After airing a special on the future of electric cars CBS 60 Minutes had energy pundits glued to the screen again with Charlie Rose leading an interview with Billionaire Texan T Boone Pickens. Pickens has generated international media attention with his ‘Pickens Plan’ to rearrange the US energy mix emphasizing natural gas and wind in a complicated scheme to wean the US off ‘foreign oil’. What is not entirely clear is how the utilities will respond to the challenges of wind power (without effective storage to manage intermittent power generation), and how Pickens expects free market driven companies to avoid buying ‘foreign’ natural gas if prices are lower than US domestic supplies.
Could carbon-eating algae change how we produce liquid fuels by 2020? Can we ‘grow’ energy rather than pull it out of the ground? A British energy R&D firm believes the answer is yes.
UK-based Carbon Trust, which works to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy, has launched the Algae Biofuels Challenge with an ambitious mission: to commercialize the use of algae biofuel as an alternative to fossil based oil by 2020.
Carbon Trust’s multi-million pound investment will be led through its Advanced Bioenergy Accelerator and focused on microalgae that can be cultivated and manipulated to produce high yields of oil using carbon-rich feedstocks.
This effort is another signal that the long-term future of bioenergy is more likely to tap the power of microbes (algae/bacteria) rather than plant based resources like corn, soy and palm oil.
Carbon Trust’s initial forecasts suggest that algae-based biofuels could replace over 70 billion litres of fossil derived fuels used worldwide annually in road transport and aviation by 2030 (equivalent to 12% of annual global jet fuel consumption or 6% of road transport diesel). This would equate to an annual carbon saving of over 160 million tonnes of CO2 globally and a market value of over £15 billion.
Algae fuels? A Future inspired by the Past
The Industrial Revolution has been based on capturing energy released from breaking chemical bonds of carbon and hydrogen. We blew up coal’s chemical bonds to for steam engines, then gasoline inside internal combustion engines and repurposed coal for large centralized electric power plants. Now the 21st century could be partly shaped by closing that carbon-hydrogen loop using molecular systems within biology?
Ironically this future vision of energy is inspired by the past! Coal is ancient biomass- likely ferns. And oil is likely ancient microbes that lived in shallow oceans. Both are made of complex chains of hydrogen and carbon assembled by Mother Nature’s molecular machines of algae and bacteria. As long as chemical bonds drive the economy, we need to figure out a way to keep carbon in the energy loop by binding it with hydrogen, not oxygen. This UK algae challenge is an important step in closing that cycle in the 21st Century.
General Motors (GM) and OnStar have successfully demonstrated a prototype technology called Stolen Vehicle Slowdown, which does exactly that – it allows OnStar advisors working with law enforcement to send a signal to a subscriber’s stolen vehicle to reduce engine power, slowing the vehicle down gradually.
The exact process for Stolen Vehicle Slowdown (at right) goes as follows:
- Once the vehicle has been reported stolen to law enforcement, the subscriber can call OnStar and request Stolen Vehicle Assistance. OnStar will confirm the subscriber has not opted out of the Stolen Vehicle Slowdown service.
- OnStar uses real-time GPS technology to attempt to pinpoint the exact location of the stolen vehicle and provide this information to law enforcement to help them recover the vehicle.
- When law enforcement has established a clear line of sight of the stolen vehicle, law enforcement may request OnStar to slow it down remotely.
- OnStar then sends a remote signal to the vehicle that interacts with the Powertrain system to reduce engine power which will slow the vehicle down gradually.
Worried that the wrong car might be targeted? OnStar insists that “Safeguards will be in place to ensure that the correct vehicle is slowed down.”
Stolen Vehicle Slowdown comes along just as more people are installing automobile kill switches to protect their property, bring down insurance rates and protect innocent bystanders in the event of a high speed chase.
According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, about 30,000 police chases occur yearly and approximately 300 deaths occur as a result of those chases. Kill switches could have a major impact on these casualties.
