When Energiepark Mainz opened in Germany earlier this month, the facility came online as the world’s largest eco-friendly hydrogen plant.
It took one year and 17 million euros ($18.7 million) to build the plant, which is a collaboration between utility company Stadtwerke Mainz AG, gases and engineering company Linde Group, technology group Siemens AG and the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences.
It addresses a major concern critics frequently cite against hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs): the carbon emissions of production plants. While using hydrogen as a fuel doesn’t create any tailpipe emissions, some are concerned with the way hydrogen is collected. Current techniques often pull hydrogen from natural gas, emitting carbon dioxide in the process.
Energiepark is different because it draws power from four nearby wind parks, using renewable energy to create hydrogen from water. A portion of this hydrogen will be transported to fueling stations for the public.
“Today, most of the hydrogen that Linde supplies to filling stations is already ‘green’,” said Linde CEO Dr. Wolfgang Büchele. “Energiepark Mainz has the capacity to produce enough hydrogen for around 2,000 fuel-cell cars,” said Büchele.
Andreas Opfermann, head of research and development for Linde, also noted that hydrogen plants like Energiepark are essential for the proliferation of FCVs.
“The whole thing only works if we have three steps: the generation of the hydrogen, the refueling, and the cars. We are in a better situation than battery cars where every country has its own plugs, its own level of voltage. We now have standard fueling stations,” he explained.
In addition to providing fuel for FCVs, Energiepark can augment the natural gas grid. But it’s the facility’s ability to store hydrogen that is especially meaningful – this will capture excess renewable energy that would otherwise be wasted.
“Already today, wind and solar power stations have to be switched off at certain times if they produce too much energy for the grid,” explained Linde. “This problem is set to increase over the coming years as the renewable energy network expands.
“Energiepark Mainz can use this ‘surplus’ electricity to break water down into oxygen and hydrogen. The resulting environmentally sound hydrogen can be stored and then used at a later date when demand is higher. This process will enable renewable energies to be harnessed more flexibly to dynamically meet fluctuations in demand.”
As the first hydrogen plant of its size, Energiepark is also set to become a learning facility. The RheinMain University of Applied Sciences is planning a four-year research project at the plant to identify hydrogen extraction methods that can be applied elsewhere.
“At Energiepark Mainz, we can experiment with converting wind energy into hydrogen on an industrial scale and find out which operational concepts are the most viable,” said Prof. Birgit Scheppat, the head of the university’s hydrogen lab. “Being able to cost-effectively and sustainably harness energy from fluctuating sources such as wind and solar power is an important long-term goal. We expect this initiative to deliver exciting, ground-breaking insights that will help us move toward this key goal.”
What isn’t clear is what portion of the energy for hydrogen production will come from renewable resources. The facility is also connected to Stadtwerke Mainz’s medium-voltage grid, and is set to supply clean energy to the utility company. But it isn’t apparent if energy can also flow from the grid to Energiepark when wind farms aren’t producing.
It’s also worthy to note that the hydrogen slotted for FCVs also may not be completely emission-free, with tankers sourced to deliver the fuel to retail stations.
According to government and industry sources, the time-honored internal combustion engine (ICE) could be honored with much more time – as in indefinitely.
While electrification enthusiasts have predicted a pending demise for the ICE, the U.S. Energy Information Agency predicts in 2035 that 99 percent of light-duty and heavy duty vehicles, particularly in commercial use, will still rely on the ICE.
To keep fossil tech evolving for commercial and passenger cars, innovations are being rolled out to squeak incremental gains, while research is ongoing to increase their future capabilities.
“Improving the efficiency of internal combustion engines is one of the most promising and cost-effective near- to mid-term approaches to increasing highway vehicles’ fuel economy,” says the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy.gov website. Lab tests, it adds, have shown fuel economy can be improved by more than 50 percent and even possibly 75 percent over today’s engines.
