Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ethanol: Convenient Scapegoat or Justified Target?

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It seems everywhere you turn today, we see story after story highlighting the role of biofuels (and ethanol in particular) in the recent run-up of food prices world wide. Now we even see that petro-tyrant Hugo Chavez has joined Saudi Arabia's oil minister in denouncing biofuels as the primary factor in increased food prices. To hear them tell it, it would be as if $120 barrel oil, which costs as little as $2 per barrel to produce, has little to no effect on the price of growing, producing, and transporting food to the world marketplace.

And while nothing could be farther from the truth, it's much easier to draw a connection from a cob of corn to the price of food, than a barrel of oil.

In the real world though, the price of oil has a dramatic and real effect on food costs. It's an unavoidable reality, but one that seems lost in all the anti-ethanol hysteria of late. Whereas a box of corn flakes only contains about 5 cents worth of corn, the amount of fuel and energy that went into making that same box of corn flakes, transporting it from the factory to the distribution center and finally on to your local market has a substantially greater impact on the final price you pay than does the price of the corn that went into it. Each and every food item that we purchase is subject to this same correlation of fuel to food, much more so than the cost of the raw materials (including corn and wheat) that it takes to make them.

Energy is the closest thing to the be-all-end-all causative agent in the price of almost everything we make and buy than any other resource. And in today's world, energy = oil. And yet, to hear the critics of biofuels tell it, the role of the astronomical cost of energy in all of this is significantly downplayed due to the emergence of ethanol as an alternative fuel. To put it simply, ethanol has become the convenient scapegoat of the day.

Corn based ethanol is not the answer to our growing energy needs, by a long shot. However, the presence of ethanol on the world market has served to displace and reduce the price of oil. Consequently, the production of corn for food use has actually increased as a result of the greater demand for biofuels (a byproduct of the ethanol production process yields about 18 pounds, per bushel of food product). The net US corn harvest available for food and feed is up 34% since 2002! US farm exports are up 23% and contrary to the food vs fuel alarmists, we have much more farm capacity than we are even using today. Out of a total of 800 million acres of US farmland, only 280 million are actually being farmed!

There are two key transitions that are taking place in the energy marketplace: (1) Beginning this year, cellulosic ethanol will begin to supplant corn ethanol as the most cost effective and environmentally benign means of producing ethanol and (2) The electrification of the automobile will replace the internal combustion engine as the most efficient means of transport. First via plugin hybrids and extended range electric vehicles, then on to pure EVs that do not sacrifice any of the luxury, comfort and safety that US car consumers demand.

Both of these solutions have a very important bridge role to play as we transition our motor vehicle's over to electric propulsion. The first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant is already producing ethanol today in Upton Wyoming converting wood chips to fuel. And later this year, Range Fuels in Soperton Georgia will come online using the same wood chips to fuel production cycle. Later this year, Coskata, LLC will begin producing ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks such as wood chips, municipal waste and biomass at a pilot plant that will grow to full production by 2011. In Coskata's case, they have publically stated that they will be able to produce ethanol for $1 per gallon, we can expect similar efficiencies from the other cellulosic ethanol producers.

This will have a dramatic impact on lessening our reliance on foreign oil. Of additional benefit, cellulosic feedstocks such as switchgrass (in the east and southeastern US) and miscanthus (in the West and Midwestern US) are able to be grown with little or no pesticides, require minimal inputs of energy to cultivate and are able to be grown on land that would be unsuitable for food crops or other meaningful use. In the case of switchgrass, the root system is extends as deep into the soil as the plant itself and serves as a significant sink for CO2 sequestration, offsetting the CO2 that is released when it is burned as fuel. On the other hand, when oil is extracted from the ground (at a cost of about $2), sold on the futures market (at a cost of about $120 per barrel) refined into gasoline, and burned for motor fuel, the carbon emissions are completely released into our atmosphere.

At the same time this is happening, we are beginning to see the move towards the imminent electrification of the automobile. First, we will see electrically assisted propulsion, and then, once battery technology advances even further and costs continue to come down, fully electrical powertrains will supplant the internal combustion engine as we know it (Extended range electric vehicles will continue to utilize the super efficient, low emmissions internal combustion engine in the near term, most using flex fuel powertrains).

