What we don't know about the fundamental science of energy systems might actually help us! The problem is that most people assume we already know everything, and that we are running out of solution sets. In fact, we are only at the beginning of a new era of understanding nanoscale (molecular) energy systems engineering.
MIT Chemistry Professor Dan Nocera's lecture Whales to Wood, Wood to Coal/Oil to What's Next? describes what we do not understand about solar energy conversion (photosynthesis) and effective energy storage in nature's form of chemical bonds. His focus is to uncover the science of nature's recipe for storing energy: Light + Water = Fuel.
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?
How might storing electricity in the form of solid hydrogen change the future landscape of energy? We believe it could change the performance of mobile power, lower the cost of renewable energy production, and change the nature of refueling your car by ‘swapping out’ boxes of fuel.
Hydrogen & Electricity = ‘Hydricity’
Electricity powers the future. Look beyond the transportation sector of liquid fuels, and most devices and machines run on electrons. Today, we understand the important role of electricity in our world, and tomorrow we might understand its sister companion – hydrogen.
Hydrogen might be the most misunderstood and misrepresented piece of the future energy landscape. Devotees often overstate it as the savior of Planet Earth, and staunch critics underestimate its short term challenges for longer term potential in energy systems and materials science.
A ‘Hydrogen economy’ is an economy driven by electricity. The hydrogen is merely a way of storing electron power via chemical bonds of hydrogen. So hydrogen and electricity are one in the same thing. Ballard Power Founder Geoffrey Ballad has coined the phrase ‘hydricity’ to help people understand the balance of these electrons carriers.
Fuel cells capture energy released when coated membranes strip apart those hydrogen-hydrogen bonds and merge it with oxygen to get water. This is a much more efficient (and cleaner) process when compared to blowing up carbon-hydrogen bonds via combustion. But it is also harder and more expensive (at least today!).
Advances in Hydrogen Storage
The two challenges for hydrogen are production and storage. For now we’ll focus on an emerging platform for high density, low cost and safe storage systems based on ‘solid’ hydrogen.
News from Argonne National Laboratory on ‘crystal sponges’
On November 20th California took a major step towards building out the state’s “green” infrastructure to support the electrification of the auto fleet towards vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors. State and local leaders gathered in San Francisco to announce a new public partnership with ‘mobility operator’ Better Place.
Better Place has big plans for California and has estimated that the network investment in the Bay Area alone will total $1 billion when the system is fully deployed.
We have featured several stories on Better Place and CEO Shai Agassi [Video Interview] to highlight the company’s vision for changing the business model for how cars are fueled. Better Place is moving quickly and has already negotiated infrastructure projects within Israel, Denmark, Australia, and Hawaii. Adding California to their list could be the tipping point. Not just for Better Place, but for how we think about fueling our vehicles with batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
The simplest translation of Shai Agassi’s disruptive vision?
To expand adoption of electric vehicles we must lower barriers for consumers and rethink our notions of infrastructure in a way that goes beyond the model of paying at the corner gas station pump.
Consumers should buy the car, but not the energy storage device (battery, fuel cell or capacitor). Remove the cost and risk of owning energy storage systems that might be improved in the next six months or a year. Instead consumers would subscribe to an energy infrastructure provider who offers a ‘pay per mile’ (e.g. mobile phone minutes) plan.
Drivers could recharge at a local station, or (pay attention!!) pull up to a station to ‘swap out’ an old battery (or solid block of hydrogen, other fuel cartridge) for a new container. It is this ‘swap out’ model that holds the greatest disruptive potential.
By the fall of 2008, every major automanufacturer from GM to Nissan to Tata--and a few startups such as Tesla and Aptera--had announced production model plans for all manner of electric vehicles, from all electrc vehicles, to plug-in hybrid electrics, to fuel cell vehicles, with deliveries to consumers starting in 2010. 2008 could well be known as the nail in the coffin for the bulky combustion engine which has plagued the auto industry with its manufacturing and design liabilities, and association with volatile oil markets.
How quickly might the world re-tool the global auto industry to build new vehicle chassis based on electric motors and advanced energy storage systems?
Continue Reading other Top Energy Stories from 2008
President Obama is close to naming the ‘Car Czar’ who will oversee a large portion of the federal auto loans and consult on the looming transformation of the US auto industry. Let's hope this person doesn't try to build a better buggy whip.
Most ideas out on the table are incremental (e.g. ‘better mileage’), or short-sighted (e.g. plug in batteries?) and fail to inspire disruptive changes that reflect a 21st century version of the transportation sector.
Here are Ten Ideas for the US Car Czar:
1) Lower the US Auto Industry I.C.E. 'Manufacturing Footprint' The problem isn't oil, it's the cost complexities of building mechanical engines. Declare the Internal Combustion Engine ‘Dead’ by 2025 (When more than 50% of new vehicles will be powered by electric motors) Have automakers share combustion engine plants and suppliers during the transition.
