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April 26, 2006

Some Alternate Fuel Research

Is it me, or has Popular Mechanics quietly become the most respected news service in the country? My goodness, they do great in-depth research and present the facts on a variety of issues. They really put the NYT and other dino-papers to shame. Here's their latest look at alternative fuels:

In the lab, many gasoline alternatives look good. Out on the road, automotive engineers have a lot of work to do, and energy companies have new infrastructure to build, before very many people can drive off into a petroleum-free future. And, there's the issue of money. Too often, discussions of alternative energy take place in an alternative universe where prices do not matter.

Read the whole thing and let's discuss.

(h/t to Insta. When does he prepare for class? Heh.)

Posted by Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 07:25 AM


I'm glad they've figured out the proper blend for alcohol cars to work in cold weather. When I was in Brazil in the mid-80s they were making a lot of 100% alcohol cars (it helps to be the largest sugar producer in the world) and those things just would not start at all when the temps got into the 40s, let alone below freezing. You'd hear people grinding the starters away to nothing on cold mornings.

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 07:59 AM

The biodiesel looks pretty interesting. I remember reading a science fiction story a long time ago about a guy who ran his diesel car in a post-apocalyptic world on butter (unsalted). My main concern with the biodiesel has to do with the word "Volkswagon." I love my Passat; it's a fantastic driving car, but man I am getting annoyed with the increasing visits to the shop now that she's six. I have very little confidence in VW's ability to produce a reliable cutting-edge tech car. I hope I'm wrong.

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 08:17 AM

I'm on board for the biodiesel. It looks very promising. As far as name brand is concerned, if you're seeing Volksawagon now, that means that soon you'll see Mercedes, BMW and Audi which means that you could see Toyota, Nissan and Honda if there's enough market interest.

With the amount of fried food the Japanese consume (tempura anyone?), you'd think they'd be all over this idea.

Posted by: Cullen at April 26, 2006 08:37 AM

If PM is the best we've got, we're in a sad, sad state. Their section on hydrogen glossed over the ability to get it from multiple sources (biohydrogen, natural gas reformation, thermal depolymerization, among others) and only provided pricing on what is widely considered the most expensive way to get hydrogen water electrolysis (and at a price double the 2005 industrial average/kwh). Today, commercially produced hydrogen is $4-5 per kilogram through gas reformation and there are options leaving the lab at $1.50/kg. 7kg of hydrogen is a reasonable estimate of a 300 mile range fuel tank which gets you a $35 fill up with today's technology and an $11 fill up tomorrow. This is not commercially unreasonable.

On fuel storage, only the most conventional of storage methods was presented (pressurized tanks) while solid storage in a chemical matrix was omitted. As well, while many do not expect to deploy hydrogen until 2020, General Motors is one of the dissenters, with a tentative deployment date of 2010/2011 and a decision to deploy date of 2006 last reported on AFAICT in 2005.

Finally, a thin national network of hydrogen stations that could enable national travel could be deployed for well under $100 million if you popped them up a little closer than every 300 miles of interstate. Past that, the free market could take care of the rest of the pumps driven by demand as cars roll off the assembly line.

Posted by: TM Lutas at April 26, 2006 09:29 AM

Money quote:

But don't discount the appeal of gasoline too quickly. David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Auto Research, says, "If gasoline prices get too high and we look to other fuels--like hydrogen--you can expect that oil-producing nations will reduce our fuel costs. They want to continue to pump oil out, pump dollars in, and they could see the hydrogen economy as a threat."

The entire Middle East economy depends on oil revenue, and they know it. It would be nice to have some options, but the incentives are still not there, and also, there are many people, like me, who could not afford a new vehicle, so it would do me little good even if they brought out the new vehicles to use these fuels.

Posted by: Crusader at April 26, 2006 09:36 AM

Welcome TM! I haven't heard of those other sources; what is 'biohydrogen'? Are there plants that emit hydrogen? Make a heck of a starter for my fireplace...