BMW will unveil its electric version of the Mini Cooper at the Los Angeles Auto Show on November 19 and 20, 2008. The company is claiming to be the world’s first manufacturer of premium automobiles to deploy a fleet of some 500 all-electric vehicles for private use in daily traffic. The MINI E will be powered by a 150 kW (204 hp) electric motor fed by a high-performance rechargeable lithium-ion battery, transferring its power to the front wheels without a sound. The MINI E is expected to accelerate to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 8.5 seconds. With its top speed electronically limited to 152 km/h (95 mph).
The battery technology will have a range of more than 240 kilometers, or 150 miles. Sales are expected to focus on private and corporate customers in pilot projects in California, New York and New Jersey.
Electric Motors vs Combustion Engine BMW’s announcement follows along with recent industry plans to electrify the world’s auto fleet. We might interpret these announcements as a response to the ‘oil problem’ or ‘climate change’ regulations. But what if the real reason is based on a desire to abandon the design and manufacturing complexities of the combustion engine? Forward looking industry insiders hope that a new low cost manufacturing platform could emerge around the combination of wheel based electric motors, drive by wire systems, and the tight integration of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors.
We believe there is something happening in the auto industry that goes beyond oil and climate change The end game might be to change how we build and sell cars, not how we fuel them. If the real problem really is the combustion engine, and not oil, BMW’s plans might really be an effort to accelerate its shift to a new vehicle platform.
Imagine standing in front of global auto executives in 1999 and presenting a forecast that within ten years an Indian Automaker would be planning to build and sell electric vehicles in Europe. You might have walked away with that negative ‘futurist’ stereotype of a fringe corporate strategic thinker thinking way too far ahead!
Now India’s Tata Motors has announced plans to build an electric vehicle for European markets in 2009.
The company’s UK subsidiary has acquired a 50.3% holding in Miljø Grenland/Innovasjon of Norway to advance solutions for electric vehicles. The move brings Tata closer to realizing its vision of building affordable, clean electric motor vehicles powered by a combination of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
The first generation of Miljø produced electric vehicles will use Electrovaya Lithium Ion SuperPolymer® batteries. Tata plans to launch Indica EV in Europe during 2009 as a 4 person vehicle with a predicted battery charge range of up to 200 km (125 miles) with an acceleration of 0-60 kmph (40 mph) in under 10 seconds.
Can we grow our own energy resources by feeding power plant carbon emissions to algae and bacteria? We have featured videos by Juan Enriquez and Steve Jurvetson- on the feasibility of growing energy using the power of biology. Now mainstream investors are starting to bet that this future might be closer than we imagine.
Investments are now flowing into next generation biofuels that should surpass corn ethanol. But if we expect to ‘grow’ energy then we need to make choices. When do we tap the power of plants versus algae and bacteria? Will we train our students to become chemical engineers or biologists and synthetic bio-engineers?
Our world is built upon ancient bioenergy
Most of our energy resources come via biology. Coal is ancient biomass- likely decomposed ferns. And oil is likely ancient microbes that lived in shallow oceans. We power our world by blowing up these hydrogen-carbon chemical bonds in our power plants and combustion engines. It is cheap but also inefficient and dirty because we release ancient carbon.
Two paths forward – chemistry and biology
Biofuels are expanding along two paths. One future is based on creating fuels using chemical engineering processes. Biodiesel uses a process known as transesterification which exchanges molecules from fatty acids (like vegetable and oil oil) to create usuable fuels. Corn ethanol uses a process known as fermentation. Chemical conversion processes usually tap oil (fatty acids) from plants, fruit seeds or industrial waste streams.
The other future uses the power of biological energy conversion. This is the world of carbon-eating algae that create biodiesel and hydrogen producing bacteria. Biological energy production usually taps carbon emissions or waste streams (e.g. carbohydrates and sewage) as its feedstock.
Advocates of chemically driven biofuels say they offer scalability and reliability. Biology advocates want to transform carbon emissions into a resource for algae and bacteria and think their solution has a lower cost advantage, safety and fewer waste byproducts.
While there are many reasons to imagine profitable biologically driven bioenergy solutions within five years, we have yet to see a company overcome the challenges of scaling up production. So the mood among investors and analysts is ‘cautiously optimistic..!
Latest announcements contributing the bioenergy hype
What if we are being too cynical about China’s eco-future in the transportation sector?
Imagine a future in which China is the secret to moving the world’s auto fleet beyond liquid fuels and the combustion engine.