In the meantime, we will rely on biofuels, hybrid vehicles and increased mass transport to help supplant petroleum and combat the high costs of oil. The facts will continue to emerge on petroleum's impact on high food prices even as we continue to transition our automotive fleet as well as our biofuels production to newer more effective technologies for combating the stranglehold that petroleum has on our economy.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The $30k Plugin Hybrid just became reality

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A123 Systems Hymotion brand has just announced the availability of a $9,995 conversion kit that allows any 2004-2008 Prius to be converted to a plugin hybrid. The system comes stocked with A123's lithium battery cells to power the car for 20-20 miles without the need to use a drop of gasoline (assuming you can drive below the Prius built in 42 mph threshold at which point the gasoline engine unavoidably kicks in).

This is huge news for those early adopters waiting on GM, Toyota and others to develop mass produced plugin hybrids capable of running mostly gasoline free. It means that for about the price of a "pre-owned" Prius (~ $20k) plus the cost of the plugin conversion kit, they can have a plug-in vehicle today for around $30k.

What this means for the rest of America is still uncertain. Currently the kit is only being offered as an add on for one type of automobile, the second generation Prius. But that does not rule out the idea that if the concept takes hold, A123 might see fit to branch out and develop systems for other hybrids as well such as the Toyota Camry and Highlander hybrids and the Nissan Altima and Ford Escape hybrids, all based on the same Toyota hybrid technology.

This is certainly an important development in the evolution of the plugin hybrid. It signals significant momentum behinf A123's battery technology. They are offering the kit with free installation and a three year warranty. The batteries are good for 7000 charge cycles and can be recharged in 4 hours on standard 120 volt home electricity using a standard plug.

2015 Fast Forward: The 36 mpg takes center stage

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As a result of the recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration new proposal for upped CAFE standards of 35.7 mpg for cars and 26.7 mpg for trucks by 2015, Detroit's best and brightest are hard at work drafting designs and powerplants to meet the new standards. The new limit would succeed a current 27.5 mpg standard for cars which is unchange since 1975. Last year, new cars on the US market averaged 31.3 mpg. It's important to note that these are highway EPA mileage requirements, not city driving limits.

The proposal itself is a bit more complicated than the simplicity of a 35 mpg mandate by 2015. In fact, it represents an average in which one car companie's fleet of vehicles requirements might be slightly different than anothers based on the average "footprint" of the particular manufacturer's fleet. For example, Ford's 1015 requirement is 35.4 mpg while Toyota's is 34.6 mpg.

As a result of the new fuel efficiency benchmarks, many new product projects have been put on hold or cancelled, signaling that the policy's are having a real and measurable effect. Early this year, General Motors announced it had cancelled its $3-billion Ultra V-8 program, a replacement for Cadillac's Northstar V-8. The hopeful outcome of this is that this money can perhaps be spent on developing a Cadillac that offers all the luxury with perhaps double the fuel economy!

The NHTSA's proposal does not anticipate how the automakers are able to satisfy the new rules, however, GM's Bob Lutz has indicated that the only way to get there is by implementing hybrid technology across the fleet. And putting his money where his mouth is, Lutz company is introducing hybrid versions of it's automobiles at an astounding rate.

Because current hybrid offerings are $3-$5k more than conventional powertrains, some critics say the proposal might have the result of forcing consumers into smaller cars than they otherwise would purchase. However, with technological advancements as a result of many more bright minds working on hybrid propulsion systems, it is expected that the incremental cost will decrease significantly over time.

The state of battery technology advancements could have a dramatic effect on all of this, and has the potential upside of rendering these proposals obsolete when compared to the 100+ mpg potential of using lithium based battery stacks in conjunction with small efficient flexible fueled internal combustion engines as range extenders, just as GM is using with the forthcoming Chevy Volt.

The "race to 36" is on!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Breaking: GM considering an all electric "e-Volt" to meet California zero emissions requirements.

