Ideas

Alternative Power: Making Sense of New Technologies

The internal combustion engine's days are numbered. What will take its place?

By Ted Mitchell
Published April 10, 2007

The internal combustion engine's days are numbered.

It is quite remarkable how far the typical car engine has come since the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970. Without question, modern engines are more reliable and have higher power output relative to engine size and weight.

They are much smoother, quieter, and above all, vastly cleaner when gasoline is the fuel source. (Diesels are about 30 percent more efficient, but in terms of emissions - well, use your nose.)

Then there is the second law of thermodynamics. All such heat engines have a theoretical ceiling on efficiency: mechanical energy produced divided by fuel energy used.

Even the most efficient heat engine, the Stirling engine, must follow this law; and more on those later. Hydrogen fuel cells, or even simple batteries, have no such limitations.

All new, efficient car technologies will use electric motors. The motors are small, light, reliable, quiet, and produce a torque/speed profile that is much better suited to cars than the internal combustion engine. Hence, a smaller, simpler, cheaper transmission is required.

Understand this point: Hydrogen cars are electric cars. You can use hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, but that is just stupid. It is much more efficient to use it to power a fuel cell, even counting losses from electric energy transfers. Thus, fuel cell cars are electric cars.

I am not clear on how large the future role of fuel cells will be. There are theoretical concerns about inefficiency relative to purely electric storage systems.

What's out there now?

The most visible and efficient hybrid in production is the Toyota Prius. This car is really complicated. It has both an internal combustion engine (a special one, using the efficient Atkinson cycle) and a similarly sized electric motor in what is termed a series/parallel hybrid.

There is also a high-tech continuously variable transmission and lots of computer controlling going on. Either engine or motor alone is fully capable of moving the car in most situations. A fairly large NiMH battery pack rides in the trunk.

There is one big problem with this impressive level of technology: cost. I am really shocked that the Prius is in production. It just does not make economic sense. There are two simpler alternatives:

1. Parallel Hybrids

The parallel hybrid has a large engine and relatively small electric motor. The Honda Civic hybrid is one of these; it cannot run on the electric motor alone because it is too small.

But regenerative braking and enhanced acceleration boost efficiency while also reducing emissions markedly. Honda stopped before the law of diminishing returns took over; Toyota did not.

The Civic hybrid is $5,000 cheaper than a less well equipped base Prius, and averages 4.5 L/100 km (62.7 imperial mpg). A Prius averages 4.1 L/100 km (68.7 mpg). The marginal difference in fuel burned, after 250,000 km, is 1000 L. Get the point?

2. Series Hybrids

The series hybrid has a small engine running a generator which powers a relatively large electric motor. This system is best known in diesel locomotives. In a car, you also need an energy storage device (a battery) to take advantage of regenerative braking.

Despite the simplicity, there are no such cars in production. Here's where the conspiracy theories come in (Who Killed the Electric Car?, GM Pulling Back on Volt). In the kindest words I can muster, why in bloody hell can't I buy one of these? It would be considerably less complex than a Prius.

You cannot buy this simple technology.

To reiterate: large engine, small motor: many examples in production. Small engine, large motor: no examples on the radar. The complexity and cost of both systems are roughly equal.

The series hybrid does not even have to be a hybrid. Once you have the simple, inexpensive electric motor and transmission, there are many options for the power source. It can be modular like a desktop computer. Modular means flexible to your unique needs and upgradeable in future. Modular means longer life and cheaper long-term operating costs. Modular means the best technology is always compatible regardless of the company that makes it. Modular means turning the established automobile industry on its head.

The energy storage devices can be:

  1. Batteries. For low mileage needs, old fashioned deep-cycle lead-acid will do. NiMH is better in terms of power to weight, and Lithium polymer better yet. Lithium is currently expensive, e.g. converting a Prius to a plug-in hybrid by aftermarket companies such as Hymotion will run U.S. $9,500.

  2. Supercapacitors. Still expensive, but these devices charge and discharge at high currents with small losses.

  3. A combination of 1 and 2 has several benefits.

The power sources can be:

  1. The existing hydroelectric grid's cheap overnight surplus power, assuming adequate battery capacity.

  2. Fuel cells.

  3. Internal combustion engines. These only need to be sized for average power output, if there is enough battery capacity. The average push lawnmower has enough power for this, but it has to be clean burning which means fuel injection and a catalytic converter.