If they can master electron storage systems of advanced batteries, fuel cells and capacitors- they might surprise the world!
Warren Buffet thinks so. The Oracle of Omaha recently invested $233 into Chinese battery and electric vehicle maker BYD.
Now, we are hearing a similar message from other electrical storage system giants who are needed to transform our global auto fleet. A recent Economic Times article China seen as potential electric car hub describes a vision of Johnson Controls where China changes its course to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
Buffet and Johnson Controls see China’s natural advantages:
-Fewer ‘legacy’ issues of existing infrastructure and embedded interests
-Top down policy control to accelerate changes around infrastructure
-Chinese leaders see cleantech as a growth industry, especially around energy storage and electric motor propulsion systems
-Small cars & scooters are the most likely candidates for electric propulsion systems. China (and India) are prime candidates
- A geopolitical desire to avoid issues of oil’s biggest problem. Lack of substitutability. Oil is the perfect fuel, but you can’t put coal or solar or nuclear into a liquid gas tank*. Electricity and hydrogen can be produced by any energy resource.
Of course, electric vehicles are not entirely ‘clean’ and certainly lead to suburban expansion and loss of rural lands. But the trade offs and consequences of doing nothing are hard to challenge. China’s urban areas would benefit from the removal of millions of uncontrolled polluting vehicles.
Even if electricity production came from coal, it is easier to control carbon emissions at a single point power plant rather than individual cars. And China’s industrial strength is powerful enough to change the direction of electric storage companies as well as automakers.
Although fuel cell electric vehicles are still transitioning towards commercialization, the off-grid performance benefits of these electrochemical devices might soon reinforce critical pieces of our transportation infrastructure.
Smart Fuel Cell, a German-based company, has shipped thousands of their commercial fuel cell products and also totes multiple awards for its innovative methods. While most associate fuel cells with automobiles, SFC will also reliably power remote traffic systems with their EFOY Pro Series of fuel cells. Since normal batteries can only power warning blinkers for two days and solar cells/generators are too unreliable, EFOY Pro series fuel cells need no maintenance and are an off-grid power that will run, hypothetically, forever, as long as it has a fuel source. The cell’s tough case can handle rough weather, even temperatures between -4° F and +113 ° F. One 28-litre M28 fuel cell could operate the blinker for 50 days and they have a guaranteed lifetime of 5,000 operating hours or 30 months.
The Munich North Autobahn Authorities are already using the EFOY Pro Series fuel cells. If these cells become commonplace, then remote, off-the-grid traffic systems will not only be more reliable, they will cost less to maintain and will be available for usage even in disaster-struck areas whose power-lines are down.
It’s tough as an everyday consumer to participate in changing how we generate and use power. If you don’ t work for an automobile manufacturer, an energy company, a utility, or the government, it seems you’re pretty much out of luck in affecting real change. For transportation, you can either ditch your car and use public transportation, ride your bike, or buy a Toyota Prius or other hybrid vehicle.
But soon, there will be another choice, which takes a Prius from 40-50 mpg to 100+ mpg. By adding more batteries to a hybrid and giving it a plug, you now have what’s known as a “Plug-in Hybrid Electric”, or PHEV. But you can’t buy one…yet. You could build your own from plans on the Internet today from the PriusPlus Project, but not every Prius owner is into DIY car hacking, or violating their warranty. You can hire an after market company to convert your Prius for $8,000 to $24,000. Or, you can wait 18-24 months before the first vehicles arrive from Toyota, etc.
The basic idea is this: for the average driver, most trips during the day are surprisingly short. Let’s say less than 10 miles. Errands, grocery shopping, chauffeuring kids, etc, all generally happen within 10 miles for the average driver. A PHEV has at least a 10 mile capacity with its additional battery packs, so effectively, for 80% of typical driving, a PHEV is an electric car because it will will not need to to turn on its gas engine. The benefits: no fossil fuel combustion to foul up our air, or burn up our dollars…at a cheaper price per mile. It’s the best of both worlds: an electric vehicle for most of your day to day driving, plus a gas engine as back up when you need it.
