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NYTimes Magazine: Cars That Guzzle Grass
Sep 25, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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This is one of three articles in a special Sunday Magazine section on hybrids called "STYLE: The Way We Drive Now." I've posted further thoughts at my blog, "Power, Plugs and People"­blogs/­power/­nytimes-on-hybrids/­ and encourage additional comments there and to the publication at magazine@...­2005/­09/­25/­magazine/­25future.html
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The New York Times Sunday Magazine September 25, 2005
Cars That Guzzle Grass

The United States has an official vision of the automotive future. In his 2003 State of the Union address, George Bush expressed that view with a science lesson. "A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car, producing only water, not exhaust fumes," he said, describing the catalysis in a hydrogen-fuel-cell engine. "Our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom," he continued, "so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free."

The time line from the Department of Energy looks like this: the first mass-market hydrogen cars start to show up by 2020; full acceptance comes sometime after 2040. That is because it takes 15 to 20 years for a new car to wear out and be replaced on the roads.

Given that hydrogen fuel cells themselves are hardly the stuff of speculative fiction (the science behind them dates back to the mid-19th century), you can see why policy makers talk up their promise. Some experimental cars use them today - as do spacecraft, ships, military installations and buildings that need independent and reliable sources of power. The Condé Nast Building in Times Square, for example, integrates power from hydrogen fuel cells with energy from New York's power grid.

Bush got the basic science right. There are several types of fuel cells, but all hydrogen-based fuel cells are characterized by the same fundamental operation: a catalyst splits hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons, which then take different paths through the fuel cell before being reunited to produce water molecules. Before they reach this end, however, the circulating electrons create a current of electricity that can be tapped. Thus fuel cells not only offer the prospect of reducing our petroleum dependency, but they also promise to reduce the environmental impact of cars, because heat and water are the only "waste" hydrogen fuel cells produce directly.

Miracles Still Needed

Official optimism and the federal funds behind it - the latest energy bill to pass Congress, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, authorizes $380 million for research into renewable energy, an amount that will rise to $852 million in 2009 - also serve important political ends, of course. They counter the fears that haunt Americans at the gas station today, of penury, long wars, terrorism, disruptive natural disasters and an earth sucked dry of oil and overheated by global warming. Plenty of scientists, though, including researchers spending Department of Energy money, have their doubts about reaching the fuel-cell future, even if we are giving ourselves more than three decades to get there. Ralph Nuzzo, for one, whose labs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign receive support from the Department of Energy to study materials, says that "there is a lot of science and engineering that still has to be done to make the hydrogen economy possible." Obstacles include the devising of a hydrogen fuel cell that can be mass-produced and withstand the rigors of the road. A vast infrastructure to support such a car needs to be built as well. That involves producing hydrogen in a usable form and then somehow regularly distributing it in what is likely to be a pressurized and potentially explosive state to individual cars. In the halls of the University of Illinois, home to top academic departments in all the technical disciplines required to make the hydrogen economy a reality, some of the steps that science might have to take to create a hydrogen-run future are referred to as "the miracles we need."

While hydrogen is often held up as an inexhaustible source of energy, it is not abundantly available for use in its pure form. You have to get it from hydrocarbon or water molecules - and that takes energy. As Clark Bullard, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois whose work focuses on energy systems, explains it: "To make hydrogen from water you need to use electricity. By the time you do that, and compress the hydrogen and transport it to a filling station and then put it into your fuel cell and let the fuel cell turn it into electricity so it can turn the wheels of your car, that long daisy chain from electricity to electricity wastes up to 50 percent to 75 percent of the electricity you started with. And your only benefit is that you got portability."

Today hydrogen, which has a wide variety of industrial uses that have nothing to do with fuel cells, is produced in large quantities from natural gas through a process engineers refer to as reformation. It is possible that natural gas could supply hydrogen for cars; even the reformation itself could take place in a car. Hydrogen is easier to reform away from the car, though, so it is more likely to be isolated at factories and then shipped out or be reformed at individual filling stations. But while natural gas is a plentiful energy source, like oil it is scarce enough to be vulnerable to pinched supplies and price spikes. Coal and other nonliquid fossil fuels can be synthesized into gas for reformation, which would allow the United States to tap into its most abundant and readily accessible energy reserves. Still, whatever the original energy source, there's no escaping the fact that gas reformation produces carbon dioxide, the culprit in atmospheric warming.