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There has been some speculation that the E-flex system could perhaps operate without batteries and still achieve a remarkable 50mpg. Intrigued with the possibility of this, I decided to go directly to the source, GM's car czar, Bob Lutz. Mr Lutz was quick to respond to my questions and indicated that no, the E-flex system cannot operate without the battery stack. As a matter of fact, the ICE propulsion system is connected to the batteries, not the electric motor, so the batteries must always maintain charge for propulsion to occur. This means that when the batteries are near depletion, the ICE comes on to quick-charge the batteries. The batteries are then able to do more work for an additional 350 miles or or so, until the ICE runs out of fuel. At that point, just refill the tank and continue on, all while maintaining a very respectful 50+ mpg in "e-rev" mode.

What was perhaps more interesting is that Bob offered up to me a better question, then proceeded to answer it... "What if we could do a Volt that's cheaper, without engine and all the plumbing, and have a pure electric with more range?" He later indicated that the folks at GM are pondering just that question as an answer to the California mandate that they produce a couple thousand zero emissions vehicles. He actually indicated that some inside GM were lobbying for fuel cell vehicles to answer the mandate (owing to the fact that some folks have "career equity" in fuel cells), but he agreed with me that pure EV was the most sensible route compared to expensive hydrogen powered fuel cells.

This is the first time that we've heard that GM is seriously contemplating an all electric Volt, although they have made the suggestion in the past. It would be a huge development for the American car company with such a colorful past regarding pure electrics (having produced, and later recalling and crushing the infamous EV1 some 5 years ago).

But Bob wasn't finished there, in perhaps even more of a blockbuster revelation, he indicated that in just ten short days from today, he will hop into the very first Volt prototype for a test drive. (Editors note: Bob actually used the word prototype, but all indications are that Bob's ride will be in a Malibu skinned "mule" vehicle with production Volt internals.)

It does speak to the confidence of the development team to allow the company chairman behind the wheel at this stage with some 30 months to go before we see Volt's roll into dealer showrooms. It would definitely appear that the 2010 launch is imminent. And from today's revelations, it's certainly worth speculating if GM just might have an early launch surprise up it's sleeve. Such a move would be a dramatic kick start of the race to electrify the automobile. More importantly for GM, it would serve to ambush the competition and establish an early lead for market dominance over rival Toyota.

It's going to be a fun ride on the E train to 2010!

Monday, April 21, 2008

AP: US Hybrid Sales up 38% in 2007

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According to a just published by AP report, sales of hybrids were up 38% last year, led by the venerable Toyota Prius. Even though hybrid's only made up some 2.2 percent of the market share last year, their growth was notable in an automotive market that, as a whole, experienced a 3% decline for the year.

It does appear that the automakers are finally getting the message (GM's Bob Lutz told me that GM will be releasing a new hybrid every three months for the next year, though he appears geniunely skeptical on whether buyers will pay the premium for the hybrid tech. Hybrid automobiles will be essential if US automakers are to meet the fuel efficiency standards set forth in the 2007 energy bill passed on Dec 19th of last year.

Some interesting points from the article:

  • Of the 350,289 hybrids sold in 2007, over 51% were Toyota Prius models, up from 43 percent in 2006 despite the influx of new hybrids.

  • California remained the top state for hybrid sales in 2007. Twenty-six percent of all hybrid registrations were in California, up 35 percent from 2006. Florida, New York, Texas and Washington followed.

  • Sales of hybrids are expected to jump another 30% in 2008, while overall sales of non hybrids are expected to continue to falter amid a weakened economy and $3-$4 gasoline.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hacking your MPG with HyperMiling

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In an attempt to wring a bit of extra gas mileage out of my aging 1996 Infiniti I30 v6 sedan, I've somewhat by accident discovered the art of "hypermiling". The term "hypermiling" refers to the practice of using unconventional techniques to wring more miles per gallon (in some cases, substantially more) than the EPA's estimates for the vehicle being hypermiled.

In my case, I've taken to putting the gear in neutral when approaching the crest of a hill or incline and coasting with traffic for as long as possible. In most cases, due to the mass of the vehicle and the inertial momentum at the start of the coast, the vehicle will actually gain speed. The degree of gain proportionate, of course, to the incline of the stretch of road in front of the car. In some cases, a sudden change in decline will disrupt the coast, requiring putting the car in gear again and applying gentle amounts of pedal to get the car back to speed and traffic flow. In other cases, a stop light or backed up traffic will abruptly end a coast.