  4. External combustion engines. The Stirling engine has some examples in production (Whispergen). What is really useful about this engine is the ability to burn any fossil fuel on earth in the cleanest possible manner. They can even run on solar heat.

  5. Solar cells (photovoltaic).

  6. Whatever new technology comes along.

Honda 3000

Potential series-hybrid powerplant: 3 kW Honda generator with 200cc gas engine. The power output is about 4 hp, enough to propel a compact car at city speeds indefinitely if adequate battery or capacitor storage is provided.

With a gas consumption of 1.78 L/hr at rated output, fuel economy would better that of a Prius and probably exceed 100 mpg. Adapting one of these to a pure electric vehicle like the EV1 requires only a DC to DC converter and is within the ability of a backyard mechanic. Generator cost: $2400.

A comparably sized fuel cell would be about $13500 @ $4500/kW.

The fossil fuel sources (2, 3, and 4) can be portable electricity generating devices that also power your home (currently, Honda or Whispergen cogeneration systems, not available in North America).

Think of this: a Stirling engine could provide both electricity and heat such that your house is totally off-grid. At night, the electricity charges your car batteries. For long distance trips, put the Stirling engine in the car for range limited only by the fuel supply. If you have a cottage, it can power that too.

The fuel supply, being external combustion, is whatever you can get (natural gas, diesel, even coal or wood) and is easily adaptable between fuel sources. It will be as clean burning as that fuel source can possibly be. It is also compatible with enhancement by solar and wind power.

Or maybe that sounds too complicated or expensive. If you only make a couple of trips a year exceeding 100 km, rent or borrow a generator for your electric car. My point is: range is not a problem unless your brain has ceased to function as a result of marketing propaganda.

This is not a pipe dream, but technology that is presently available, just not in mass production. In the next 20 years, there will be a war between engineering and the automotive corporations.

If engineering prevails, the scenario above will be commonplace. The laws of thermodynamics say so. If engineering remains as it is now, the slut of corporate power brokers, ideas like that above will be marginalized by marketing methods, and we are going to be screwed.

What can you do? Put pressure on politicians and automobile companies, like asking GM why they killed the EV1 and now the Volt. My hunch: the answer they give you is not the real answer.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.

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By theBike45 (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 08:31:24

The idea that the GM EV-1 deserved to survive is based on sheer ignorance. The car was a crappy, expensive, range limited piece of garbage. The author of this article carefully avoids all the problems of both the series and electric vehicles. Claiming that lead acid or NiMH batteries are acceptable is absurd nonsense. The NiMH battery pack in the EV-1 and the Totyota Rav 4 electric, will discourage anyone and makes claims like this author's about how efficient electricity is total nonsense. The issue of cost HAS to include all components of the car's electric system, and that means the batteries, since neither an electric nor a series hybrid can operate without one. The costs of those batteries far exced the cost of gaslline, even at $23 per gallon. econiomically, electric cars make no sense whatsoever. And those "cheap electric motors that" the author refers to exist mostly in his imagination. You can price an example of a automotive size and quality electric motor at UQM, a leader in the technology. They are NOT cheap. The EV-1 cost three to four times what an equivalent ICE vehicle would cost and the costs didn't stop there - every 5 years another $20,000+ was needed for those "cheap" NiMH battery packs. The EV-1 deserved t die - it should never have been put on th emarket in the first place, a fact understood by Honda,who offered their own electric car , the EV, the same year that the EV-1 was introduced , in 1997. Honda cancelled their car after a few months. GM was silly enough to keep their crappy EV-1 on the market for another 5 years. They were hoping for what any electric car needs - a viable battery. They never found one, and none still exist. The NiMH batteries, which this braindead article claims are lightweight and cheap, weighed 1200 pounds in the tiny EV-1 and cost over $20,000. The article also ignores the
characteristics required of a battery for series and EV use. ALL of the automakers have said that such a practical battery does not exist yet, not just GM. I also note that GM has
publicly promised that the VOLT will be ready for production in 2010, and if and when a battery is available, will be put on the market. I'm amazed that a grown, literate writer would swallo w the pathetically transparent lies contained in the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" a supposed history of the modern electric which uses infomercial type personal endorsements of the EV-1 in lieu of objective evaluation of all its shortcomings. The car was a total piece of garbage. The Honda EV and Toyota Rav 4 electric were both massively superior and they were cancelled as well. The article writer apparently believes that only GM built an electric car during the 1990's.
I might add that the series hybrid has its advantages, but one isn't superior fuel economy at speed - the direct drive hybrids available right now perform more efficiently
in that arena.
The article avoids the problems facing electric car developers and reduces problems to simple minded solutions like his suggestion that cars carry (somehow) their own geenrators around for those long trips. Aside from the still present problems with battery costs and
lifespans that his "solution" conveniently ignores, there is the further elimination of that claimed advantage of a "cheap" electric motor. Now his imaginary car has TWO motors.
I wonder where this amateur car designer plans to locate his "sometimes ICE"? An electric car is pretty much filled up with its batteries.
I also wonder how he expects to travel those 220 KM on an NiMH battery pack? NiMH batteries are hefty - 1200 for a mere 25 kWhrs hours or enough to get a normal car about 110 miles down the road. His 100km range imaginary car would need 2500 pounds of NiMH batteries(!!!!). Cost: oh, about $40,000 for the batteries alone, a yearly cost of perhaps
$8,000 just for the batteries, or about 6 to 7 timer the cost of gasoline. I'm convinced now that his solutions are simple. Very simple, as in simple-minded. I'm quite sure the electric car developers over at GM are laughing very hard at the nonsennsical poop contained in this article.

