If there’s one priority we can all agree to in this country, it’s getting us free from the use of gasoline in our automobiles. But how do we get there? What do real experts say is going to happen?
I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Scott Samuelsen, the head of the Advanced Power and Energy Program at the University of California, Irvine. Scott is doing work with the leading car companies in the world who are developing alternatives we can use. He knows the direction these car makers are moving and the investments they are making in alternative energies. UCI is also located in Orange County, which is the hub of automobile designs for the future.
I asked Scott to keep the explanations simple and to assume I don’t know much…..so in a way, you can think of this interview as transportation fuels for dummies. I’ll start with the basics and go through the transportation transformation that is going to take place in America over the next twenty years.
The alternative technology most prevalent today is the hybrid vehicle. A good example is the Toyota Prius. It has an electric battery that supplements a normal gas fired engine. The battery is charged by the breaking of the car as well as by the engine. It is not charged by plugging the battery into anything. It is called a hybrid vehicle.
The next step in this evolution is the PHEV - the plug in hybrid electric vehicle – where batteries on board can be recharged by electricity at home or at work. Here is where electrical transmission into our home and work places becomes very important. Without adequate electricity, we will not be able to recharge the PHEV. Late at night and early in the morning, electrical grid capacity is available for recharging…to a point. Improving the electric grid over the next 20 years to both handle millions of vehicles and minimize emissions from power plants are critical to our future. Yes, many people will recharge their vehicles at night when the rates are low, but we need to anticipate growing demand and find ways to meet it. The way we can do this is through wind, solar, and nuclear power.
The average person drives less than 35 miles per day. The average all electric range for a PHEV is projected to be between 40 and 60 miles, depending on the weight of the vehicle and battery technology. This means that for many cars, they would never require gasoline. However, the car will still come with the ability to automatically convert to the gas fed engines if the driver needs extra distance.
This leads us to the next step in the process. We need a gas free alternative when the plug in electric vehicle runs out of power. What is it? Dr. Samuelsen sees the car companies moving over time to hydrogen as the best alternative to power a fuel cell under the hood. At this point, there are challenges with hydrogen, but these problems are being worked out and after all, we are looking at least 10 years into the future before the hydrogen car needs to be ready for mass distribution.
Hydrogen can be produced cheaply from a variety of sources. Orange County California will soon be producing the first hydrogen plant made from the digestive gases of a waste water treatment plant. Hydrogen can also be made from the gas that escapes from landfills. The requirements for hydrogen to power vehicles will drop significantly as the electric vehicle takes over most of the day to day requirements for daily trips. Filling stations will add hydrogen dispensing if the energy companies are confident this is going to be the future.
Some people say the pounds per square inch (psi) required for hydrogen vehicles is too dangerous. Dr. Samuelsen believes the psi will come down below 3600 in the future, which is about what a natural gas vehicle runs on today. Honda already is producing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that runs on 5000 psi with acceptable range.
So we have a three step process. First, the move we are making to affordable hybrid vehicles that recharge using brakes and an on-board gas engine. Second, the move to plug in hybrid electric vehicles that provide a generous all-electric range and convert to gas for longer trips. Third, the move to hydrogen fuel cell hybrid vehicles that will replace the gas powered engine with the same plug in attributes introduced by the PHEV.
Sure, this is one smart engineers opinion. He is connected and knows the facts. Will it come true? It could, if we will exercise the leadership and foresight to keep moving as a country to oil free automobiles. Customers are ready to make changes. Admittedly, there are many competing technologies today and we will evolve over time. I found it refreshing to speak with an expert who sees a way out of our mess and knows we can get the job done if we stay focused first on the end game of oil independence and then it’s by-product – a smog free sky!
(To learn more about Professor Scott Samuelsen, you can visit http://www.apep.uci.edu/samuelsen/)