2014 Corvette LT1 small block V8 has gasoline direct injection, cylinder deactivation, variable valve timing.
While we often hear of the government giving a plug for plug-ins, its playing all angles should not come as a surprise, even to electrification enthusiasts. Presently 99 percent of America’s 16.5-million annual passenger vehicle market still relies on the ICE – not to mention hybrids and plug-in hybrids.
But with next-generation lithium-ion batteries on the horizon for electrified passenger vehicles, and anything possible after that, it does remain to be seen how things actually unfold. Really, it’s a technological shakeout we’re in – with the entrenched ICE being tenaciously held onto, and those invested in it not relinquishing their grip willingly, nor are they being forced to.
On the contrary, federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules demanding “54.5” mpg – low 40s on the window sticker – by 2025 are pushing automakers toward electrification, but give them a way out, if they desire. The rules actually have been written so that a mere 1-3 percent of vehicles must resort to plug-in electrification, although more is encouraged.
There are more than 253 million cars and trucks on American roads today, and according to Energy.gov, nearly 60 percent of total U.S. oil consumption and more than a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from on-road vehicles.
Want to know why Tesla has fans? One reason is it’s the only automaker that utterly rejects internal combustion while threatening to “disrupt” or throw a monkey wrench into the existing paradigm.
Armchair pundits often suggest we should just cut through the Gordian knot with known plug-in technologies, but industry is heavily invested in the present paradigm, and wheels are turning slower than some who think like Elon Musk would desire.
With your taxpayer dollars behind them, the federal government is promoting an “all of the above” strategy that gives a leg up not just to plug-in battery tech, but also hydrogen fuel cells, alternative fuels, and the internal combustion engine.
According to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, since October 2007 average window stickers on new cars sold in the U.S. have gone up only 5.3 mpg to 25.4 mpg as of June. This is true despite major automakers having had production-ready tech for 50-100-plus-mpg vehicles all along.
Like it or not, this is what we have in a world of politics, compromise, entrenched interests, and following are ways the ICE is maintaining its foothold in the western world.
Automakers have an arsenal of technological choices enabling them to stay ahead of CAFE, California rules, and various global regulations dictating average across-the-board fleet mpg and CO2 improve year by year.
Advanced Engine Technologies
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, engine technologies stand to improve efficiency and save operational costs over vehicles’ lifetime. Federal efficiency and cost-saving estimates below are based on DoE assumptions of 166,000 lifetime miles, fuel priced at $2.81, and compared to an average 22 mpg vehicle.
1. Forced Induction
In simplest terms, supercharging and turbocharging are two means to compress more air and thereby more fuel into a combustion chamber.
Supercharged Volkswagen/Audi engine.
Some fighter planes in WW2 used forced induction, and the tech had been around before that, but it’s a finding computer-aided resurgence these days with the trend to downsize engines and cram more fuel and air in.
This gives smaller engines the power of larger engines while allowing automakers to submit them to relatively tame and legal drive cycles that may report remarkable mpg and CO2 scores.
Forced induction is an expedient way to serve up an engine that can offer satisfying power with better efficiency – just so long as the driver does not push the gas to the floor, at which point the maxim “your mileage may vary” comes back in full force.
Vehicles are increasingly seeing this computer-enabled trick employed that can make an eight-cylinder run on four cylinders, or a six-cylinder run on three cylinders under light load use, such as on the highway.
The technology can also be called “multiple displacement,” or “displacement on demand,” “active fuel management,” or “variable cylinder management.”
It really is a decent concept too, as even, for example, a 450-horsepower Chevy Corvette C7 has been reported as returning over 30 mpg on a tame highway cruise which is amazing compared to what used to be expected.
With this technology, fuel is injected directly into the intake port and mixed with air as the air-fuel mixture is drawn into the cylinder.
Also known as “direct fuel injection,” and “spark ignition direct injection (SIDI)” the setup makes the fuel-air mixture a bit cooler enabling higher a compression ratio and increased combustion efficiency.
This means higher performance and less fuel consumption.
It’s a simple concept that prevents fuel from wasting at idle.