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By theBike45 (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 08:41:08

Funny, last time I checked, GM not only was going fullbore on their VOLT development, but had opened the effort up to the media. Perhaps the writer of this article should know (as apprently he doesn't) that THREE automakers cancelled electric car developed during the 1990's - Honda (EV-introduced in 1997, cancelled later that year for lack of public interest); Toyota cancelled their Rav 4 electric program the very same year that GM cancelled the EV-1 (2002) also due to lack of public interest, primarilly because of inconveniences and excessive battery costs
leading to lack of consumer demand. GM should
NEVER have put the EV-1 on the market. The car killed itself - it didn't need any outside help to become the Edsel of the 1990s. Claims that the car was a wonder ("Who Killed the Electric Car?") are a wonder themselves and are totally incompetent lies.

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By nikolai (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 08:58:08

wow thebike45, you should tell that to the guys at Tesla Motors.

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By liveoilfree (registered) - website | Posted April 11, 2007 at 10:59:16

The EV1 was, in fact, a great car. Used in conjunction with Solar rooftop power, the combination of "EV-PV" allows you to live essentially "oil-free".

Solar rooftop power lowers the daily peak usage and helps avoid brownouts, also gaining credit for the solar homeowner for later off-peak charging.

One typical solar home produces up to 30 kWh per day. Using "time of use" tariffs, that gives credit for up to 120 kWh that can be applied to night time off-peak slow charging of a plug-in Electric car.

But even just at 30 kWh, the home uses 15 kWh, and 15 is left for charging the Electric car.

15 kWh powers the Toyota RAV4-EV for 45 to 60 miles, or up to 2000 miles per month.

Hence, with rooftop solar power and plug-in cars, you can generally avoid gas stations, and live essentially "oil-free".

And each kWh that you use to avoid gas purchases powers the EV up to 4 miles, which, at 25 cents per mile, is worth up to $1.

Avoiding gas purchases for 160,000 miles of EV driving, we avoided buying 8,000 gallons of gas (and no oil changes, no smog checks, no tune-ups, no engine or drive-train repairs, almost no brake wear) which is worth at least $16,000 (at only $2/gallon).

So we paid for our solar rooftop system JUST FROM AVOIDED GASOLINE PURCHASES.

That's why Chevron and GM worked together to kill the Electric car: Chevron for obvious resons (if the price of oil were related to the cost of production, it would be about $6/bbl) and GM because the EV does not need repairs, it threatens the dealer network.

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By angela (registered) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 11:18:32

Interesting article, Ted. What about the new Lexus hybrid SUV?