What I've been practicing is not really considered hypermiling, it could perhaps be called "mild hypermiling". True hypermiling requires that the engine be shut off during coasting. A practice that is quite controversial and quite potentially dangerous in light of the potential for the steering wheel to lock and the hydraulic brakes to cease operation. Of course, this is a technique that hybrid cars utilize as standard operating procedure. They, however, are engineered to do it safelt without loss of control.

In any event, hypermiling techniques have been used to generate some truly astounding mpg numbers from some unlikely vehicles such as SUVs and standard sedans. In my case, I'm just a little over a quarter of a tank used since I began toying with hypermiling techniques and I've managed to wring out 170 miles so far. If I'm able to continue at this pace, I will have gotten 37.7mpg out of the 18 gallon gas tank. Quite a feat considering my average has been around 17mpg to this point.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Charging stations on the way for 2010 Plug-in hybrids

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California's Coulomb Technologies is working with the state of California to install charging stations for the upcoming crop of plug-in hybrid vehicles such as the Chevy Volt, Saturn Vue and Prius plug-in models.

These cars are expected to hit US roads in late 2010 and Coulomb (currently in "quiet mode") wants to give them a plug as it were. The company expects to install small charging stations in current parking areas alongside traditional parking meters. No word yet on pricing but the systems are currently in operation in London at no charge to commuters. The California plan will likely allow the customer to pay for a quick charge (220v) via debit card.

Monday, April 7, 2008

What's the most effective aerodynamic shape for a car?

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As a result of the buzz surrounding the wind tunnel testing of the Chevy Volt, I've done a bit of research into what vehicle shapes provide the lowest wind resistance (cd, or coefficient of drag in techie talk). Since lower wind resistance equates to greater fuel efficiency, this is a point of considerable attention to the manufacturers of next generation vehicles.

More on the tech of aerodynamic design after the jump, but I thought it would be interesting to start the conversation with some of the most aerodynamic vehicles that have ever been created. Here we go....

The instant takeway here is that the symmetrical shape of the EV1 is no doubt the best design (of the bunch) from a purely aerodynamic perspective. The Honda Insight and CRX models represent a slight departure with the raised rear deck lid that provided obvious influence on cars to follow such as the 2004 Prius and others.

The overiding concern for vehicle manufacturers is to balance design asthetic with aerodynamic performance. This can get very complicated, especially given that even small changes in the shape of side mirrors can effect as much as a 10 point sway in CD.

In the next installment of this series we will take a look at the state of the art computer modeling software which designers use to see real time effects to CD as design changes are implemented.

The most suprising thing that jumps out in the comparison is the Lexus LS 430's suprisingly low CD number, despite it's comparitively blocky shape. One has to believe that the folks at Toyota have a trick or two up their sleeve in the area of aero design.

Artist Render: Updated side profile rendering of final Chevy Volt design

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Lyle over at GM-Volt.com has just posted an updated hi resolution version of the Chevy Volt wind tunnel video that came out of last week's tour of the GM tech center. He's also listed some comments from Volt team's lead designer, Bob Boniface on what has changed and what stays the same from the striking design of the concept vehicle.

We here at PetroZero love to pull out our photoshop tools and set them to work on uncovering the mystery that is Chevy Volt. In that spirit, we present our rendition of the final design profile...

The top image is an unretouched shot of the concept vehicle. The middle image is our artist rendering of what we believe is to be the final production vehicle. The lower image shows the rendered shape with an overlay outline of the original volt concept shape (in red outline) layered over the top for comparison.

From the images you can see the differences as expressed by Bob Boniface's comments below:

-it will look unmistakably like the Volt
-overall proportions have changed
-front end is much more rounded
-roof height has gone up
-low rear overhang stays
-dropped belt line is still there
-length is identical
-very sporty and athletic
-has a nice stance and rake

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Updated Volt Spy Photo Rendering

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Last night I posted a photoshop rendering of what the new design Chevy Volt might look like, I posted a link over at gm-volt.com and it started a bit of friendly competition to unmask the new Volt.

In my original post (see the post directly below this one), I used photoshop to trace the outline of the camoflouged pic of the 1/3 scale final design vehicle that was shown in the (by now infamous) wind tunnel video.

