Monday, May 08, 2006

Hydrogen Cars and Free Beer Tomorrow!

Natural Gas -- Natural gas is an American resource. One in five new public transit vehicles is a natural gas vehicle. Natural gas vehicles are available in two versions. Dedicated vehicles use only natural gas. Bi-fuel have two fueling ports to allow fueling with either natural gas or traditional fuels. Dedicated vehicles are the more efficient option, because the engines are optimized for natural gas.

Considerations: Shorter range than traditional fuel vehicles. Requires special certification for operation. Vehicles cost up to $6,000 more than comparable traditional fuel vehicles. Fuel savings depend on local price of natural gas.

Cons: Public fueling stations and lighter weight personal & commercial vehicles are not widely available to consumers. Consumers with access to public natural gas fueling stations can, however, buy kits to retrofit traditional fuel vehicles for natural gas at a cost of around $4,000. The extraction process is already damaging ecosystems across all of North America. Natural gas is not a renewable resource, natural gas prices have climbed in recent years due to the slowing of imported natural gas from Canada and the failure of domestic production to keep up with current demands, the need for foreign sources is already creating some of the same international conflicts that exist over our need for foreign oil -- most notably creating tensions with China.. Just as we've already reached peak production with oil, we're expected to reach peak production with natural gas in 2020, at the latest. We will soon face the same crisis with natural gas that we currently face with crude oil.

In development: Natural Gas / Hydrogen blends.

EVs (Electric Vehicles) EVs run solely on electricity, stored in onboard batteries. You recharge these vehicles at home, overnight. A small amount of additional charge may be obtained through solar panels built onto the vehicle's roof and/or spoiler and from the braking system. EVs are not a new technology. EVs were on the road and quite popular with consumers dating back to the late 1800s.

Considerations: Lower speeds and shorter range than traditional fuel vehicles make these vehicles better suited to in-town driving by low mileage drivers. Recharge time is measured in hours compared to the mere minutes it takes to refuel a traditional fuel vehicle. Batteries add weight and bulk to the vehicle, affecting performance and cargo/passenger space. Consumers can purchase kits to convert traditional fuel cars to EV. Converting your vehicle would cost around $10,000. It is also worth noting that owners of 2004 or newer Toyota Prius hybrids can purchase kits for a mere $45 that will allow them to enable the "EV-only mode" (aka "stealth mode") feature that is available on all European models but is, for some unknown reason, disabled on all U.S. models and left unmentioned in U.S. user manuals.

Cons: Manufacturers pulled EVs from the market as California's Zero Emmissions laws were weakened. Toyota was the last to cease production in 2003. Some of these manufacturers began purchasing EVs back on the secondary market specifically to shred them, so that EVs would no longer available to consumers, even on the secondary market. A few EV owners have kept their vehicles and still drive them, but parts and qualified service can be difficult or even impossible to find, so many of these owners have formed and joined EV enthusiasts groups, where members help one another find or even make replacement parts. "Fuel" savings for those few fortunate enough to own an EV are dependent on the price paid for the electricity to recharge these vehicles.. Off-grid consumers already generating a sufficient surplus to maintain charge on an EV would enjoy the maximum savings, but these consumers are also less likely to live in areas where the range & speeds of an EV would serve their needs. Generally, the older the batteries the less land-fill friendly they are.

In development: Lighter weight, more efficient batteries for increased speed and range, but no developer has currently set a goal for bringing any EV, improved or otherwise, back to the U.S. market. For EVs to return to market, strong zero emissions and/or alternative fuel laws will have to be passed and protected from those who seek to weaken such laws for their own financial gain in the oil industry.

Ethanol - Ethanol is produced from plants and can be produced domestically. Currently, there are no Ethanol-only (E100) vehicles on the market. Flex-fuel vehicles that use E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gas) and public E85 fueling stations have only limited availability to consumers and are found primarily in the midwest. Flex fuel vehicles reduce, but do not eliminate dependence on fossil fuels. E85 prices are similar to gasoline prices. E85 vehicles are similar in price to traditional-fuel vehicles. E85 emmissions are substantially cleaner than tradional fuel emissions.

Cons: Because Ethanol is available only in Ethanol/gas blends, it does not eliminate the use of fossil fuels to meet transportation needs. There is currently an attempt from the political right-wing to spin Ethanol into a more expensive and difficult to produce resource than it has proven to be during its time on the market.

Hydrogen - This is not new technology. Hydrogen cars have been in development and trotted out by the media as the definitive "coming soon!" solution for decades, but much like the joke implied on those "free beer tomorrow" novelty signs, "soon" never means "now."

Considerations: There are currently two distinctly different types of hydrogen vehicles in development. One uses hydrogen as fuel and uses an internal combustion engine. The other is a hydrogen electric that uses hydrogen fuel cells (batteries.) Either has the potential to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels to meet our transportation needs.

