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Gasoline Powered Auto: RIP
But Not Yet

December 20, 2005: Lithium ion batteries with nano-particulate electrodes have made the gasoline powered automobile obsolete. But the public don't know that yet and the auto industry isn't about to tell them.

The rise in the price of oil provides the auto industry with what appears to be a golden opportunity. Don't spend more on gas, they say, give us the extra money, and we'll sell you a very complicated new car that burns less gas. Down the road it will cost a fortune to service, but you're not to realize that now.

The BMW steamer, if it is not a joke, is a fine example of this approach. According to a magazine report, the steamer will recapture the waste heat from the gas engine -- amounting to 80% of the energy content of the gasoline consumed by the car -- to drive a steam turbine, which will enhance fuel economy by 15%. Think about the math. Eighty percent of the energy content of the gasoline is wasted, but this system to recapture that waste energy will enhance fuel economy by a mere 15%. In other words, the BMW steamer will have an overall energy use efficiency of 23% versus 20% for a standard car. Big deal. And a big increase in cost and complexity.

The age of the electric automobile
It has been said that an electric automobile is a device for transporting a large quantity of batteries a short distance and that if you want to increase its range you have to add more batteries. What's more, when the batteries are flat, you need eight hours to recharge them. Lithium ion batteries, in their latest nano-particle electrode form, differ from other batteries in three important ways. They store more energy per pound, they deliver energy more rapidly and they can be charged in minutes. What this means is that the electric car of the future will have the same performance characteristics as a gasoline powered car, a similar range on a single charge and a much higher energy use efficiency.

A sub-compact electric car with a 100 kilogram battery pack will have a top speed twice the legal limit and a range of up to several hundred kilometers. It will be recharged in minutes either at home or at a wayside energy station. Power will come from hub-mounted electric motors, providing a low center gravity, regenerative braking and electronic traction control. There will be no gas tank, no gas engine, no exhaust manifold, catalytic converter, radiator, fan, oil pump, gas pump, gear box, transmission, differential, alternator, and much else. It will, in other words be a very simple low maintenance car.

The beneficial environmental consequences of electric cars will be large. They will bring an end to photochemical smog, which damages human health and lowers agricultural productivity. They will reduce energy use in transportation, although by how much depends on the source of electricity. The most efficient power generating systems convert more than 60% of the energy in hydrocarbon fuels to electricity. Of that, some is lost in transmission and more would be lost when it is stored and then discharged from a battery. In addition, an electric motor is only about 80% efficient. Nevertheless, the overall energy use efficiency could be around 40%. That's twice the efficiency of the current generation of gasoline powered automobiles, and comparable to the best that can be hoped for from a fuel-cell vehicle, another complicated and expensive product the car companies would love to sell to you. What's more, carbon dioxide from power stations can be efficiently captured and sequested from the atmosphere, which is not the case with auto emissions.

Finally, the electric car seems to offer offer a promising application for solar power. A compact car could carry three or four square meters of solar panels. The most efficient panels under the most favorable conditions have an efficiency of better than 30% and generate over 300 watts per square meter. Thus on a sunny day, a solar-electric car would capture upt to 15 kilowatt hours of energy, enough for a daily round-trip commute of 100 kilometers or more.

For the American big three, and for Toyota, BMW and the other established automakers, the solar electric auto is a nightmare. The introduction of a cheap, simple, commuter car that could be sold for as little as ten or fifteen thousand dollars would lead to a severe contraction in revenue, although not unit sales. One can be sure, therefore, that any solar-electric auto initiative will be impeded by alls means possible by the established manufacturers. The Asians, however, are unlikely to be so constrained. A large share of the potential Chinese market for cheap electric vehicles would soon dwarf the existing sales of Toyota or GM. Look forward, therefore, to your next-generation vehicle coming from Asia, although probably not from Japan.

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