What are the weight drawbacks on the solid storage of hydrogen? I seem to remember from the 80s there was talk about this, but I think the wight was a killer on the deal, even given the weight of the thick tanks needed to hold the pressurized gas, but I'm sure things have changed since then.

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 09:38 AM

See, when I hear "hydrogen fuels" I think "Hindenburg." There was nothing in the article about safety dangers; I'm guessing that the extreme compression makes it less volatile, but there will still be vapors and whatnot around. (I can already see Michael Moore's "Pinto Nation" in theaters in 2016.)

Posted by: Nightfly at April 26, 2006 09:58 AM

And that is exactly what has held hydrogen back, 'Fly (well, aside from all the technical thingies). Oh, the humanities! This is the greatest disaster in the history of mankind!

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 10:05 AM

Bio-diesel, produced by algae feeding on livestock waste, leaving nothing but fertilizer after its processed.

Diesel engines, when done right, last 500,000+ miles, requiring far less servicing than gassers. They are simple and can be purely mechanical, making them feasible for developing countries.

Bio-deisel can use the existing fuel distribution network with zero modification. It offers the perfect transition story as we can blend bio-deisel with dino-diesel in different amounts over the transition period, gradually weaning ourselves off the petro and giving us a mighty hammer to slam over the heads of our friends in the middle east.

Really, this is a no brainer. If we put half the effort into bio-diesel research that we put into hydrogen, we'd have a viable alternative to liquified dinosaurs on the ground now. Hell, if the government just let consumers buy diesel vehicles (thanks california!), mom-and-pop bio-diesel firms would spring up like mushrooms.


Posted by: Praetorian at April 26, 2006 10:46 AM

There's a difference between storing hydrogen in an armored metal container and within flammable rubber/fabric gas bags. Putting the tank in the centerline of a car with reinforced frame rails should be safe enough, compared to the safety record of gas tanks.

Or, just go with biodiesel, which you can use to put matches out in.

Still, I like the idea of having a gas station in every garage...


(could be done with hydrogen reformulated from home gas supplies until a hydrogen infrastructure is built)

Posted by: otis wildflower at April 26, 2006 10:47 AM

Just to bore you a bit more with my bio-diesel raving:

Bio-diesel is insanely safe. You can friggen drink the stuff if you want.

As I said, this is a no brainer folks.


Posted by: praetorian at April 26, 2006 10:48 AM

Welcome prat and otis!

I do like the idea of asking someone "would you like fries with that fill up?"

Bio-diesel sounds like the way to go...eat fried food! It's patriotic!

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 10:52 AM

RE: TM's Hydro comments

Gas reformation is stripping hydrogen from natural gas. Not exactly a renewable resource. While I do know of some lab research that has significantly lowered the cost of electrolysis, H2 cannot currently be derived from renewable sources at a net energy gain. However, if the US built 20 new 1.8 GWe nuclear plants, it could (probably) replace all coal electric generation and hydrolyze enough water to supply H2 for all personal transportation at approximately the same cost as today, minus the cost of new infrasturcture. Of course the infrastructure cost runs towards $1T + mark. A huge chunk of that is replacing 250M autos at $15-20K per car.

Additionally, I think PMs ethanol net energy stats fail to take in to account the cost of fertilizer - which is almost exclusively derived from petroleum and natural gas feedstock. You can fuel trucks, tractors, and combines with ethanol, but you can't generate ammonium nitrate.

Posted by: Brett at April 26, 2006 11:20 AM

Popular mechanics needs to update its fuels comparison chart - New York to California:

1. Largely because of crude oil price increases, gasoline is now over $3.00 ... not 2.34( as specified in the comparison) Ethanol too is a bit over $2.41 (as specified) because of the effect of crude oil increase on 15% gasoline portion of each gallon. Nevertheless, BY THE GALLON: Ethanol is now cheaper (@$2.77 per gal) than gasoline even after adjustment of price upward to offset 15% less mileage.