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By liveoilfree (registered) - website | Posted April 11, 2007 at 11:33:55

The EV1 was, in fact, a great car. Used in conjunction with Solar rooftop power, the combination of "EV-PV" allows you to live essentially "oil-free".

Solar rooftop power lowers the daily peak usage and helps avoid brownouts, also gaining credit for the solar homeowner for later off-peak charging.

One typical solar home produces up to 30 kWh per day. Using "time of use" tariffs, that gives credit for up to 120 kWh that can be applied to night time off-peak slow charging of a plug-in Electric car.

But even just at 30 kWh, the home uses 15 kWh, and 15 is left for charging the Electric car.

15 kWh powers the Toyota RAV4-EV for 45 to 60 miles, or up to 2000 miles per month.

Hence, with rooftop solar power and plug-in cars, you can generally avoid gas stations, and live essentially "oil-free".

And each kWh that you use to avoid gas purchases powers the EV up to 4 miles, which, at 25 cents per mile, is worth up to $1.

Avoiding gas purchases for 160,000 miles of EV driving, we avoided buying 8,000 gallons of gas (and no oil changes, no smog checks, no tune-ups, no engine or drive-train repairs, almost no brake wear) which is worth at least $16,000 (at only $2/gallon).

So we paid for our solar rooftop system JUST FROM AVOIDED GASOLINE PURCHASES.

That's why Chevron and GM worked together to kill the Electric car: Chevron for obvious resons (if the price of oil were related to the cost of production, it would be about $6/bbl) and GM because the EV does not need repairs, it threatens the dealer network.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 12:06:06

Honestly, I don't write articles for the purpose of baiting people with agendas to defend into adhominem attacks, but it is fun!

Maybe comments would be more reliable if declarations of competing interests were made (like who employs you). But then ideological bias is more intense than financial bias.

theBike makes only one good point: batteries are expensive and replacement is an issue. Since there has been no mass-market efficiency applied to electric cars, think of their present development like where the personal computer was in 1980: Remember the VIC20?

theBike's comments about battery weight are ridiculous, since electric cars can be smaller, lighter, simpler and are essentially "leapfrog" technology since it does not and should not mimic the typical ICE car.

Here's an example so you can check the math. I have a Lithium polymer battery for an electric r/c plane: 11.1V 1500mAh 130g $50. That's 16.7 Wh.

My second car requirement involves city driving, 15 km range per day, peak speed 60 km/h, av speed 30 km/h. Something the size of a Smart car would do, let's say it requires 3kW average power (conservative overestimate). Energy required for this: 1.5 kWh.

model airplane batteries needed: 90 battery cost: $4500 (realistically about half this cost if you were to use purpose-sized larger cells) battery weight: 11.7 kg (26 lbs) peak battery power at 20C: 30kW = 40 HP, i.e. same as a diesel smart but lighter, torquier, would easily be able to squeal tires tailpipe pollution: 0 (handy in the city, no?) recharge cost: $0.20 at $0.13/kWh, the same as leaving 2 60W bulbs on overnight.

Incidentally, NiMH is roughly half the cost and twice the weight of Li.

Expensive? Slightly. Heavy? No. Practical range? It's a second city car, not the Dakkar rally. I have another car for road trips.

For comparison, so you can confirm my example is in the ballpark, here's the specs on the $9500 Hymotion 5 kW lithium pack for the Prius:

http://www.hymotion.com/pdf/Specs_PHEV_L...

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 12:51:15

Re the Lexus hybrid SUV, I think you mean this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lexus_RX_40...

All toyota and lexus hybrid vehicles use "hybrid synergy drive" which is a series/parallel setup theoretically capable of running electric alone. They don't have enough stock battery capacity for much useful range if converted into plug-in hybrids (more importantly deep discharge kills batteries quickly, warranty issues)

The 4wd Lexus suv has the added complexity of an additional electric motor for the rear wheels (but avoids conventional driveshafts, differentials etc)

The Ford Escape is also a series/parallel hybrid capable of electric alone, it is very similar in design to the Prius.

Although the designations muddy, all other production hybrids that I am aware of are parallel hybrids.

Why there are several hybrid SUVs but no hybrid minivans is for the marketers to explain.

This may be useful: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hyb...

