Alternative fuels coming?

Yes, I know they’re here. But they’re pretty limited.

Gas prices are climbing rapidly again, and people are pretty angry about it. There are myriad reasons. China’s economy is expanding and it needs more oil. The President is making people nervous with his sabre-rattling over Iran, which pushes up prices. The war isn’t helping either. In my opinion, oil companies are profiteering. (I don’t want to debate that. I’ll admit my Liberal bias makes me suspicious of big corporations that sell things we must have. And incidentally, as much as I disagree with the President I do think he is right that high gas prices are a ‘tax on the poor’ since they have fewer options of where to live or what car to buy.)

Will the current situation result in a positive outcome? For a few years now, people have been buying hybrids. If people hurt enough, they’ll buy more fuel-efficient vehicles when the time comes to replace their current cars. The President has expressed his support of alternate fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. ( :dubious: ) I was watching Cool Fuels last night and they claimed that there are 3 million flexible-fuel vehicles in the U.S. now, that will run on gasoline or up to 85% ethanol. While most hydrogen for fuel still has to be made from fossil sources, at least it’s less polluting than gasoline or diesel. Battery technology is improving incrementally. People talk about making ethanol from corn. I and other have asked about using corn for America’s energy needs, and IIRC the answer was that there’s not enough to provide us with all of the fuel we need. Nevertheless, there are other sources (e.g. switchgrass) that can be burned as fuel or converted to ethanol, and there are some small steps toward using our garbage to generate power.

So. Have we had enough? Will we finally get the infrastructure to manufacture ethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen fuels on a grand scale, and the infrastructure to distribute it? Will we start building new nuclear power plants (which I think is a good idea)? Will very efficient vehicles become the norm rather than the exception? Or will it take a few more rounds of skyrocketing prices before people demand an overhaul of the way America fuels itself?

You know, we could probably come up with a really convincing Conspiracy Theory about the rising prices being engineered so that we will be forced to change our energy habits. Anyone want to try? :smiley:

I’m encouraged by stuff that’s happening in my own neighborhood.

An ethanol plant has been built in a small town about 15 miles north of here, and there’s a new wind farm about 10 miles east of me.

I figure if progress is being made in Iowa, that’s a good sign for the rest of the country. Except for fiber-optics, we haven’t been exactly on the leading edge, technologically or environmentally.

It wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t money (lots of money) to be made. I think that once investors and developers realize this, we’ll see more.

That is key. Why invest in alternatives while what we have is cheap enough? I wonder what the tipping point is?

Right now I still need my Cherokee. But when I no longer do, I’ll be happy to get something more efficient. And if that vehicle will run on alternative fuels (especially a reduced-pollution one), then so much the better. In the meantime I still have the motorcycles. I refueled yesterday and it cost almost twelve bucks! (It runs on US92 octane.) The guy next to me in his SUV complained he was up to $50 and counting.

There are problems with ethanol. The main one is transportation. Most gasoline in this country is transported at one time or another by pipeline. You can’t send ethanol by pipeline because unlike gasoline it mixes with water. Making ethanol from corn, because it contains sugar is relatively easy. Making it from switchgrass is not. There is no economically viable way to make switchgrass into ethanol right now.
There is no infrastructure at all for hydrogen. It is not really an energy source anyway. It is an energy holder, like batteries, because there is no real way to make hydrogen without spending more energy than it contains.
Maybe some genius will make batteries that won’t cost a mint, and will give you enough range, and won’t take twelve hours to charge, but I’m not holding my breath.

I think we are finally nearing a real tipping point. Not just in biofuels and alternative fuels, but in a host of enabling technologies that are all coming together to radically change the way we use energy in general, and in cars in particular.

Let’s look at a few:

  • Battery technology. The big limiter in building electric cars has always been range. But batteries are improving in power density quite rapidly, and new materials like carbon nanotubes promise things like super capacitors that will give us plenty of peak power and allow extremely rapid charging.

  • Computer control. We’re making huge gains in the efficiency and flexibility of combustion engines due to increasingly sophisticated computer control over the engine. Variable valve timing, computer-controlled turbocharger vanes, engines that can shut of cylinders efficiently when they are not in use, etc.

  • Body materials. The Lotus Elise uses a sophisticated ‘bathtub’ frame using sophisticated manufacturing technologies that allows Lotus to build a car that only weighs 1900 lbs, yet is stiff and strong. They chose to use the weight savings to make a very fast sports car that still gets very good mileage (0-60 under 5 seconds, yet almost 30 mpg).

  • Hybrid technology. It’s an ‘enabling’ technology in that it separates the fuel the vehicle needs from the rest of the drivetrain. Current hybrids use gas engines, but you could fit any kind of power source into the drivetrain. Flex fuel, a big battery, fuel cells, whatever. Hybrids give us a path to the future, and now that we are making them in large quantities, we are spending huge R&D dollars on hybrid technologies - most of which applies to whatever other power source we use in the future. Things like batteries and regenerative braking and computer control in hybrids are equally important to hydrogen cars.