It Isn't Easy Being Green . . . But Some Grasses May Make It Easier

Despite the obstacles, even the skeptics concede that whatever steps are taken to realize the dream of a hydrogen-based future will almost certainly spur innovation and lead to a cleaner, more efficient use of the world's fuels. Every intermediate advance helps. At the NextEnergy Center in downtown Detroit, researchers are focusing on both the near and distant future. The center was set up by the Michigan State government following a study indicating that Michigan's automotive-manufacturing industries could be decimated by a widespread popular shift to cars with hybrid engines or hydrogen fuel cells. To Michael Quah, NextEnergy's chief technology officer, the United States (and Michigan's economy, presumably) must pursue a policy of energy diversity so that any of a wide variety of fuels can fill in for another whenever one is scarce.

NextEnergy's current projects promote energy diversity across the alternative-energy landscape. These include, for example, working to help create viable markets for an array of biofuels, like biodiesels, that will run the same engines petroleum-based diesel does and that compete economically with petroleum. These fuels derive from crops that are already abundant in the United States (and can be even more plentiful if we choose to cultivate our land for power). Already, ethanol, which in the United States is refined from corn at plants across the farm belt, is a common additive to gasoline sold at the pump; its production has increased significantly in recent years, rising more than 50 percent from 2002 to 2004. Currently only about 2 percent of all liquid transportation fuels in the United States are biofuels, but the recently passed energy bill seeks to raise that percentage.

The development of biofuels highlights one of the biggest changes under way in energy production: the influence of industries and disciplines that until now have been far from the center of the energy picture. Agriculture and biotechnology labs, for example, have been enlisted to engineer higher-yielding biofuel crops. One approach involves developing custom-made microorganisms that can digest biomatter into alcohol that can then be used to fuel cars. Another relies on creating new enzymes to help reduce the energy costs of processing corn into ethanol. New technologies are also moving the ethanol industry away from corn and into crops that require less energy and fertilizer to cultivate, like grasses, hays and trees.

Energy derived from biomass may not necessarily find its best application inside cars; instead, it could be used to generate the electricity to produce hydrogen. If the hydrogen economy is to liberate us from fossil fuels, hydrogen will probably be isolated by subjecting water to electrolysis, which separates the liquid into hydrogen and oxygen. The great, earth-friendly advantage of electrolysis is that it depends on electricity and is indifferent to how that electricity is generated. It thus opens the door to the expanded use of biomass, not just to produce liquid fuel for vehicles but also to serve as an energy source for electric power generation.

While the production of liquid ethanol relies on the energy-intensive farming of starch-rich corn, electric power plants could run on bamboolike grasses and other woody plants. Some varieties now in development are impressively high-yielding. At the University of Illinois, Stephen Long, a crop scientist, is exploring the properties of a tall grass called Miscanthus, a sterile hybrid (that cannot take over the landscape like kudzu) of two Japanese mountain grasses. The grass is already in use in electric power plants in Britain. Long's research reveals that the cost of Miscanthus production would be competitive with coal, but it comes with several advantages. Unlike corn, it is a perennial and so yields a generous crop each year without replanting. It is also nitrogen-conserving, meaning that it doesn't deplete nutrients from the soil. "Miscanthus also grows in a wide variety of soils and needs little fertilizer and no pesticide," Long says. "It also grows well on lands otherwise prone to erosion and flooding." American switch grass is another crop that may find its way to electric power plants.