In this photoshop rendering, I've used some morphing techniques on the original concept vehicle to effect the new shape seen in the wind tunnel tests. I'm well pleased with this version as opposed to the more Prius/Civic look of the previous rendering. Who knows what will be revealed once GM takes the wraps off, but it's definitely fun to speculate...

Friday, April 4, 2008

Chevy Volt Spy Video

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This week GM has invited a select group of journalist into the super secretive offices and labs of its Chevy Volt extended range electric vehicle. The revolutionary vehicle appears to be on track for the anticipated 2010 launch date.

Photoshop enhanced images of vehicle to emphasize revised shape (somewhere between Prius at the rear and Civic at the front) and window cutouts:

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Range Fuels, the World's First Commercial Cellulosic Ethanol producer gets $130 Million

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A group of investors is placing one of the biggest bets yet on a type of ethanol production that doesn't involve food crops.

Range Fuels Inc., a start-up in Broomfield, Colo., on Tuesday is announcing $130 million in new equity funding. The money will go toward the first phase of construction on a plant in Soperton, Ga., which is expected to create ethanol using wood material that typically goes unused when timber is harvested. The company, which has received a $76 million grant commitment from the U.S. Department of Energy, expects the plant to be the first of its kind to operate on a commercial scale.

The effort comes as publicly traded ethanol companies have taken a pounding in the markets, reflecting rising corn prices and a widening debate over the environmental impact of the cultivation, processing and shipping necessary to bring the fuel additive to market. Other types of biofuels made from food crops -- or from crops grown on land that environmental activists argue would be better used for growing food -- also have come under attack.

Amid the concerns, investors are racing to back companies that are developing technology to convert cellulosic biomass, or fibrous plant material, into ethanol. And some investors argue that Range Fuels and others using what is called a thermochemical process to convert cellulosic material have the best chance of success. "It is dramatically cheaper," said Vinod Khosla, a Silicon Valley billionaire whose personal investment vehicle is backing the start-up and four others using cellulosic feedstocks.

Despite support from the federal government and some investors, cellulosic ethanol hasn't proved it can be produced economically in large quantities. It also faces competition from other fuels as companies and governments look for alternatives to increasingly expensive oil.

Range Fuels's production process converts wood waste into a synthetic gas, which is then liquefied to make ethanol. Some others, such as Cambridge, Mass.-based Mascoma Corp., which raised $50 million recently from venture investors, use a biological approach, in which genetically modified enzymes break down cellulosic material into sugars.

Michael Mandich, a former Apple Inc. executive and chief executive of Range Fuels, estimates that the marginal cost to produce ethanol from corn is almost $2 a gallon. He estimates that biological cellulosic technologies cost $3 to $4 a gallon.

Mr. Mandich predicts that Range Fuels's costs would come in well below those of corn ethanol, but wouldn't disclose its cost per gallon. Mr. Khosla, however, predicts that thermochemical approaches will reach $1.25 a gallon as they are perfected.

Colin South, Mascoma's president, suggests that thermochemical technologies face their own hurdles, such as cleaning gases created as part of the production process. The Energy Department -- which has given funding to six companies pursuing biological and thermochemical technologies, including Range Fuels -- believes that "diversification and variation" of approaches is the best funding strategy now, said Alexander Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Range Fuels's latest funding round includes an infusion from San Francisco hedge fund Passport Capital LLC, and includes new investors BlueMountain, Morgan Stanley and Pacific Corporate Group, the company said. Khosla Ventures, which had previously invested in the company, also contributed to the round.

Khosla Ventures's other cellulosic-ethanol investments include Coskata Inc., of Warrenville, Ill., which also has raised funding from some large corporate partners, including Detroit-based General Motors Corp.

Other large companies are seeing the potential in cellulosic ethanol. In February, for example, San Ramon, Calif.-based oil-and-gas company Chevron Corp. and forestry giant Weyerhaeuser Co. launched a joint venture called Catchlight Energy LLC to develop ethanol facilities from cellulose sources such as woody biomass. Royal Dutch Shell PLC has invested in the Canadian company Iogen Corp., which is building its own cellulosic production facilities, and the two are working with Volkswagen AG to explore the use of the technology in VW cars.

(Source: WalStreetJournal.com)

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