Add it all up, and you reach a point where we have many, many new options. Biodiesal was unworkable before when it was very hard to make flex-fuel engines, and when they had to push 4000 lb vehicles that got 15 mpg. Electric power was unfeasible when we had to use lead-acid batteries and primitive control systems.

But I can imagine the car of the future being something like this: A carbon-nanotube body on a composite frame, with a sophisticated electrical system including a capacitor built into the structure of the body and a high-capacity battery system. Then you’ll order it from the factory with your choice of power cell (gas engine (flex fuel), fuel cell, or all-electric with a large battery going where the engine would go. And, you can order a ‘plug-in’ option for it that allows you to plug in the car at home, which will allow it to run on pure electrics for maybe the first 30-50 miles. The engine then really just becomes a backup charger for longer trips, and is rarely used for commuting.

All of this (other than the fuel cell) is probably no more than 5-10 years away. And cars like this will be great, because as the cost of various fuel and power options change, the cars could be modified. Gas got too expensive? For a couple of thousand bucks have your gas engine pulled and replaced with a battery or a fuel cell.

Think of the electrical grid as an analogy. When power comes into your house, you have no idea what created it. Nuclear? Gas turbine? Hydro? It doesn’t matter, because we’ve abstracted away they power generation side from the consumption side. So if oil or coal becomes too expensive, we can switch to nuclear without having to replace our transmission lines, appliances, computers, etc.

That’s where we’re heading with cars, in my opinion. 90% of what makes a car a ‘car’ has nothing to do with what’s pushing it down the road - wheels, suspension, interior, frame, etc. The way we build them today marries them together, but I think that’s changing.

Back to the original point - the problem with a lot of unconventional fuels is simply that they aren’t capable of being scaled up to the point where they can provide all of our energy needs. Bio-fuel looks like it is finally cost-effective and a net energy gain, but it would take an awful lot of land to provide enough bio material to power all our cars. Likewise with electricity - if all our cars were electric, we’d need roughly the equivalent of 200 large nuclear plants to power them. That’s not going to happen for a long, long time.

But if the fleet uses lots of different sources, then the real energy future may include all of these. Maybe 20% bio-fuels, 20% gasoline, 20% hydrogen fuel cells, etc. As the costs rise for one type (as we run out of space for bio-fuel crops, for example), then it’s easy to move demand over to one of the other fuels. And overall, efficiency gains in the fleet may make them use half the energy they use today in the first place.

See, there’s the rub. The key is not getting batteries with enough range, but waiting until fuel is so expensive that people are willing to accept smaller ranges.

Sam Stone have you actually sat in or looked at a Lotus Elise? Good luck if you’re over five foot ten, or want to carry more than a box of kleenex as luggage. It barely counts as a two-seater, and is very spartan. No carpet, no soundproofing, and no real weather protection. At least in the first two years production, the convertible top was meant for emergencies, and you weren’t supposed to drive over 40 mph with it on. They’ve made a real top now, but saying anyone but the most rabid car lover would drive something like that every day is a stretch. It makes a Mazda Miata look like a Mercedes.

As far as carbon tube technology, I’ve never heard of it, but saying it’s ten years off sounds a little far fetched to me.

So what? The Elise is obviously optimized for speed and performance, which means minimal frontal area and low center of mass. That’s the reason for the cramped and spartan interior, not the frame material.

You can already buy a nanotube reinforced bicycle frame today. Not a particularly effective use of this new material, perhaps, but 10 years off for production automobiles doesn’t sound farfetched to me.

Sure. Now imagine making it a little bigger, adding a couple hundred pounds worth of accessories and cushioning. Swap the 180HP high performance engine for something that makes maybe 120. Now you’ve got maybe a 2100 lb vehicle that’s a lovely commuter, gets 45 mpg, and still performs as well as a typical sedan. Think ‘Smart Car’.

In fact, there’s a whole range of really good, very small cars arriving now. The reason small cars never took off in the past was partly because small usually equalled junk. Noisy, rattly, cheap, loud, and cramped. But now there are cars like the Toyota Yaris - 40 mpg highway, 2400 lbs, loaded with all kinds of bells and whistles and terrific fit and finish. Now shave a couple of hundred pounds off with a carbon nanotube body, improve the engine’s efficiency by 20%, add in hybrid technology and a capacitor system to give it fast peak power, and you’ll have a car that gets 70mpg, and performs well. Now add in ‘plug-in’ capability to the battery system, and you start to average over 100 mpg, and much more for cars used as short commuters.

A car like that isn’t very far off.

You’ve got to keep up with the news, man. Cabon nanotubes may be the biggest improvement in engineering material since plastics. And think about how fast plastic worked its way into the construction of everyday things once we discovered how to work with it economically.

Wikipedia article on nanotubes. You should read that. It’s really very exciting. And new applications for this amazing stuff are being found every day. For instance, from MSNBC:

This is a material stronger than anything known, yet can be made into flexible sheets that can be heated when power is applied, or made to glow, or if light hits them can be a very efficient solar cell. Imagine the body of a car that charges the battery system in daylight, and at night glows to make itself visible.