2. Must compare price per gallon of gasoline/E85, not cost per trip between NY and California of a gasoline Civic ($212.70) v. cost of a much heavier, more comfortable E85 Taurus ($425.00) An E85 capable Civic would produce within 85% of the mileage of a pure gasoline Civic ... but with a lower overall cost because of now cheaper E85 fuel.

3. Starting problems on engines burning pure ethanol can be solved without great equipment cost via injection into the intake manifold from a pressurized can of ether ... a simple system used by many diesel engines to aid starting in cold weather.

Posted by: Art Krannawitter at April 26, 2006 11:21 AM

Welcome Brett! That's interesting information. Something else that always seems to get lost in the love affair with electric vehicles, aside from the generational issues, is the battery issue. Are they still mostly lead that needs to be strip mined and then somehow disposed of?

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 11:27 AM

Welcome art!

I can see the reasoning for why they made the chart as they did, though. They made the not unreasonable assumption that someone who was interested in alternate fuel vehicles would look at the most efficient gas vehicle, even if it was in a smaller class. I agree that were an E/M85 Civic available it would be a better comparison, but they worked with what they had. Which then makes the cost per trip a useful benchmark.

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 11:36 AM

That PM has become a serious reporting source shows that there is an unmet demand. Years ago Scientific American used to fill this niche (a professor of mine once said this was a good place to start on any topic), but then turned "green" and anti-technology

Posted by: Dave Moelling at April 26, 2006 11:38 AM

Welcome Dave.

I think you have a point. If you look at PM's reporting on the WTC, Katrina, and now this; they are filling a void that the MSM has created.

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 11:56 AM

I was extremely impressed with PM's Katrina myth debunking, and this fuel issue has convinced me to subscribe. They are becoming another refreshing antidote to the tiresome Drive-by Media.

Posted by: Peg C. at April 26, 2006 12:20 PM

Hi Peg. Couldn't agree more. I'm subscribing as well; they deserve the support.

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 12:33 PM

Yeah Dave. I refuse to buy Scientific American since they refused to print Bjorn Lomborg's pieces. Scientists publish articles and refutations, they do not use editorial power to decide which interpretation of the facts is true.

Posted by: John at April 26, 2006 12:55 PM

You critics of PM have to give them credit for at least having an article to pick the flaws from. Where is the NYT's alternative fuel summary?

I think the good point of the article is there are both good short and long term alternatives available. E85 and Biodiesel have the advantage of piggybacking into existing technology and the available distribution system. H2 and Electric have some distribution issues, like how to tank up 1/2 way between NY and CA that will take some time to solve.

I agree that H2 using fossil fuels is a cheat. Electrolysis is the way to go, *after* those GWe nuclear plants are built. I'm with Peg on the subscription. I gave up on Junk-Scientific American years ago.

Posted by: Donald Campbell at April 26, 2006 12:59 PM

Exactly, Donald. PM lays out the issue in fairly clear terms that most folks can understand.

Aw heck, why wait for nukes? Let's build some more hydro plants; I'm tired of salmon, anyway.

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 01:11 PM

Fortunately, the University offered up an energy topics class this semester headed by 2 Chem E professors, Espino and Kirwan. They mentioned recently that they hope to put together an article on the experience of the class for Scientific American. If that comes to pass I'll make sure I spread the word.

After reading the PM article, I think they're pretty accurate.

One point that I wonder about is American farmland acreage. They use "938 million acres of farmland," whereas other sources suggest it may be closer to 430 million acres of arable land.

Ethanol may lead us down a road to better energy independence (which I think is a bit of a foolish enterprise), however it is heavily subsidized because, in my opinion, the pols want to suck up to the farmers by raising corn prices. A widespread ethanol-energy industry would have us cursing Big Ag just like we curse Big Oil. Instead of supply disruptions in Nigeria would have price increased based on droughts in Iowa, etc. This to some extent assumes ethanol from corn, which as stated leads to questionable energy gains (fertilizer is usually included as a petrol energy input). There's also cellusic (switch grass) deal. If technology moves forward, it still has a major disadvantage because it involves either a lot of small plans or huge transportation charges.