Cons: There are currently no hydrogen powered vehicles or public fueling stations, available to consumers. While several hydrogen vehicles exist in development and hydrogen is once again being hailed as the solution we'll soon be switching to, there is, in fact, no serious, concerted effort on anyone's part to bring hydrogen vehicles to market. Without that effort, hydrogen is nothing more than a useless talking point.

Bio-Diesel - This diesel fuel is manufactured largely from plant oils, but can also be manufactured from animal fats, it can be produced domestically and requires the same diesel engines currently fueled with petro-diesel. Running your vehicle on pure (B100) bio-diesel would reduce emissions 90% compared to running the same vehicle on pure (B0) petro-diesel.

Considerations: Consumers can purchase equipment to produce B100 bio-diesel fuel at home or can purchase larger systems to allow them to operate as B100 suppliers. Consumers in sufficiently warm climates, can also convert some diesel vehicles to run on new/used cooking oil (used cooking oil can often be obtained at no cost from restaurants, but must be well filtered prior to use.) These conversion kits include a second fuel tank, switch and heating system, which help prevent solidified (cold) cooking oil from clogging the fuel system and engine. Kits are available for several diesel vehicles and cost around $500 (labor not included,) but may require the additional purchase and installation of a Bosch fuel pump for compatibility. Diesel engines, excepting those with rubber seals that are easily corroded by cooking oil, are compatible with cooking oil because diesel engines were originally invented & designed to run on peanut oil and have changed very little over the years.

Cons: While B-100 does exist, its availability to consumers who do not produce it themselves or buy from a private producer is extremely limited. The government has been dragging its heels on the approval of B-100 or any petro-bio blends higher than B20, citing "more experience with B20 & lower blends" as an excuse to maintain our dependency on fossil fuels. (Note: they have more experience with fossil fuels than they do ANY alternative, so this same excuse can be used to keep any real solution off the market!!) Thus, petro-diesel is usually mixed with bio-diesel and made available in B20 (or less) blends. Petro-bio blends may contain as little as 5% bio-diesel and still be labelled "bio-diesel." at the pump. Bio-diesel consumers whose intent is to eliminate their use of fossil fuels should be aware that it is highly unlikely they're pumping pure B100 bio-diesel at public fuel stations.

Compressed Air - Compressed air vehicles are currently in development in France & Spain. Click here for more info. This is not a new technology, but a new, still-patented, application of the technology with several improvements as research and development have progressed. These vehicles run solely on compressed air -- recharge times are expected to vary from a few minutes at public rapid-recharge stations to four to six hours when charged at home with the electricity-powered compressors that are built into the engine. Some additional recharging is obtained from the air-recovery braking system. . If these vehicles come to market in the U.S., the factories will function as domestic vehicle & parts manufacturing, service, retail sales and public refueling facilities -- giving the added benefit of jobs creation. They also hope to place rapid-recharge stations at regular gas stations to increase the vehicles' daily driving range and make them a viable alternative for a broader consumer market.

Considerations: Slower top speeds and shorter range than traditional fuel vehicles, so the overall concerns are currently similar to those of the EVs, but with shorter recharge times and without the noiseless operation of an EV. As development continues, it is hoped that both speed and range will be increased while recharge is decreased. It is planned that consumers may choose to pay extra for "hybrid" models that are also fitted with back-up traditional fueling options, to increase range & speed. The price will be based on the Euro, but the cost for a family-model that will seat 7 and be suitable for car-pooling, as well (similar to a mini van) is expected be around $12,000 (base model) at the dollar's current value against the Euro.

Cons: Not yet available to consumers. This new application of compressed air technology still in the development stage. While some franchise licenses have already been sold to potential U.S. manufacturers of these vehicles, no definitive date has been set for bringing air cars into production in any market. The developers are currently seeking investors to continue research and development toward reaching the goal of international mass production..

In Development: Increased speed & range. Decreased recharge time. Non transportation applications of the technology. Large scale public transportation systems.


theBhc said...

Hi Melhi,

Actually, none of these so-called alternatives eliminates dependency on fossil fuels. At least not as currently generated. Electricity is mostly generated from burning either coal or natural gas, hydrogen is generated from natural gas and bio-fuels are derived from agri-industry, which generates massive yield crops with heavy use of petroleum based fertilizers.

Until we start generating large amounts of electricity from other sources (wind, geothermal, etc.), these fuels and/or power sources currently do not offer petroleum-free alternatives.

Melhi said...

Very, very true! Our reliance on petroleum products is interwoven into almost every aspect of our culture and we must eliminate it across the full spectrum of our uses. Sadly, it's looking more and more like we're not going to start until the last drop of oil has been pumped out of the ground and burned.