Automakers may also borrow another technology from hybrids – regenerative braking – to augment the system and convert mechanical energy lost in braking into electricity, which is stored in a battery and used to power the automatic starter.
So-called “micro hybrids” can see these systems in play. Unlike a true hybrid, electrical energy stored is not used to power a traction motor. Higher voltage batteries in addition to the 12-volt system take the converted mechanical energy and can power subsystems like the HVAC, infotainment, etc.
Following are a couple other miscellaneous efficiency helpers.
Lotus pioneer Colin Chapman was famous for saying “Simplify, then add lightness” as a formula for creating high-performance, nimble cars, but lighter weight pays dividends when the goal is fuel economy.
Lighter vehicles require less energy to propel them, and automakers are always keen to do this without compromising other design goals.
Common ways include use of high-tensile steel, aluminum, other lightweight materials including carbon fiber, and decreasing the powertrain size.
At the same time, vehicles must meet stringent and increasing safety standards, which takes material – strategically placed – along with technologies that all add to the weight.
You might say today many are complicating and trying to add lightness, but other efficiencies make up for the effort so that most agree today’s vehicles are better than ones from the good old days. (At least most people think so).
Efficiency improvement potential: 3-4 percent per 5-percent reduction in weight
Lifetime cost savings: $600 – $800
10. Low Rolling Resistance Tires
Tires are incredibly important as they are your only point of contact with the road, but they also create varying degrees of friction.
Another trick borrowed from hybrids and electric cars are LRR compounds that today are better than earlier less-grippy rubber that sacrified too much control for an incremental decrease in rolling resistance.
The idea is conservation of energy and it does work though it is a compromise still. High-performance cars do not get LRR rubber because it cannot give as high a lateral acceleration and adhesion characteristics. More often ordinary cars get them, for yet-more efficiency gains.
Our list hits the high spots, but is not comprehensive.
What’s more, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office continues forging ahead on ICE tech, applicable to passenger vehicles, and commercial vehicles like tractor trailers which account for 4 percent of vehicles on the road but slurp 20 percent of the fuel.
Along with hybridization – which is by extension an ICE-complementing technology – myriad technologies are being researched and developed for tomorrow’s vehicles including ones you may be able to buy.
Included in future ICE tech is recovering energy from engine waste heat, superior low-friction lubricants, advanced combustion technologies, alternative fuels, and more.
The world is not ready to give up the ICE unless it is somehow forced to.
What About Electrification?
In two years we may have 200-250-mile EVs costing in the mid 30s and battery researchers are pushing for “beyond lithium-ion” with many scientists wanting to be the one who discovers a true “game changer” that can seriously threaten to put the ICE on ice.
Chevy Bolt (shown), Tesla Model 3, and the next Nissan Leaf promise 200 to possibly 250 miles range. They are the next benchmark, to be priced in the mid 30s.
That’s the goal, but no one really knows the future even if many are willing to forecast on its behalf. And certainly the will is there, and reasons for positive conjecture.
In the mean time powers that be are trying to extend the relevance of internal combustion with lower emissions, higher efficiency and until a technology is embraced to unequivocally challenge the ICE, this is the plan until further notice.
A company named 24M announced that it has developed a semisolid lithium-ion battery that significantly reduces manufacturing time and expense without sacrificing performance.
It has been quietly working on developing the technology for the past five years, and said that applications include both electrified vehicles and home power storage, similar to other lithium-ion chemistries.
According to 24M, its new semisolid battery is based on already proven lithium-ion (li-ion) chemistry, solving some of the associated problems.
“The lithium-ion battery is a brilliant, enabling technology, but its economics are flawed. It’s prohibitively expensive; it’s cumbersome and inefficient to make; and today’s version is approaching the limits of its cost reductions,” said Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang, 24M’s chief scientist.
“24M has fixed the flaws. We’ve made the world’s favorite battery better, fundamentally changing its cost curve by designing a more elegant and simpler cell and then making the batteries the right way –the way they should have been made from day one.”
The key difference between this battery and other li-ion batteries is the electrode, explained 24M.