As for Brett's nuclear comments above, I calculate from EIA numbers that we have about 225GW of electric-from-coal capacity (which is about half of total capacity). So we'd need 125 1.8GW plants to replace coal. Then you'd need maybe 200 more 1.8GW nuclear plants to supply enough hydrogen to replace the fuel used for light-duty vehicle use.

Where else... well there's considered to be much room for hydro to improve: just not enough good rivers. Plus there's some debate about when we'll have to start having major work done to replace current hydro plants. Wind will get a lot bigger, clean and relatively cheap. But it can't be put everywhere (as in most of the southeast and east coast) and it's not always on. All solar is still 2-3 times more expensive than wind with similar problems.

Hydrogen from clean sources just isn't all that economical. Estimates range from $1 to $4 per kilogram of H2 (each kilogram s about equal to 1 gallon of gasoline). Unfortunately distribution usually doubles that cost. Storing it in the car shouldn't cause too much concern. A tank of pure O2 at similar pressures is probably just as dangerous, but we give those old fogies all the time.

I think getting government out of the whole deal is probably for the best. They're doing more to buy votes than to actually get us anywhere. Plus the more they squeal about using less oil, the less reason oil companies have to expand production.

Posted by: nobrainer at April 26, 2006 02:49 PM

I think the batteries for H2 cars are mostly going to laptop batteries, basically. The hardest part is finding a way to create H2 fuel-cells that either a)don't use platinum as a catalyst, or b) use some advanced nano-lithology to absolutely minimize the amount of platinum needed.

And, fortunately for the salmon, there aren't a whole lot of dammable rivers undammed. It's pretty much nuke or nothing if you don't want to use fossil fuels for electricity. The good news is that the waste-heat from those nuke plants could power some monster ethanol 'stills.

Posted by: Brett at April 26, 2006 02:54 PM

Now that's a great idea, using the waste cooling tower heat to power the stills. That's brilliant!

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 02:57 PM

I'm all for anything that increases the number of stills in the world.

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 26, 2006 02:58 PM

I agree the article was informative and easy to understand for a novice on this topic. Unfortunately I don't think any real push for an alternative fuel source will be fully realized until we reach a crises of some sort. I don't think $3.00/gallon gas is it. If the demand is not there....

Posted by: David at April 26, 2006 03:46 PM


The problem you note is a false perception.

What you see when the Hindenberg is burning is mostly the zeppelin's outer covering, *not* the hydrogen. The cloth treated with (nitrate) dope with included aluminium powder to help reflect heat that was used comes close to what was eventually settled on for solid rocket fuel.

They hydrogen does burn, and in certain concentrations with oxygen mixed in will explode, yes. But it's not much different in this respect from gasoline.

Unlike gasoline, if there is a leak the hydrogen goes up, rather than pooling in low areas.

It's nowhere near as bad, in a safety sense, as some would have you believe.

Posted by: steveH at April 26, 2006 04:52 PM

I can't recall where at the moment, but I once saw pictures comparing how a hydrogen car burned after an accident versus a gasoline engine. The gasoline car was ruined because gas is heavier than air and thus clings to the car as it burns. Hydrogen is lighter so it basically burned straight up like a blowtorch causing very little damage to the vehicle. I don't really think safety is the issue at all. As noted by others above it's the question of how to produce the power in the first place. Hydrogen is an energy store not an energy source. And it's the question of distribution and replacement of the existing fleet.

For electric generation, we need nuclear. As noted above, there is no real alternative for high output electrical generation besides fossil fuels. There aren't anymore big rivers to dam. Wind can supplement but not that much. Geothermal is limited to specific regions. Iceland will do great, but the rest of us? If we want more power without carbon, nuclear is it. The Chinese are working on a technology where the reaction mass is stored in small spheres with a containment material - each sphere produces heat but literally cannot get hot enough to meltdown.