2) Accelerate the Electricification of the World's Auto Fleet At the same time expand the US manufacturing base around the 'next' generation platform for mobility: Electric Drive systems based on high performance motors, drive by wire systems, software and various energy storage devices.
3) Explain ‘Electrification’ clearly to the public ‘Electric’ refers to the motor, not just the battery. Next generation 'electric' vehicles will integrate batteries, fuel cells and capacitors. Fuel cells produce electricity. A hydrogen powered car is an electric car. Let’s stop the confusion and battle between technologies. Cars are not iPods, and will need various systems to function. This is a multi-decade long transition. Don't pick short-term winners.
4) Go Global - Expand our ties to Asian Manufacturers & Markets Electric cars are not designed to be built as one unit, in one country. They are assembled systems of systems that can be constantly upgraded via a global value chain. The line of 'new' car vs 'old' car blurs when we shift to modular electric platforms. And all the real growth will happen outside of the US! 'Detroit' must participate in this global supply chain and be in a position to sell 21st century vehicle systems to Asian markets. (Hint: The high value auto industrial base will revolve around polymers, software and sensors, not metal frames.)
5) Software Side of Car Experience The single greatest opportunity for the next century might be the ‘software’ side of the automobile experience. Smarter vehicles embedded with sensors and ‘situation awareness’ systems, customized driving experiences based on ‘drive by wire’, and mobility services (e.g. OnStar). The US can compete in this new growth market and benefit by getting 'more flow' out of our current roadway system as we make drivers and cars smarter. (PS - Mass Transit could use some software to create service transparency)
Read on: 6) Build next generation energy systems; 7) Reinvent the Wheel; 8) Fleet only for Plug-ins; 9) Shift Revenue streams to After Market 10) New 'types' of vehicle & service
MIT's Biomolecular Materials Group has advanced a technique of using 'genetically engineered viruses that first coat themselves with iron phosphate, then grab hold of carbon nanotubes to create a network of highly conductive material.'
This advanced 'bio-industrial' manufacturing process, which uses biological agents to assemble molecules, could help to evolve key energy material components (e.g. cathodes, anodes, membranes) used in batteries, fuel cells, solar cells and organic electronics (e.g. OLEDs).
Professors Angela Belcher and Michael Strano led the breakthrough bio-engineering work which can now use bacteriophage 'to build both the positively and negatively charged ends of a lithium-ion battery.' While the prototype was based on a typical 'coin cell battery', the team believes it can be adapted for 'thin film' organic electronic applications.
Energy = Interactions Energy and Materials Science is about manipulating the assembly and interaction of molecules like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and metals.
Today we are at the beginning of new eras of nanoscale materials science and bio-industrial processes that are certain to change the cost and efficiency equations within alternative energy and biomaterials. And we have a lot to learn about molecular assembly from Mother Nature's genetically driven virus/bacteria and plants. After all, the energy released from breaking the carbon-hydrogen bonds of coal (ancient ferns) and oil (ancient diatoms) was originally assembled by biology (with some help from geological pressures!). So why not tap this bio-industrial potential for building future energy components?
US Energy Secretary Steven Chu has announced $41 million to support the 'immediate deployment of nearly 1,000 fuel cell systems for emergency backup power and material handling applications (e.g., forklifts) that have emerged as key early markets in which fuel cells can compete with conventional power technologies. Additional systems will be used to accelerate the demonstration of stationary fuel cells for combined heat and power in the larger residential and commercial markets.'
The funds will also support micro-power applications being advanced by innovative startups like Jadoo, Plug Power, Nuvera, MTI, PolyFuel, and Delphi Automotive (auxillary power systems for trucks!).
Fuel Cells (Power Stations) vs Batteries (Storage) Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity without having to be 'plugged into' the grid. As 'refuelable' power generators, they offer some key advantages to a pure energy storage offering of batteries (e.g. Batteries depend on 'grid access', while fuel cells need fuel and serve as a portable/stationary power station. You just need to add fuel!)
US Energy Visionaries Sense Global Opportunity The key to advancing fuel cells is to lower the costs of nanostructured catalysts (that release electric charges) and membranes (allow positive ions to pass) used in all applications (e.g. stationary, portable). It is a materials science strategy based on nanoscale science and engineering.
While the battery supply chain has long been established, there is a unique opportunity for the US to leap frog into more commercially diverse applications based on fuel cell systems used in everything from distributed power, micro-power, transportation and utility scale power generation.
More posts on Fuel cells at The Energy Roadmap.com
The Art Center of Pasadena has released video highlights from its recent Summit: Expanding the Vision of Sustainable Mobility held in March 2009. There are a number of energy related videos to share, but we'll start with one that gets the blood pumping!
