miles of driving, the battery life will extend beyond 100,000 miles, and a service facility will be available in the Miami area. That’s what all the buzz is based on.

So, what do you say, man? Do you think you can handle this car, one that may be the precursor to an electric car society? If the price bothers you, and the thought of embarking on an early-bird dinner without another couple is unthinkable, how about a more prosaic version, perhaps a sedan, selling in the $50,000 range? Supposedly, that’s due out in 2008 from the same company.

Imagine! A car propelled by electric battery power. What a quaint idea — at least in the mind of our illustrious president who, in a speech this past Labor Day said, “You know, one of these days, you’re going to have a -- batteries in your automobile that will enable you to drive the first 40 miles without gasoline, and your car doesn’t have to look like a golf cart.” Please, Mr. President — why the ambiguous “one of these days?” Did your speech-writers once again rely on “faulty intelligence,” failing to come up with information about the Tesla Roadster? And consider this:

A few weeks ago, GM announced its intention to eventually produce a car (named the Volt) with exactly the attributes mentioned by the president. Its lithium-ion batteries will enable you to drive the first 40 miles without gasoline on a single charge, and it doesn’t look like a golf cart. Although its propulsion system is powered by electricity, beyond 40 miles, batteries are replenished by virtue of a small gasoline powered generator allowing a total range of 640 miles. A full recharge is accomplished by plugging into a 110-volt outlet for about six hours. This car however, is much less efficient than the Tesla since during the period its gasoline engine is running, the car will attain only about 50 miles per gallon. Neither price nor a production date has yet been established. Inhibiting progress on the full electric car is the industry’s wait for a cheaper battery system since, for example, the cost for the ion-lithium battery system for the Volt is estimated at $10,000.

The Dawn of the Automobile Age

Ironically, despite this progress, we were possibly closer to an electricity based automotive industry 100 years ago than we are today. Believe it or not, the first (crude) electric carriage was invented by Robert Anderson of Scotland sometimes between 1832 and 1839. The first in America was created by Thomas Davenport in 1842. However, it was not until the late 1890’s that Americans began to exhibit a real interest in the concept. Most of the early vehicles were no more than electrified versions of carriages and surreys. In fact, the word “car” evolved as a shortened version of “carriage.” In 1897, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Co. of Philadelphia introduced a commercial fleet of New York City taxis. At the time, three types of engines competed for dominance — steam, electric, and gasoline. By 1900, out of a total of 2,370 automobiles in New York City, Boston, and Chicago, 1,170 were powered by steam, 800 by electric, and only 400 by gasoline.

In looking back, each of these technologies probably had more deficiencies than advantages, but the invention of the electric starter system, that replaced the hand cranking requirement for the gasoline internal combustion engine, helped push gasoline to the top. This, despite efforts on the parts of Thomas Edison and his close friend Henry Ford to secure a place for the electric car. Edison was unsuccessful in his attempt to develop a satisfactory battery; a failure we have to hope will not be repeated in our time. If the emphasis on ethanol subsidies was instead directed to battery research, the day of mass production of plug-in electric vehicles would be much closer at hand.

The Battery Battle

Speaking of batteries, the Alliance Bernstein report alluded to in last month’s article emphasized the critical importance of this component, writing, “Many analysts think that batteries are the limiting factor in the proliferation of hybrid technology. The nickel batteries available today simply do not offer enough energy storage or power to allow a vehicle to run long distances on electricity alone, which is key to higher fuel efficiency. We disagree. To date, investment in improving battery technology has been restrained in anticipation of technological advances in composite materials , particularly lithium. We expect significant performance improvements as lithium-based batteries replace nickel-based batteries before the end of this decade.”

Key to the success of the battery operated car, is the concept of plugging the car into a regular electric outlet, preferably overnight to take advantage of the electric grid’s greater availability and lower prices. Studies have confirmed that the electric grid could handle the increased load.

Apparently, the battery technology itself is not the main problem. GM’s chief engineer, Nick Zelinski, has stated that individual batteries are already good enough. “We’ve got enough data at the cell level to feel the technology is there.” However, the challenge is packaging the cells into large battery packs and testing them in actual vehicles — although Tesla Motors obviously has resolved that problem it its vehicle.