“Conventional lithium-ion battery cells have a large fraction of inactive, non-charge carrying materials –supporting metals and plastics – that are layered, one-on-top of the other, within a cell’s casing. Those inactive materials are expensive and wasteful,” the company said.
Dr. Chiang used his lab at MIT to solve this problem by creating a semisolid thick electrode.
“With the invention of the semisolid thick electrode, 24M eliminates more than 80 percent of these inactive materials and increases the active layer thickness over traditional li-ion by up to five times,” said 24M. “Using thick electrodes, the cell also stores more energy, bettering the performance of the battery as well as its cost.”
The manufacturing process is also improved, said the company, which quoted faster production times and less expensive facility costs among the benefits of the semisolid li-ion battery.
Dr. Chiang is a well known scientist in the field of rechargeable batteries. In 2001, he was one of the creators of A123 Systems, before co-founding 24M in 2010. He now leads a team of more than 50 employees at 24M’s 32,000 square foot factory in Cambridge, Mass.
He’ll have the chance to prove the effectiveness of his battery during its real-world testing phase. The product isn’t quite ready for electric vehicles, but will be used initially in stationary power storage systems. Within the next five years, CEO Throop Wilder said the company plans to build batteries for both grid storage and electrified vehicles.
“Together, our inventions achieve what lithium-ion has yet to do – meet the ultra-low cost targets of the grid and transportation industries,” Wilder said. “By 2020 our battery costs will be less than $100 a kilowatt-hour. We’re emerging at the right time with the right technology.”
Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick recently said that when Tesla Motors’ vehicles become fully autonomous, he is interested in buying every one of them.
The comments were relayed by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson during last month’s Top 10 Tech Trends dinner, as reported by Charged EVs. Uber is a ride service that swaps fleet-owned taxis and professional drivers for crowd-sourced drivers who use their own car to chauffer passengers.
According to Jurvetson, in a recent conversation Kalanick told him that “in 2020, if Tesla’s cars are autonomous, he’d want to buy all of them.”
Jurvetson himself is a big supporter of self-driving cars – especially on an electrified vehicle – and believes that the technology is one of the most important upcoming trends.
“By 2020 we will no longer debate the inevitability of autonomous electric vehicles when we first experience the convenience and efficiency of urban autonomous driving services,” said Jurvetson.
“For those of us who have a chance to be in [an autonomous vehicle] … you’ll never go back. I believe they are already safer than my parents, and I would trust my kids with them. And they’re just going to get better,” he said.
Jurvetson said he is predicting a strong future for a taxi service, such as Uber, that uses electric cars.
“The opportunity here is quite amazing. Initially they’ll be low-speed services, 25 mph or less, in urban settings, something like a robo-Uber or a robo-Lift. They’ll be feathered into those services of course as well, not just new entrants that are doing it.
“And what it will offer is unprecedented efficiency: both fuel efficiency, timing efficiency. The safety concerns that people mentioned would of course go away. It will be the ultimate future.”
More of Jurvetson’s comments on self-driving electric taxis can be seen in the video above (starting at about 1 hour, 28 minutes) along with the full panel discussion from the dinner.
Photo credit: Twitter screenshot via user @ubertesla, an Uber service in Ottowa, Canada.
A Fusion was used as an example in this article but could just as well have been a Volt-Cruze example.
More could be said, but this article was just to be educational and drill home some simple pointers.
The Volt remains an awesome solution for more reasons than carbon. But this is about that hot topic.
According to the U.S. EPA, a plug-in hybrid like a Ford Fusion Energi can save 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) tailpipe emissions per year compared to a 26-mpg non-hybrid Fusion, or enough to plant 79 trees.
This is based on 15,000 annual miles, the trees are a theoretical way to offset the greenhouse gases (GHG) released.
Not to pick on Ford, the Fusion Energi was chosen because it’s mid pack on the list excluding zero-emission battery electric cars – and the non-hybrid Fusion is close to today’s over 24-mpg average fuel efficiency rating.