The economics of biofuels remains obscure, admittedly. So far, ethanol has been able to compete with gasoline on price only because corn growers and ethanol producers benefit from generous federal subsidies that add up to about a dollar a gallon of ethanol. And there is a long-running debate over whether ethanol takes more energy to manufacture than it produces as a fuel. If so, its clear benefits are limited to its form - that is, a liquid that can burn in engines - and a reduction in air pollution. Nature also places limits on how much energy crops can ultimately supply. According to the calculations of David Pimentel, a Cornell professor of ecology and agricultural sciences who once headed a Department of Energy panel on ethanol production (and who is one of the chief critics of corn-based ethanol), if all the cars in America ran on ethanol alone, the country would have to devote all but 3 percent of its landmass to growing corn for fuel. In short, liquid biofuels will at best be one component of a more diversified energy market.

The problem for biofuels is that they compete with petroleum, an extremely high-energy biofuel already created over millions of years by geologic activity. To Ralph Nuzzo, the problems biofuels pose arise in nearly every alternative-energy plan. "When you look at the problem, which is how to move a person long distances at 60 miles per hour, there's an energy cost that is well understood. Gas does a very good job. It has high density, it is easily transportable and it is easy to convert into mechanical functions. Anything that displaces it will have to have those properties and be consistent with the scale of the problem." In the United States there are 221 million registered vehicles on the roads. Cambridge Energy Research Associates reports that the average American drives 13,000 miles a year. "You need multiple terawatts to drive the global economy," Nuzzo says, "and there is no source other than fossil fuels big enough except the sun. Every other source misses by orders of magnitude."

Driving the Power Grid

If hydrogen cars replace gasoline ones, and the hydrogen comes from electrolysis, the electric-power industry would have to undergo a vast expansion, one suitable to a diversified mix of biofuels and other alternatives like wind and solar power. That could radically reshape the economic landscape of the country. Rural communities might enter into the energy business, replanting lands now filled with heavily subsidized crops with high-value energy-producing ones. While fossil fuels would remain part of the energy picture, they would constitute a lesser part. And if the new electric-power-generating infrastructure used to isolate hydrogen can draw on all sorts of fuels, energy supplies in general will be less vulnerable to disruption from geopolitics, natural disasters or dwindling supplies of petroleum. "Think of it as a web approach to energy, the way the Internet is a web approach to information," Michael Quah says. "If one supply goes down in one place, the system can quickly fill the gap with supplies from another."

One of the most appealing prospects of automobile fuel cells is their ability to generate energy for use outside the vehicle. Cars wouldn't just consume power; they could deliver it. A hybrid can do that now. "Electric cars produce very high-quality electricity," Bill Reinert, national manager of the Advanced Technology Vehicle Group at Toyota in the United States, says. "We're already demonstrating the technology in a Prius as an emergency generator." A vehicle with a hydrogen fuel cell would do more than help in a pinch. It could be connected to a house and supply power that does not come from a central grid. The power required to run a midsize car on the road today is about 30 times what is needed to run an average house with every light and appliance on. Because cars typically spend only a small fraction of the day actually on the roads, they could be put to work supplying power to other things the rest of the time. At work, for example, cars in a garage could plug into and power office buildings - for a fee, no doubt. Cars could sell energy back into the power grid too. That could be better than a break-even proposition for car owners with fuel cells, even when electricity was originally used to isolate the hydrogen: if the electricity used is consumed during off-peak hours when the price of power is low and distributed from fuel cells at peak hours when the price of power is high, there may well be money to be made.

Amory Lovins, the chief executive of Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass, Colo., which Lovins describes as an entrepreneurial nonprofit with an emphasis on energy systems, is an advocate of this commercial-power-plants-on-wheels vision. In his view, hydrogen will come largely from the reformation of natural gas. "If all the cars and light trucks on the road had fuel cells on them, they could make 6 to 12 times the amount of generating capacity that all the power companies now own. It doesn't take many people liking this value proposition - that you make money generating power at your desk - to put coal and nuclear companies out of business." Lovins, a MacArthur fellow, says he believes that the first two million people who can sell power from their fuel-cell-run cars will be able to pay off the entire cost of their cars with their proceeds.

