Week of January 4, 2009

Currently, the focus seems to be shifting from alternative fuels to electric traction as a solution for our transportation needs. Many of the world's leading auto makers appear to be making big bets on electric cars, bigger bets than have ever been made on any new transportation technology.

We have visited this subject a number of times in the past simply because it is so relevant to the industry that we cover. Obviously, it matters a great deal if these bets pay off. The rise of electric traction will not destroy the alternative fuel industries if it occurs, but it will constrain them and confine them more and more to commercial markets such as aviation and shipping.

My own view is that current battery technology is simply inadequate to permit the emergence of highly competitive electric vehicles. Energy density has to increase by at least a factor of five to put batteries remotely in the running as an energy storage mechanism for personal transport.

But it turns out that's not the only problem. Lately I've been reading a lot about the potential for shortages in the raw materials required for the manufacture of battery powered electric vehicles, shortages that would almost certainly manifest themselves if such vehicles approached the level of mass market.

Copper is the most important of such materials because it is used in almost all electrical circuits. Most cars already use over fifty pounds of it per vehicle and production from either mined ore or recycled materials isn't keeping pace with demand. There are conductive polymers that might be substituted for copper, but they aren't as good, and I've never heard of them being utilized in high current electrical circuits.

Nickel metal hydride batteries utilize the rare earth lanthanum which is chiefly found in China. That may be why the industry as a whole is turning to lithium. But lithium itself is not in infinite supply and most of the world's production comes from South America.

Neodymium, used in the magnets incorporated in most of the world's high performance DC motors and in the compact generators used in wind turbines, is a rare earth as well and most of it comes from Russia. See where this is tending?

Of course there are those who believe that the electric vehicle is bound to fail for other reasons, foremost among them, the inability of existing electrical power generation networks to serve a vastly expanded fleet of electric cars. Certainly, existing generation facilities could not support the wholesale substitution of electrically powered vehicles for those running on petroleum, but of course more generation capacity could be built. The question is whether such additional capacity would contribute more to the depletion of fossil fuel resources and the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere than does business of usual involving petroleum based transportation or a biofuel regime.

What is not in doubt is that the auto manufacturers are lining up behind battery powered electric traction in a way that they did not even for hydrogen fuel cells. Plug-in hybrids and pure electrics are slated for market entry in some numbers within two years, which was not the case at the height of the fuel cell frenzy earlier in this decade.

In spite of the fact that I am personally involved in a project for developing an electrical motive system which could be used in electric cars, I do not believe that electric cars are going to make it in the form in which they have been envisioned by the major auto makers. The economics simply aren't favorable.

Currently off-peak electrical power is low priced in the U.S., but most industry analysts believe that those prices will rise in the years to come and may double in less than a decade. And if any considerable portion of new capacity involves renewables, the price of electrical energy is likely to rise precipitately.
Large format lithium ion batteries remain dauntingly expensive after years of development as do high output electrical motors. And combining an electrical system with a gasoline engine, however vestigial, saddles the manufacturer with a heavy inherent cost disadvantage.

Combine this with a huge weight to power disadvantage and limited operating range, and the high ticket price becomes a pressing issue. Why would I want to buy a vehicle which offers so little for so much?

If the auto manufacturers in their weakened condition throw their remaining resources into the problematic electric car concepts of the present, then we may expect a massive die out among them. They will not recoup their investments, and declining sales within their existing lines will ensure their demise. Indeed, the current push to reintroduce the electric car may represent the greatest misallocation of industrial resources since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Unfortunately, this and a number of other green energy initiatives represent a disturbing trend, a determination to ignore the limitations of a given approach in the hopes that some technical breakthrough might eliminate those limitations. The fact that such breakthroughs seldom occur within mature technologies never seems to occur to proponents of discredited approaches, especially when they can continue to secure funding to press on.

We will have more to say on the subject of vehicle innovation in the months to come when the outlines of the Obama Administration's policies become clearer.

electric cars

My opinion of the optimum electric hybrid vehicle is one that has a 15 to 20 mile range on electricity. The electric drivetain would handle the variable output required, and absorb kinetic energy of stopping. The generator and motor would run at a static speed. Maybe a small, 4 piston, two cylinder two stroke version of the German tank motor would be enough. My fuel of choice would be DME. The serious engineering would be to create this fuel from various organic debris in the vicinity of the vehicle's home. An ideal setup would be a two seater, at about 1000 kilograms, using standard, exchangeable 5 gallon propane tanks (2), filled with DME, that would power the vehicle about 200 miles.

Maybe a sustainable arrangement is that in a town of about 5 to 10 thousand people, there could be 3 or 4 controlled safety fuel producers or purveyors, that would use local biomass to produce enough fuel for the local population. The cost and investment would have to be somewhere in the range of what a franchise business or gas station cost now.

I think the days of America policing the world are coming to a close. Living within our means, and still having a decent standard of living, (with motorized transportation) will be the goal. If the cost of imported oil, included the military expenditure to secure the oceans and oil fields were included, alternative "homegrown" fuels would have a chance, and even be the choice.