To be sure, better or worse comparisons could also be made but this is just to illustrate a point:
One person can make a difference with a car choice, and it’s not that hard to figure out with free online calculators the U.S. EPA provides – but we get you started here.
Despite Coal, Electrified Vehicles Are Cleaner
With the advent of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles, automakers themselves now have choices to produce products fit for emissions standards their entire fleets will have to pass by 2025.
These cars are ahead of the curve, but while the opening Fusion versus Fusion example taken straight from EPA numbers looks like an open-and-shut case, we must disclose actual performance may be worse or better.
BMW i3. Of course there are myriad other reasons why electrified vehicles exist – such as for energy security, because they are a neat-driving alternative, potentially lower maintenance, and more.
A Fusion Energi rated at 129 g/mile GHG at the tailpipe is based on very averaged assumptions and it actually can operate at 0 g/mile for 19 miles, or with battery depleted it may emit a little more than a 209 g/mile Fusion Hybrid.
Nor do these tailpipe calculations account for “upstream emissions” – for electricity or gasoline.
While studies that cherry pick data have been presented to expose the alleged boondoggle of cars plugged into coal-intensive grids, also true is gasoline does not miraculously appear at the pump having bubbled freely from the ground like spring water.
Actually, there are “upstream emissions’ for electricity or fossil fuels, the EPA acknowledges this, and we won’t even get into myriad costs like guarding the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf War, and other environmental consequences from fossil fuels.
Tesla is the leading plug-in seller this year. The company does not believe hybrids are a good solution, and eschews gasoline. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), burning one ethanol-free gallon of gasoline produces about 19.64 pounds of CO2. One gallon of diesel yields about 22.38 pound of CO2 but diesel engines usually offset this by yielding increased fuel economy.
Keeping it simplified to look at the electric grid, upstream emissions can be estimated by zip code on an EPA calculator. According to it, our 129 g/mile Fusion Energi rises to:
• New York City: 220 g/mile
• Wheeling, West Virginia: 290 g/mile
• Marysville, Ohio: 290 g/mile
• Long Beach, California: 230 g/mile
• Kent Washington: 230 g/mile
The EPA calculator is not perfect, but it’s a guide updated regularly that while still including assumptions that may not apply to some, does help get closer to reality.
And, according to it, the Fusion Energi even wins in Dallas, Texas where its 270 g/mile tailpipe-plu-upstream emissions are cleaner than the regular Fusion which is 338 g/mile nationwide.
EPA’s calculator is a guide to drill down on emissions.
But the 338 g/mile for the gasoline-burning Fusion assumes zero upstream emissions for its gasoline, and that’s not fair, is it?
No, and the EPA estimates another 80 g/mile for upstream gasoline emissions, so apple for apple, it’s 418 g/mile for the non-hybrid Fusion vs. 290 g/mile for the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid.
Invisible CO2 may be hard to imagine, but according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, if we were to dye it a brown, we’d see whiffs of brown stuff coming out of tailpipes.
Not only does 6.3 pounds of gasoline produce an outsized 20 pounds of CO2, the gas itself is expanded and each pound would fill a 2.5-foot diameter rubber exercise ball.
On a given day, the tailpipe of a plug-in Fusion could fill 11.5 exercise balls, and a non-hybrid Fusion would fill 31. Factoring upstream emissions, the plug-in Fusion still holds a clear advantage.
There are 253 million cars and trucks on the roads, many emit far more than our relatively clean new examples, and can you imagine the sky filling up with all the exercise balls?
If we could see it that way, it could be like the sky is one of those kid’s playground attractions just filled with colored rubber balls jumbled together.
Every year America’s regional electric grids get cleaner meaning upstream emissions decrease annually. The same cannot be said of gasoline and diesel.
Based on EPA data, the chart presents all battery electric cars sold in the U.S., and most plug-in hybrids. We omitted a couple plug-in hybrids that emit more than regular hybrids as the subject is the lowest GHG cars.
