Detroit – With gas prices over $3 a gallon and violence roiling the Middle East, the political drumbeat for oil alternatives has never been louder. President Bush has vowed to “change how we power our automobiles,” and a newly elected Democratic Congress is demanding drastic increases in auto fuel efficiency aimed at achieving “oil independence.” Quick to reflect the public mood, auto companies are touting gas substitutes and predicting the twilight of the gas engine.
But I wouldn’t bet on the twilight of the gas engine just yet.
At this year’s Society of Automotive Engineer’s convention in Detroit, one forum debated the question: “The Gasoline Engine Is Dead. Or Is It?” Siemens executive Michael Crane answered matter-of-factly: “For the foreseeable future, the gasoline engine will continue to dominate.” At present, Crane pointed out, gas powers 90-percent of autos on the planet with its fossil-fuel cousin, diesel, feeding most of the remainder. Only in Brazil and South Africa, where governments have dictated national alternative energy programs, has that supremacy been challenged.
Gasoline’s 100-year reign is no fluke: It offers high energy density per pound (125,000 BTU/gallon) at low production cost, with a manageable supply infrastructure. And gas engine technology is ever-advancing.
Today’s gas engines are near zero-emission vehicles. “If I mow my lawn for one hour,” says Crane, “I’d produce more emissions than if I drove a new car from New York to Los Angeles.” So clean is Ford’s Durotech engine, for example, that it meets California’s zero-emissions standard along with the celebrated Toyota Prius hybrid.
Still, auto insiders anticipate domestic politics and continued high gas prices will force major vehicle fleet changes. Don Whitsett, of auto supplier Aisin Corp., predicts a “greater mix of fuel technologies.” But what might those technologies be?
Hybrid gas/electrics. Automakers estimate that increasing mpg targets by 40 percent, as the U.S. Senate wants, may increase costs by $5,000 per vehicle. That cost calculation is based on building more hybrid vehicles, which combine a gas engine and electric motor and have shown some promise in the U.S. market, with the advertisement of 40-percent fuel economy gains.
“Because of their two-drive system, hybrids are relatively expensive,” says Whitsett, adding that hybrid fuel economy hasn’t lived up to the hype. The EPA concedes that its mileage estimates for hybrids have been exaggerated by 25-percent. For example, under revised figures for the 2008 model year, the Prius mpg rating will drop from 56 mpg into the mid-40s. This means hybrid fuel economy will be on par with new – and much cheaper – “clean” diesel technologies on their way to the U.S.
Clean diesel. Diesels are why Aisin’s Whitsett says “hybrids are not the ultimate answer.” Using turbocharged direct-injection technology, modern diesels are significantly cleaner – and faster – than soot-belching diesels of yore. And because clean diesels are both cheaper than hybrids and 30-percent more efficient than their gas-powered peers, Whitsett believes that diesel’s U.S. moment has arrived.
Indeed, in Europe – where gas costs $7 a gallon – diesel power has captured over 50-percent of the new car market (though – attention U.S. senators – automakers are well shy of a decade-old government goal of 25-percent fuel mileage reduction).
Still, hybrid and diesel are oil products. To attain true “oil independence,” alternative energy advocates say, transportation must run on biofuels made from crops. In the U.S, that means corn-based ethanol.
Ethanol. Thanks to a loophole in fuel economy regulations that grants credits for ethanol-capable vehicles, many new U.S. models are “flex-fuel” vehicles, meaning they can run on gasoline or E85 ethanol (gas mixed with 85-percent ethanol). But at just 84,600 BTU/gallon, a gallon of ethanol goes only two-thirds as far as a gallon of gas. Ethanol also absorbs water, handicapping development of ethanol fuel’s infrastructure because it cannot be shipped by pipeline.
Sugar-based ethanol. While biofuel faces hurdles in the U.S., it boasts a 40-percent market share in Brazil thanks to state-imposed mandates, an equatorial climate, and huge sugarcane production (30-percent of world production).
Unlike the U.S., where corn must be fermented into sugar ethanol (a hugely energy intensive process that, by some estimates, consumes more fossil fuel to make than a gallon of ethanol saves), Brazilian E100 ethanol is inherently more cost-effective because it comes directly from sugar cane.
Furthermore, according to a 2005 World Bank study, Brazil subsidizes sugar ethanol by $1.20 per gallon (the U.S. corn ethanol subsidy is 51 cents), and mandates that all gas contain at least 20-percent ethanol (the U.S. mandates 5-percent). In order to make up for ethanol’s 30-percent per gallon energy deficiency, Brazil taxes a gallon of ethanol 30-percent less than gas and bans the use of diesel-powered cars.
Liquified coal. In the 1970s, coal-rich South Africa – under pressure from international anti-apartheid sanctions – made a significant state investment in coal-to-liquid gas technology. Today, the method feeds 38-percent of that nation’s transportation fuel demand.
The process has received considerable interest from the U.S. coal industry, given America’s status as the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” However, liquefied coal is expensive (a refinery costs twice that of a traditional gas refinery), and, despite their oil independence rhetoric, America’s greens and their political allies have snubbed the technology because coal is dismissed as a “dirty” energy source.
Electric cars. General Motors has been headlining international auto shows this year with the introduction of its Chevy Volt concept – a so-called “plug-in hybrid” that differs from gas/electric hybrids because only the electric motor drives the wheels (the small gas engine charges the generator). This means the Volt can travel 40 miles on electricity alone, while gas hybrids switch to the gas engine over 25 mph. But bringing the Volt to market by GM’s 2010 goal will require huge strides in lithium ion batteries, which currently catch fire or explode when the battery is under duress. Such drawbacks, obviously, are unacceptable in vehicle transportation
Ultimately, GM is designing the Volt platform to take a hydrogen fuel cell, the fuel many see as the long-term fuel solution. For now, however, hydrogen’s infrastructure costs keep its potential out of reach
At the dawn of the twentieth century, gasoline bested steam and battery power as the central source of power in transportation. Now, a century later, transportation power faces fresh challengers. But, short of massive government edicts, oil will likely remain king.
– Henry Payne is a writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.