But today, about the only thing you can do is follow the news, read bloggers, or read, Plug-in Hybrids: Cars That Will Recharge the America by Sherry Boschert (2006, New Society Publishes). In it, Boschert weaves the story of the GM EV1 electric car and it’s demise with a number of related stories including one about how a group of enthusiastic hackers, makers, and activists converted a Prius into a PriusPlus PHEV, with another story of how activists and a former CIA Director are stumping for PHEV’s as the best way to help us out of the energy crunch. Along the way she brings to light how the automobile companies change (or not), how a small group of people can help affect change, and how the PHEV activists trash hydrogen.
Add Warren Buffet’s latest investment to the list of major news indicators that fuel forecasts saying that the dominant days of the combustion engine are coming to an end. (Read GM to Combustion Engine-R.I.P.)
Through his Berkshire controlled MidAmerican Energy, The Oracle of Omaha has invested $230 million for a 10% stake in China’s car and battery maker BYD. BYD could soon become a global leader in electric propulsion auto systems and a mainstream vehicle brand.
Following the growth in electric propulsion systems
While there are reports
that BYD plans to ‘roll out fully electric cars before the end of next year’ and sell within the US, BYD does not have to displace GM or Toyota to return on Buffet’s investment.
Think of Shenzhen-based BYD as an advanced electric propulsion and electron storage device maker for Li-ion, Nickel batteries, capacitors and fuel cells. Rather than fight for market share against Toyota and GM in vehicle sales, BYD’s growth could be as an energy systems manufacturer.
Why MidAmerican might love BYD’s batteries more than its cars
Buffet’s other (or main) intention could be to expand the role of the electrical grid in fueling automobiles. He might also see promise in BYD’s battery systems for utility scale storage to improve the electrical grid.
Electric cars are coming in 2010-12 but we need to innovate energy storage solutions.
Recharging electric vehicles is not as simple as ‘plugging in at night.’ Our aging electrical grid and home wall sockets are not a suitable foundation for mainstream growth in battery vehicles- and automakers understand this.
Watch in the weeks and months ahead as electrical grid startups and electron storage companies like Shai Agassi’s Better Place gain more media attention and venture backing.
But what other innovative business models might emerge around electron-based transportation fleets? How about ‘swapping’ boxes?
has long been considered one of the most forward looking technology visionaries in Silicon Valley. He is also one of many Silicon Valley investors becoming very interested (and invested) in the convergence of biosciences and the energy industry. Jurveston sits on the board of Craig Venter’s new company Synthetic Genomics which hopes to tap the power of synthetic biology for energy production.
In this 6 minute ZDNET presentation clip from AlwaysOn GoingGreen conference held on September 10-12th, 2008, Jurvetson explains the implications of accelerating changes in biology, genetics, and synthetic biology to the future of energy.
Accelerating changes in biology and cleantech
The future of biology is likely to converge with other industries like energy within the next 10-20 years.
Bio energy is very complicated subject with enormous potential to change how we produce biofuels, hydrogen and bio-material feedstocks. But it is also in its early ‘hype’ stages of development and we need framers who can eloquently describe how these changes in biology and genetics might someday change energy.
Fortunately for us – Steve Jurveston is one of those visionaries who can explain this convergence of biosciences and energy.
Ahhh, the jetpack. For almost a hundred years, mankind has been fascinated with this technology, and for almost a hundred years we’ve wasted our time on it.
If you haven’t heard the news, Swiss airline pilot Yves Rossy managed to jet his way across the Channel between England and France in under ten minutes last Friday. What makes his jetpack truly original and fascinating is that it has wings.
“Rossy developed and built a winged pack with rigid aeroplane-type carbon-fiber wings with a span of about 8 feet (2.4 m), and four small kerosene-burning Jet-Cat jet engines under the wings; these engines are large versions of a type designed for model aeroplanes. He wears a heat-resistant suit similar to that of a firefighter or racing driver to protect him from the hot jet exhaust.”
The jetpacks you see frequently on TV are powered using pressurized hydrogen peroxide (typically giving the wearer less than a minute of flying time). Yves’ jetpack is not only powered by kerosene, but the added wing allows the user more directional flexibility and higher speeds, not to mention longer flying times.
But while this latest addition to the world of science blows our minds, do we need a jetpack?