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By kevin (registered) | Posted April 11, 2007 at 17:51:22

Hey, thebiker45 chick, don't take your anger out on Ted. It's all Bush's fault.

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By DFresh (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2007 at 16:24:17

No matter how positive the news is for the mass production of electric cars, there will always be a segment of the population - (or persons that work for the car & oil companies) - that will always speak negatively (theBike45)about electric cars. The fact is that electric cars are being manufactured, sold, and driven successfully as we speak. This trend will continue to increase every year from now. This trend will create a new "Green Economy" that will rival or exceed the Internet boom of the 1990's. Here in California there are a few electric car manufacturers and a larger number of electric car retailers selling electric cars NOW. These smaller manufacturers will spur the big car companies to jump into action. Production and sales of electric cars will bring down the prices to an acceptable level over time.

Get ready everybody because the Green Revolution has already started!!

DGR
www.candd.biz/electricavenue

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By A Robot (anonymous) | Posted April 14, 2007 at 02:21:04

Having the opportunity to drive a Honda hybrid, I'm not convinced their technology is ideal. It seems a little too dependent on the engine where it really shouldn't. Off-the-line acceleration is better suited for the motor, whereas Honda primarily uses the Engine, albeit behind a CV transmission which is different. It will turn off the engine when it knows you're coming to a stop, but creep forward even slightly at a light and it fires back up only to shut off soon after. It's actually a great feature for stop lights so much as you kick the creeping habit, but to do the same thing for stop signs is worrying. It'll be interesting to see what happens when everything gets a little older.

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By on the grid (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2007 at 02:17:52

unfortunately, building and driving reliable, practical, and economical electric cars is only half the problem. where the electricity itself comes from is still an issue. while i agree that there is surplus generating capacity at night on the grid now, whether that will be the case if everyone is plugging in at night is a different story. also, how much of this surplus generating capacity is "dirty." i worry that people will start driving their "plug in" cars 100 km then plugging in at work during peak hours necessitating more coal fired power and thinking they are saving the planet. i am not saying that more energy efficient vehicles are not a better idea than what we have now, i just think that if as many of us as possible started reducing the actual distance we travel in a day we would probably be way further ahead in the long run. this of course involves changing the way we look at mid density housing, RE-integration of residential, commercial, AND industrial and the necessity of rethinking industry to accomodate such a thought (i.e. zero emission production including sound and smell). there is no real reason other than habit that most people could not go weeks without needing to travel anywhere near 100 kilometers. sure, a whole lot of infrastructure needs to change but it works just fine in many, many places in the world, why not in our city? we just need to convince people that their lives are better if they can walk to the grocery store and their children's school and to work. and that life lived in a car is not living at all.

p.s. if anyone has any information about micro-cogeneration equipment for houses available in ontario please post a link.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted April 18, 2007 at 14:44:16

Re micro-cogen:

A year ago I contacted Whispergen head office (NZ) and they basically said no for now about the north american 60Hz 120V spec.

There is a local distributor in Toronto area for their DC model, and they did not return my email inquiry a few months ago.

Honda might be faster to this market, but the present 160cc unit has low heat production (3kW) and suitable only for small or superinsulated normal sized houses in this climate. They do not appear to have any north american distribution either.

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By appalbarry (registered) - website | Posted April 22, 2007 at 09:12:10

What is the possible environmental impact of millions of NiMH and Lithium auto batteries?

What is involved on producing these, and what are the waste products and mining costs for materials?

Perhaps more importantly, what happens when we get millions of these batteries expiring each year? How recyclable are the component parts? What happens to the batteries that wind up abandoned in back yards and behind mechanic shops?

How toxic are the materials used?

It seems like we maybe swapping one large KNOWN environmental problem for new equally large UNKNOWN environmental challenge.

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By A Robot (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2007 at 21:19:46

NiMH doesn't contain heavy metals like lead or cadmium, commonly found in the other baddies, but the electrolyte isn't the best thing for the dump. The best thing they have going for them is the high nickel content, which is valuable to recyclers. So valuable that recycling would practically pay for itself. If the auto industry's current track record of more than 95% of all lead acid batteries recovered means anything, I think NiMH will have a healthy life cycle. A small depsoit on the new battery repayable upon the return of the old one, just like lead acids, would remind the end users and small shops to turn them in.

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