The technological hurdles to generalizing hydrogen-the sheer scale of the challenge-argue for an effort on the order of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo space program, but don´t bring that up around electric-vehicle (EV) advocates, who are royally ticked off that the car companies abandoned EVs in favor of hybrids and hydrogen research. Why the loyalty? Because even if you count the emissions from the fossil-fuel power plants that charge them, EVs are cleaner than the cleanest hybrids. Not a few in solar-rich California are charging their EVs with roof-mounted photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, achieving in their guerrilla way the ultimate goal of cheap, zero-emission transportation. Others are trying to hide their beloved EV1´s from GM, which began collecting and destroying the leased vehicles after a 2000 recall in which the company said that a design problem with charge ports could cause fires. Honda, too, ended its California-mandated electric-car program in 1999, blaming the demise on feeble consumer demand for the mere 330 cars the company had produced.
EV advocates argue that if only a small fraction of the billions spent on hydrogen and fuel cell research were devoted to battery research, EVs could surmount their greatest obstacle: range. Who's right? Everybody. Hydrogen doubters are right to question the cost-effectiveness of fuel cell technology to mitigate emissions and dependence on foreign oil; hydrogen backers are rightly optimistic that the technology will emerge to answer the need, as technology always does. But who will win the argument? Follow the money: The oil and car companies are investing heavily in hydrogen research, and these organizations are not known for their dreamy idealism.
While we´re waiting for our hydrogen ship to come in, efficiency is the cheapest and best means to improving energy security, emissions and performance. In the past decade, potent fuel-saving technologies have emerged, such as variable valve timing, common-rail diesel, direct injection and continuously variable transmissions. Hybrid gas-electric powertrains, which capture energy through regenerative braking, offer even more substantial gains.
But automotive engineering will hit a wall: the American love of weight and power. It isn´t only drivers who have been getting fatter in this country. Average engine horsepower has bulked up by 84 percent since 1981, offsetting the engine´s efficiency gains, while average vehicle weight in the U.S. has risen by more than 20 percent in two decades. One argument the auto industry has used against higher corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards is that such higher standards would require making vehicles lighter, leaving them less safe in collisions. This position puts General Motors, for one, in an awkward spot. Taking the lead among its Detroit brethren in fuel cell research, GM has promised to bring hydrogen-
powered vehicles to market by 2010, but it´s unlikely that these vehicles will have adequate range unless and until they are made from lightweight materials.
Thus, I boldly venture this near-term prediction: In the next decade, polymer-composite materials, particularly those reinforced with carbon fiber, will emerge from niche manufacturing to be used widely as a structural material. According to a study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, carbon-composite body construction could reduce vehicle weight by 40 to 65 percent. The new Ford GT is aluminum through and through and accelerates from 0 to 60 in 3.3 seconds, yet the two-seat sportscar weighs more than 3,400 pounds. Think what it would do if it weighed 1,700 pounds.
Carbon-fiber composites are already used in golf clubs, bicycles and jetliners, but there are technological challenges to employing them in cars, chief among them the slow, costly, labor-intensive process of laying up carbon-fiber composites and curing them piece by piece in autoclaves.
Meet the Revolution. The brainchild of Amory B. Lovins, CEO of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, the Revolution (HyperCar is the name of the for-profit company spun off from RMI to promote its ideas) is a computer-modeled concept for an ultralightweight vehicle that, Lovins says, illustrates the potential of carbon-composite vehicles. The Revolution would be constructed using a process Lovins calls Fiberforge, which stamps out carbon-fiber blanks and layers them assembly-line-style in large molds, into which resins are injected at high speed. McLaren is using a similar process to build its Mercedes-Benz SLR supercar.
Similar approaches are being developed in the U.K. in a project called the Aero-Stable Carbon Car that involves, among other groups, Lotus Engineering. The ASCC project has patented a process wherein bundles of foamcore sleeved with carbon fiber are impregnated with resin and bonded together to form parts of a composite spaceframe.
Besides weight, another big drain on the efficiency of an automobile with an internal combustion engine is heat. Only about 20 percent of the energy content of gasoline reaches the driven wheels; more than half is wasted in the engine as heat. What if you could recapture that energy and turn it into electricity? The Borealis Company, based in Gibraltar, has patented a â€thermionic automobile,â€ which uses waferlike devices based on something called quantum mechanical tunneling to convert heat to electricity.
Sounds neat. Where can I buy one? Ah, but that´s the problem with the future: It´s never around when you need it.
Whatever the future brings, one thing has already changed, and it is so fundamental that we might not have even noticed the changing. Gone forever is the time when we thought of a car as discrete from the world in which it operated. Consumers are beginning to understand the automotive ecology, and it runs deeper than greener-than-thou Hollywood stars glorifying themselves by buying Toyota Priuses. Guilt-low-voltage but steady-must nag at the lone driver of the supersize SUV as he fires up the six-liter engine in his three-ton truck (12 mpg city, 16 highway) for his morning commute. Perhaps he turns the key and looks at the sky.
The automobile is, after all, not just a machine but the tangible part of a global energy system, vast and abstract and hard to comprehend. But we are starting to get the picture.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.