Cars in Aisle 6 at Best Buy

The drift toward electric cars that has begun with hybrids will also change how drivers travel in cars. "Almost certainly within the next 10 years," Lovins says, "major mechanical functions in cars will start to be replaced with electronic components, the way they have already been replaced in airplanes." Cars are packed with electronics now. An internal combustion engine joined to an alternator produces enough power to run car lights, wiper motors, stereos and other electronics. Cars already have a couple of dozen reliable low-cost computer chips controlling a wide variety of under-the-hood functions and equipment, from fuel flows and emissions controls to brakes to the diagnostic systems that light up "check engine" and other icons on the dashboard. Motorola, which got its start by putting radios in cars, today fills vehicles with chips. Kieran O'Sullivan, who works in the company's vehicle telematics group (which involves the use of information technology in cars), foresees the electronic controls in cars becoming ever more tightly integrated, reducing the size and weight of cars and thereby making them more energy efficient.

Hybrids have already started the process of turning cars into giant consumer-electronics devices. In other words, they are increasingly controlled by electronic means rather than mechanical ones. Eventually the result will be cars stripped of much of the heavy metal that connects their different parts. Steering wheels may no longer be connected to steering columns, for example - or they may be replaced altogether by video-game-like control pads in which directional controls, shifting, acceleration and braking are all manipulated by fingers and thumbs. Mitsubishi has already created a prototype car with in-wheel motors, which eliminate the need for rear axles and the transmission. As cars become more electric and more electronic, the clutch, differentials, starters and alternators could all vanish. The disappearance of heavy internal parts increases the mileage a car can get.

Such cars could also be controlled with a precision far greater than is possible today. Combine on-board communications systems that let cars talk to one another across networks on the road with electric motors and electronic controls and on-board computing, and you have vehicles that can make intelligent decisions even when their drivers cannot. Cars could act on their own to override drivers' decisions in dangerous situations, for instance. Given the right mix of communications technology and fine-tuned controls, they could travel at high speeds along the highway only inches apart, thus mimicking the energy-saving qualities of locomotives and becoming, in effect, ad hoc public transportation systems. These are speculative visions to be sure, but technologically feasible.

Cars can grow so automatic, Bill Reinert of Toyota says, that drivers may come to favor those that allow not just the best handling or feel for the road but also deliver the best entertainment systems, or that let a rider continue the work of the office while on the road. "The car becomes less of an emotional decision," he says, "and more of an infotainment decision." Reinert acknowledges that society and its drivers will have to decide how much infotainment in a car is enough and the extent to which cars should be allowed to make decisions for their operators.

Imagine a car thus transformed, and it is easy to see why Michigan's economic stewards were so shaken up by visions of future cars. As cars merge with consumer electronics, they become less obviously the domain of the auto companies. Lovins, the inventor of what he calls a Hypercar vehicle (a concept incubated at Rocky Mountain Institute), sees future cars manufactured from light, strong carbon-fiber composites, running at first on hybrid engines. They will be collections of components in much the same way that personal computers are today. These vehicles could be manufactured virtually anywhere by any company willing to enter the business. Companies may well be able to take orders on a Monday and have the car assembled and delivered by Wednesday. They may well come out of electronics factories in China.

The vision of a car as a lightweight consumer-electronics device may provide some hope to those who would otherwise believe the challenges in developing a mass-market hydrogen-fuel-cell car will keep the world waiting for generations. An ultralight car half the weight of current models combined with better tires and aerodynamics "reduces the wattage needed to power the car by two-thirds," Lovins says. And "because fuel cells are three times smaller than usual, drivers can pay three times more per kilowatt to drive them." Lovins also notes that with more efficient cars around smaller fuel cells, there is no need to develop new storage technology for hydrogen because you can use smaller tanks, which would require less hydrogen under pressure. What's more, as with most electronics, fuel-cell cars would be likely to drop in price, not grow more expensive. Lovins cites the production costs on thousands of different manufactured goods. "Every doubling of cumulative production volume," he notes, "drops the cost 20 percent." If this vision of the future car starts to take real shape, Michigan has its work cut out for it. Texas, however, home to Michael Dell, might be a bit less fearful.

Ted C. Fishman is the author of "China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World."

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