Former Assistant Secretary in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Andy Karsner, is a fresh voice on long held but widely suppressed ideas that promote a holistic policy strategy towards transportation, energy and urban design.
I'm impressed with Andy's ability to communicate! Of course, Karsner shares a few perspectives that I might challenge. Namely, looking back at the past with a critical lens. The problem was not our failure to build vehicles that get more miles per gallon, it's the entire supply chain and manufacturing footprint of the internal combustion engine. A Detroit version of the Prius would not have helped GM or Chrysler's flawed 'new car' sale business model.
And, I agree with Karsner that our 'big plans' (e.g. FreedomCAR) were destined to fail. What we needed was an event - the Fall of 2008.
The recent collapse of the auto industry was just what the doctor ordered- a well-timed crisis to force the accelerated death of a century old mobility platform. Tweaking the combustion engine around hybrids or flex fuels was never the solution. Sometimes the future needs a crisis, not a plan!
Andy Karsner passionately describes the beginning of this transition from mechanical engines to electric drive trains powered by the integration of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors. He is someone who can frame this vision and rally the troops. And I agree it is time to push the acceleration button! Watch this Video!!
“Our lights may be on, but systemically, the risks associated with relying on an often overtaxed grid grow in size, scale and complexity every day.”
What if our greatest energy dependency challenge was not related to the global flow of oil, but the one way flow of electricity coming from distant power plants to our wall sockets?
The world runs on electricity. Demand for electron power in emerging economies is often 3-4 times greater than demand for oil. Because the old model of the electricity grid does not seem adequate in meeting the new demands of the 21st century, many energy pundits argue that access to electricity is the world’s biggest strategic energy issue.
Realizing the ‘Smart Grid’ Vision
The conversation about electricity infrastructure is likely to change very soon as governments and the private sector build out the vision of a smarter, electricity web that is infinitely more reliable, robust and profitable.
‘The electric industry is poised to make the transformation from a centralized, producer-controlled network to one that is less centralized and more consumer-interactive. The move to a smarter grid promises to change the industry’s entire business model and its relationship with all stakeholders, involving and affecting utilities, regulators, energy service providers, technology and automation vendors and all consumers of electric power.‘
A Smart Grid means many things. At The Energy Roadmap.com we believe that the most disruptive elements are software,sensors & storage. The good news is that these three systems might finally be reaching a tipping point in cost and performance that allows us to turn the ‘smart grid’ vision into a reality. While this US DOE Guide might not be the definitive guide to the future of smart grid systems, it is certainly a step forward in helping to spread the meme and outline the fundamentals!
CleanTech Group is reporting that Hyundai plans to sell commercial fuel cell electric cars in 2012 (not shown). The South Korean company is taking a bold step in anticipation that the future of electric vehicles will require tight integration of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
Electric Vehicle Roadmap includes Fuel cells
The key to commercializing electric vehicles is to develop advanced energy storage devices. Batteries appear to be good enough, but not a great long term platform for automobiles. We can also store electricity in the form of chemical bonds of hydrogen and as a physical charge inside capacitors. (Imagine lightning in a box!)
Electric vehicles are not iPods- and require very different energy storage and delivery systems to match the performance of combustion engines. The future of electric vehicles is likely to evolve around the tight integration of all three major energy storage systems.
Hyundai understands this long term focus on integrating battery and fuel cells and might be trying to position itself in this new era of electric vehicles.
Hyundai’s decision stands out from the string of recent announcements from GM, Nissan, Rennault, China’s BYD, India’s Tata who all plan to sell commercial all battery electric vehicles by 2011. GM, Honda and now Hyundai have all been clear that they are not likely to bet the farm on an all battery energy storage system given the cost and performance potential of fuel cells.
Where are we in the Hydrogen Fuel cell Hype Cycle?
[2008 Los Angeles Auto Show] Honda has revealed the FC Sport design study model- a three-seat sports car concept hydrogen powered electric car based on Honda’s V Flow fuel cell technology already deployed in the Honda Fuel Cell (FCX) Clarity sedan.
The lightweight sports car design has an ultra-low center of gravity, powerful electric motor performance and zero-emissions. The design study concept is inspired by supercar levels of performance through low weight and a high-performance, electrically driven fuel cell powertrain.
Hydrogen cars are electric cars!
While many journalists and bloggers are getting this story wrong and asking is the future ‘battery or fuel cell’- – the answer is both. Hydrogen fuel cell cars ARE electric powered cars! Hydrogen converted in a fuel cell produces electricity to power electric motors.
Pure battery vehicles are based on first generation energy storage systems. But cars are not iPods and next generation high performance electric vehicles- will combine batteries, fuel cells and capacitors! Not one device rules them all, and Honda understands this engineering reality!