MPGs, HEVs, PHEVs Oh My!
Nov02

MPGs, HEVs, PHEVs Oh My!

It appears that recent efforts to raise miles per gallon on the nation's auto fleet - spurred by government regulations - have hit an interesting tipping point. As this guest post by my colleague Jeff Johnson points out, both consumers and automakers have learned to love running lean. ------------------------------------------------ Despite the recent bankruptcy of Department of Energy supported vehicle battery maker A123, auto analyst Alan A. Baum stressed last week in a briefing and report that fuel efficient and electric vehicles are here to stay. Driven in large part by new federal fuel-efficiency standards, the average vehicle fuel efficiency for model year 2012 reached 23.6 miles-per-gallon, more than 1 mpg above 2011, Baum says, adding that this is the largest one year mileage jump in five years.In previous years, Baum says, when fuel efficiency increased, sales dropped, but for model year 2012, sales are on track to increase by 10% above 2011 levels to some 14 million units. Baum adds that electric-gas hybrids, coupled with plug-in electric vehicles, are on track to top half-a-million in sales in 2012. Efficiency conscious consumers, he notes, also have more choices—the number of high efficiency model vehicles has grown from 28 in 2009 to 61 for 2013 model year. Also Baum predicts that automakers will increasingly promote vehicle efficiency to increase profits and sales. He singled out Ford’s Series F trucks that advertise an “Ecoboost” turbo-charging system that adds $1,000 to the cost of the truck but gets more horse power out of a smaller engine. - Jeffrey Johnson -------------------------- For those of you who know your way around a torque wrench and want to know how an Ecoboost engine works, I highly recommend Johnathan Gitlin's guide over at Ars...

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A Graphic Illustration of the Target on the Back of the Chemical Industry
Oct02

A Graphic Illustration of the Target on the Back of the Chemical Industry

Several days ago I received an e-mail from the press office (press person?) at the Energy Information Administration (EIA). At the time I looked at it, thought "hmm... interesting" and set it aside. Been thinking about it off and on since. The crux of the information was this graphic:                         A few thoughts that came to mind immediately were 1) Wow, look what a monster recession did to our industrial energy consumption and 2) That brick-colored stripe is rather tall. The other two categories of energy consumers aside from industry are residential (people at home), commercial (businesses) and transportation. In 2011, industry was responsible for over 30% of total energy consumption, according to the EIA. Transportation is approximately a similar amount, and residential and commercial users split the rest. The more I thought about it, though, the more I reflected on basic chemicals' place in the lifecycle of a finished good - maybe a shampoo, or a carpet or a car - and the chunk of energy use it represents. A branded goods manufacturer that does a lifecycle analysis - say to measure energy use or emissions - would no doubt zero in on chemical inputs as a large contributor to its overall footprint. Of course, mining and agriculture have their own energy footprints, as shown in the graphic. Obtaining any raw material will bring energy baggage with it. The graphic also reinforced a message that my C&EN colleague Alex Scott recently wrote about in the magazine. He attended an event in Brussels called the Global Chemical Industry Sustainability Summit. In his report, he writes that chemical industry representatives were chided for their "business-as-usual model" and told that other industries, including customers of the chemical industry, were beginning a trek toward zero targets for things like oil use and CO2 emissions. Should someone hold a similar event in the U.S., this illustration might appear in the presentation....

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A Microhybrid is Not a Tiny Car
Feb07

A Microhybrid is Not a Tiny Car

This week’s issue has C&EN’s update on what’s going on with the Obama-touted advanced battery industry. In short, the U.S. can make many, many big batteries for various flavors of electric vehicles. More batteries, in fact, that the U.S. has electric vehicles. One flavor of vehicle that may be a new one to many is a microhybrid. These are not tiny cars, nor are they like the all-electric Nissan Leaf or plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt. Rather, a microhybrid system is part of a less radical design intended to help gas-powered cars use less gas. They use some version of what are called start-stop batteries. Andy Chu, vice president of marketing & communications at battery firm A123 Systems explains: “With start stop batteries, also called micro hybrid batteries, the primary function of the system is that it turns the engine off when you stop. And it turns the engine back on automatically. Just by turning off the engine at a stoplight you can save a few percent on fuel economy. Some of the batteries just crank the engine. But when you ask it to do other things – like launch assist – or move the vehicle from a stopping point - that is the hybrid function. This is great because the battery can respond instantaneously. You need something beyond typical lead acid, like for regenerative braking. The A123 solution has higher charge capability, then you don’t waste braking energy as heat. Also, it extends the life span – you use the battery much harder – with A123 you don’t need to replace the battery as often as with a lead acid. Weight is another advantage that helps with fuel economy savings. Compared to a lead acid version, we expect 50% better fuel economy gain. If you gain 10% with lead acid, you’d gain 15% with our battery. It is very difficult to save weight in vehicles. A lead battery is very heavy – so its easy to take weight out there. Automakers, especially in Europe, are really moving to microhybrids. They require very little design change; the battery and alternator are a little bigger, lighter, and provide better fuel economy. They are easy to integrate. So microhybrids are part of our message – though electric vehicles are the sexy topic, advanced batteries can be used across a wide variety of vehicles.” Lux Research analyst Kevin See says the hybrid-you’ve-never-heard-of will be responsible for the bulk of future growth of energy storage technologies for vehicles, along with batteries for electric bikes. “Although battery prices for all-electric and hybrid passenger cars are dropping, they’re not dropping far enough or quickly enough to...