Nanotubes are awesome heat conductors, which could lead to greater thermal efficiency in engines, revolutionize heating and cooling systems, and help create higher-speed computer chips by helping to dissipate heat better.

They can also hold an amazing electrical charge, making it possible that the same car body that does these other wondrous things also charges itself up to provide instantaneous power for acceleration, allowing battery systems to be optimized for charge density instead of discharge rate.

It gets even cooler:

High efficiency space heating. flexible heating strips that can perhaps be woven into clothing. The sheets can be made completely transparent, so we can have glass windows that absorb energy during the day to charge batteries, and then use the energy later to generate light and heat.

They even have great promise for improving solar cells. Current commercially-available solar cells have a solar conversion efficiency between 6 and 12% at best. Tests of carbon-nanotube cells indicate they can hit efficiencies as high as 30% or more. And furthermore, they could be made more cheaply and cleanly than current cells, and could possibly be built right into our roofs, walls, roads, car bodies, etc.

This is not very far away. There are still some engineering hurdles left to mass-produce the stuff economically, but not many. And no basic science needs to be worked out. It’s all there. What’s left is to work out details around manufacture, packaging, forming, etc. Unless there proves to be an unknown serious problem with this stuff, you could see its introduction into society happen so fast that the world changes dramatically in a few short years.

Good points. Infrastructure brings up a chicken-and-egg scenario. (FWIW, I think the egg came first.) That is, if there is no infrastructure, who would buy the vehicles? If people aren’t buying vehicles, why would anyone build the infrastructure?

I think this is sort of what I meant about the tipping point. There will always be some people who will choose new technology even if support is hard to come by or if it doesn’t perform as well as something that already exists. I remember seeing EV-1s on my morning commute when I lived in L.A. Yes, they have to be recharged; and yes, the owners would be inconvenienced if they wanted to make a long trip. But people leased them anyway. I’d heard stories about people trying to hide them when GM recalled them, they liked them so much. A friend of mine has a Prius. He loves it. It might not be as fast as a lot of cars, and there may (or may not – I haven’t looked into them) be issues regarding battery replacement. And it’s more expensive than a similar conventionally-powered car and the gas mileage may not be as good as some, depending upon how it’s used. And there are people who use biodielsel even though it means finding someplace that sells it or going round collecting oil from restaurants.

So for whatever reason (environmental awareness, lower personal fuel prices, geek factor, etc.), there will be people who buy the vehicles. They will balance their (practical) needs and (emotional) desires with the hassle it takes to be one of the first to embrace the new technology. They’ll probably sing the praises of their choices to their friends, some of whom will join them. Eventually they might become a fad, much like Porsche 356s were in the '80s or SUVs were in the '90s and continue to be. Someone will say, ‘Hey. Look at all of those people using alternative fuels. We can make a mint by selling it to them!’ And the infrastructure will come. After all, there was a time when there were no gasoline stations but people bought cars anyway.

So I see greater use of alternative fuels. But how close are we to the tipping point? Now that Oil Man Bush is (or claims to be) on board I think we may be on the verge. It’s not going to happen overnight. I think that we will get hydrogen stations and biodiesel will be carried in the majority of gas stations and that batteries will improve to a point that our hybrids will get better mileage than they do now and all-electric cars will become practical for many people.

The question is whether we are on the verge of the tip now, or if it will take many more years of increasing energy prices to bring it about.

As someone who, as an ex-materials scientist, has studied and worked with nanotubes, I very much doubt that nanotube reinforced composites will be anything more than a gimmick for some time. While they do have excellent strength properties creating enough CNTs to have any real reinforcing effect costs a huge amount of money. In addition aligning the CNTs so they have maximum reinforcement is rather difficult (you obviously can’t just pick up a bundle of them and lay them down in the desired orientation, as is done with conventional composites). They may have uses as particulate reinforced composites but the advantages or particulate reinforced composites are small. I would like to know what proportion of the bike in the above link actually contains CNTs. Not that CNTs are not useful, they have some very cool electronic properties, but I doubt we will be making serious use of CNT reinforced composites anytime in the near future.

Back to the question in the OP. I would like to see much more research into hydrogen as a combined heat and power source. While hydrogen as a source of fuel for cars has big problems associated with it (mainly due to the low energy density of H2) these problems are less obvious at home. If solid oxide fuels running on hydrogen were connected to every home and photolytic cells (which directly electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen, as opposed to photovoltaic cells, which produce an electric current) were placed on every roof then we could cut a hell of a lot of emissions (and energy production would be pretty cheap too).

There was a really good article in the New York Times a few weeks ago (unfortunately, you now have to buy it from their archives – here) about how Brazil has really developed its flex-fuel market, to the degree that most cars sold now have flex-fuel engines. They’ve also heavily invested in making ethanol from sugarcane, and have a good infrastructure for processing and transporting it. Currently they’re getting 10 as much energy out as they put in, and they think that through genetic engineering, they can do better still. So Brazil at least is within spitting distance of having an ethanol economy. We should be able to do the same.