Hydrogen — the Ultimate solution

Interestingly, automakers have even made progress toward the next, and perhaps the ultimate solution to the fossil fuel problem — the Hydrogen car. In October, of last year, a reporter for Fortune magazine described a test drive he took in a Chevy Sequel, GM’s test version of a Hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicle. Ironically, things did not go too well, since the vehicle stalled out nine times on a 20 mile circuit. Since the “electronic gremlins” were easily fixed, the report claims “the Sequel is a genuinely bold and innovative engineering achievement.”

GM intends to lease 110 fuel cell equipped Sequels some time this year. They will be powered by a fuel stack driving an electric motor with a high pressure Hydrogen fuel tank a little bigger than those worn by scuba divers. This will give it a range of some 300 miles. BMW has also announced it will test 100 Hydrogen fueled cars this year.Fortune reports that Daimler Chrysler and Toyota have already put a few Hydrogen fuel cell busses in service.

Honda introduced a new fuel cell car, the FCX concept at the auto show in December in Los Angeles and at the Detroit show in January. Honda promotes the environmental advantages as “a completely clean vehicle — emitting nothing into the air but water vapor and significantly cuts carbon emissions.” Honda claims the car, a four-door sedan with a good size trunk, has a 270 mile range and will be placed in limited production by 2008.

Ford just introduced its “Flexible Series Hybrid Edge,” a car with what seems to be an ideal technology. For the first 25 miles it will be powered by a 336-volt lithium-ion battery that can be plugged in for recharging. At a depletion level of 40 percent, it will automatically shift to a Hydrogen fuel cell that will recharge the battery for 200 more miles of driving.

The Bad News

Despite the apparent progress related to the development of Hydrogen fueled vehicles, the immediate problem is the fundamental difficulty in extracting large volumes of Hydrogen and converting it into an energy form. In addition, there is a total lack of a Hydrogen delivery infrastructure. In fact it is not yet clear what the final form of Hydrogen will be — liquid, gaseous, solid, or pressurized. A number of companies are doing the research, including Stan Ovshinsly’s Cobasys. As a result, efforts to initiate a transformation from an oil based economy to one dependent on Hydrogen is, at this point, probably at least two decades away if not more.

This is best described in an article in Science News stating, “Even if this problem [Hydrogen extraction] is overcome and Hydrogen in fuel form was readily available [and it is not], a distribution system reliant on pipelines is impractical since Hydrogen has a tendency to leak from seals and gaskets.” Then, just imagine the years and money it will take to establish the equivalent of tens of thousand filling stations capable of providing Hydrogen.

In the Meantime

A more likely scenario appears to be that the current electric hybrid car (similar to the Prius) will be a bridge to a similar technology enhanced by plug-in capability. As battery technology improves, the full electric car with a plug-in system will evolve, by which time, hopefully, the Hydrogen economy will finally begin its rise to ultimate domination.

Author’s Note: If you wondered about the derivation of the name chosen by the company, Tesla Motors, you have to look to the genius inventor of the radio — and no, it is not Marconi. Or perhaps you might find the clue in the person who enables you to run your computer, toast your bread, and click on your lights. Thomas Edison? Nope! How about the inventor given credit for inventing X-rays — W.K. Roentgen? Wrong guy again — it was actually discovered a year earlier. What about the vacuum tube credited to Lee de Forest? — someone else. Forty years before the industry created fluorescent lights, this genius lit his laboratories with them.

Few are aware of the achievements of Nikola Tesla, a Croatian born in 1856, who came to America in 1884. Working a short time for Edison, he left as a result of a controversy involving Edison’s refusal to pay him his portion of royalty rights, and then worked with George Westinghouse. His discovery of a system that transmitted energy by wireless antenna was recognized in 1943 when the U.S. Supreme Court granted full patent rights to Tesla for the invention of the radio, nullifying prior claims by Marconi.

In addition, while Edison fought a battle to have DC current dominate, Tesla’s invention of AC current was adopted by the New York World’s Fair of 1899 and eventually became the basic format for electricity usage in the United States.

However, it was Tesla’s creation of the first AC induction motor in the 1880’s that convinced Matthew Eberhard to name his company after Nikola Testa. The motor in the Tesla Roadster is a supercharged update of Tesla’s original, powered by a copper and steel rotor that is spun by a magnetic field. There are no moving parts aside from the rotor. Undoubtedly, as a result, Tesla’s name will deservedly gain much greater recognition than it has in the past, and hopefully his genius will be more universally acknowledged.


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