For motor transport, biofuels. Again as noted above, both ethanol and biodiesel have the enormous advantage that they piggyback on the existing distribution system and fleet. While U.S producers do currently move ethanol by truck (wasting fuel and complicating the distribution), Brazil is moving it by pipeline. I'm sure we can sort that out. I think a lot of that objection comes from the energy firms that stand to lose from ethanol. The cold start problem doesn't apply to the E85 mix. Yes, much current push for ethanol comes from corn producers. But note that most of the new money in the field is coming from venture capital firms not farmer coops. Those investors will follow whatever feed-crop works best. Corn is the start but cellulosic from switchgrass et al will replace it. And once the market is in place, the tariff walls will likely fall allowing in sugar ethanol from warmer climate producers. It's about diversity of supply from stable suppliers not necessarily energy "independence."

Hydrogen might be great someday. Note that while GM has pushed hydrogen, they are now talking about ethanol because they see that's where the market is going. They may not have the clout anymore to make hydrogen happen quickly. Heck they may not be here in 10 years. Whenever it comes the switch will hurt. It will only happen with a massive shock to force the change.

In the meantime we can work towards: hybrids with increased battery storage so they can commute most days without burning any fuel, using electricity produced without any carbon emissions, and burning biofuels on longer trips that produce fewer emissions and are produced here or at least somewhere stable (Iowa may have droughts but not genocidal civil wars and jihadist cartoon haters). All of those changes can happen gradually without mass transition, pain, cost, etc.

The simple fact is the bulk of consumers will not stand for an expensive, painful conversion. Maybe it would be in their ideal long term interest, but it's not going to happen. Evolutionary technologies can happen now and produce good results. Revolutionary technologies might produce better results, but when?

Posted by: Jon at April 26, 2006 10:46 PM

I thought that the Popular Mechanics article was very good and chock full o interesting facts, unlike the spin riddled stuff found in the MSM. I would also like to throw in a nod in the direction of the National Inquirer. There you can find information that is embargoed in the major media.

Posted by: Rob at April 27, 2006 01:02 AM

Something that occurred to me: were the US to move to some ethanol- or other plant-derived fuel, this could dramatically raise the price of arable land. We could actually see land prices go up to the point where exurban subdivisions are sold off to be reverted back to farmland. The positive result would be people living in more compact arrangements, thus reducing sprawl. The negative result, of course, would be more people living in less space.

Posted by: E. Nough at April 27, 2006 10:11 PM

Hydrogen can be made from methanol. REB Research a small r&d lab in suburban Detroit currently sells a membrane reactor that reforms 99.99995% pure hydrogen from a 1:1 mix of methanol and water. Ammonia and hydrocarbons could also be used as a feedstock for a membrane reactor.

The process can also be scaled up. REB is manufacturing the reactors that will supply the NextEnergy Center in Detroit, home to a number of firms doing research on alternative fuels.

BTW, I guess you could actually run your car on junk mail - either by methanol directly or via hydrogen made from methanol. The processes for turning switchgrass into methanol will work with waste paper. Celulose is celulose.

Posted by: Ronnie Schreiber at April 27, 2006 10:35 PM

Of course the easiest/cheapest way to make methanol is from methane (i.e. natural gas)... not really solving the fossile fuel issue.

Posted by: nobrainer at April 27, 2006 11:46 PM

I guess you could actually run your car on junk mail

Scary to think that crap might have a use...I'd really hate to encourage them, you know?

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 28, 2006 07:26 AM

We could actually see land prices go up to the point where exurban subdivisions are sold off to be reverted back to farmland. The positive result would be people living in more compact arrangements, thus reducing sprawl.

Creeping Logan's Run...

Posted by: Mr. Bingley at April 28, 2006 07:27 AM