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DSM Stakes Out an Eco-Friendly Niche
Aug03

DSM Stakes Out an Eco-Friendly Niche

Dutch chemical firm DSM has been much in my sphere lately. In this week’s issue, I write about the firm’s engineering plastics, which were designed for recyclability and do not contain halogenated compounds. When I’m not writing about earth-friendly technology, I cover the more day-to-day side of the chemical business by writing about company earnings. This week I am reviewing earnings results from European chemical firms and I note that DSM touts its sustainability efforts in its quarterly report. Most chemical firms relegate this information to their annual report, or to a separate yearly sustainability report. DSM reported on the number of products in its pipeline that meet its own criteria for better environmental profiles (they call them ECO+ solutions). Apparently the pipeline is chock full of ECO+; 87% meet that benchmark. It reported on the ECO+ proportion of current products (40%) as well as progress toward energy efficiency goals. DSM has targeted a 20% improvement in 2020 compared to 2008. The wording of the report indicates that these measures are updated at least twice per year. Usually, earnings reports are intended to inform investors of the financial results of a firm over a short period of time. Sustainability efforts, of course, tend to take a longer-term view. I wonder what credit investors give DSM for claiming this eco-niche and for the transparency of semi-annual updates. We should remember that the reports have other audiences in addition to investors – stock analysts, regulators, members of the communities where a firm operates, and employees. Oh, I forgot the media. That’s another...

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Getting to 54.5 MPG
Jul29

Getting to 54.5 MPG

If your very next car purchase had to meet the new mileage standards announced today, you’d be buying something roughly the size of a thimble. It would certainly be smaller than the petite Ford Fiesta, which gets a comparatively gluttonous 38 miles per gallon, highway. Or, you could do away with any MPG concerns and get a new all-electric Nissan Leaf, though the range can dip down to around 62 miles.  Forget the comfy hybrid Toyota Prius – that one only gets 50 MPG overall. Luckily for car buyers, automakers have until 2025 to get their fleet average up to 54.5 MPG. By then, the choices will be much different than today. Today’s New York Times story on the increase focuses on plans for hybrid and electric cars. But other technologies will have to come into play. According to Sujit Das of the Center for Transportation Analysis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, drive train changes will not be enough to meet the new standards. There will be more electric and hybrid cars, but overall, Das says, passenger cars will also have to be made smaller and lighter. Part of the problem is that it is too expensive to make larger trucks and SUVs high mileage, and automakers still want to sell a lot of those. So, regular cars will have to be designed for REALLY high gas mileage to make the averages work out. Oak Ridge scientists estimate that for every 10% of weight reduction in a vehicle, the gas mileage improves by 6.5%. To make that happen, they are studying how automakers can use lightweighting materials including advanced high-strength steels, aluminum, magnesium, titanium, and composites including metal-matrix materials and glass- and carbon-fiber reinforced thermosets and thermoplastics. Automakers have been using lighter weight materials for years, but not in a quest to increase mileage. According to a report [PDF] by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “Although technology to improve vehicle efficiency is available and is being used in vehicles now, vehicle manufacturers have directed much of the potential of the technology to purposes other than fuel economy, such as making vehicles larger and more powerful.”  That’s a strategy that they’ll have to re-think. Still, carbon fiber is not the first choice for automakers. Not too long ago I priced a carbon-fiber bicycle, and decided it was way too expensive. A carbon fiber car would be like George Jetson’s flying car that folds into a suitcase. It doesn’t exist, and if it did, very few people could afford it. Though parking would be a snap. The cost problem is a real barrier, which is why Oak Ridge scientists are also studying...

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BP, Rio Tinto Exit Carbon Capture Project
May24

BP, Rio Tinto Exit Carbon Capture Project

It takes some creative thinking to make clean technologies profitable. This is a theme that appears again and again in renewable energy stories about everything from algae to solar. But cleaning up fossil fuels faces the same hurdle. Yesterday, private energy firm SCS Energy said it would take over a major California carbon capture project from mega industrials BP and Rio Tinto. The Hydrogen Energy California (HECA) project aims to generate hydrogen for electricity production from petroleum coke and coal, while capturing CO2. The captured CO2 would be pumped into the earth as part of a neighboring natural gas project, where it would aid in gas recovery and presumably stay stored underground. HECA has been backed by BP and Rio Tinto - to the tune of $55 million each - and by the Department of Energy, which supplied $54 million from Recovery Act funds. It is eligible for an additional $354 million in financial assistance in Clean Coal Power Initiative funding. In total, that would be $514 million for the power plant, which is expected to start generating power in 2016. It is currently in the design and permitting stage. But operating HECA profitably is apparently still a challenge. SCS energy wants to add the capability of producing urea from the facility to create an additional income stream. The urea would be used for fertilizer. It seems rather clear that without an additional product/revenue stream, this power producer cannot make the finances work. In its written statement about the transfer of ownership, HECA closes with "The approach of producing both electricity and urea helps address the economic challenge of creating a viable business model to cover the high capital costs of the plant and its carbon capture...

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