The battery vehicle chart’s hierarchy is by tailpipe-plus-upstream emissions, as all cars have no tailpipe, and are zero. The plug-in hybrids and hybrids are in order of lowest tailpipe emissions to highest.
For electrified cars, the question of upstream grid emissions only applies to battery electric and plug-in hybrids as regular hybrids generate their own electricity onboard. Non-plug-in hybrids do however have upstream emissions from gasoline.
We used a Southern California reference for the “grid,” but as you know this varies.
California is where 50 percent of the plug-in vehicles were sold last year, and its grid is at a level others are aspiring to meet.
You’ll note due to peculiarities in the EPA’s data, algorithms, and varying efficiency of blended gas-plus-electric powertrains that some PHEVs that do better at the tailpipe do not show superiority when upstream emissions are factored in.
Click to expand chart.
As a benchmark to compare the electrified cars to, we arbitrarily picked a 25 mpg Honda Civic with 352 g/mile tailpipe emissions and 435 g/mile tailpipe plus upstream emissions. The EPA’s latest preliminary values for a national average new car sold in the country is 24.2 mpg and 367 g/mi – tailpipe-only – for 2014, and cars keep getting cleaner.
If you’re interested, other popular vehicles emit much more GHG. Just at the tailpipe, you have the Ford F-150 with 3.5-liter V6 at 471 g/mile, or 16,600 pounds per year, the Honda Odyssey at 402 g/mile or 13,200 pounds annually, four-cylinder Toyota Camry at 317 g/mile or 10,400 pounds per year. You can look them up yourself at fueleconomy.gov.
You may note the EPA says, according to its drive cycle a Prius hybrid emits just 18 g/mile more than the Chevy Volt, and beats the Cadillac ELR by 12 g/mile when factoring tailpipe plus upstream.
But caveats apply double to plug-in cars. These are based on EPA assumptions and a tame drive cycle that assumes a certain percentage of gas and electric. Many Volt drivers decimate these numbers by using the battery far more to drive the car than an average government cycle.
Does that mean it’s false? No, under certain circumstances, if one matches the conditions the EPA works under which attempt to approximate normal driving, then your results could be close to spec.
Of course also, there are many other reasons for these cars than just carbon footprint, but this data is here for those who want to know about their relevance to climate change.
The big news from General Motors yesterday was sales are up, trucks and SUVs are leading the way – and the Volt is hanging on until the 2016 replacement begins deliveries in a couple months from now.
Specifically, 2015 Volt sales were 1,225 units, down 31.1 percent from 1,777 sold in June 2014, and below May 2015’s 1,618 sold. For the year, the Volt has sold 5,622 units.
Meanwhile General Motors reported its highest June retail market share since 2011 as it feels its oats against competitors.
In all, U.S. Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac dealers delivered 259,353 vehicles and with total Chevrolet pickup deliveries climbing 33 percent, Chevy sales are beating Ford truck sales, says the automaker.
While this may not be what electrification enthusiasts care to hear, growth in other segments is allowing the automaker to do things like assign 1,000 engineers to 55 Chevy Bolt EV test mules to accelerate its development, so reality is a mixed blessing for electrification fans.
GM credits strong sales to economic perceptions along with a strong portfolio to attract the attention of buyers.
“We just wrapped up the U.S. auto industry’s best six months in a decade, driven by strong demand for pickups and crossovers,” said Kurt McNeil, GM’s U.S. vice president of Sales Operations. “People feel good about their jobs and the direction the economy as a whole is taking, so the second half of the year should be strong too, and that’s especially good news for Chevrolet and GMC, brands that have very broad truck and crossover portfolios.”
As for the Volt, it is holding down the fort being the highest EPA-rated mpg car other than pure electric vehicles, and having been a Consumer Reports top owner satisfaction survey winner twice.
The new Volt is projected to get 50 miles all-electric range, and in a “mistake” Chevrolet published 43 mpg in gas mode then retracted it to 41. In fact, full EPA numbers have not been announced, and Volt supporters are hopeful that mistake will prove to be accurate and the Volt will see a mild boost in efficiency ratings over projections.