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Saturday, June 25, 2005

The 500MPG Trick

A "fact" has been swishing around the 'net for a while now. Certain greenies are promoting the idea of a 500MPG car, based a combination of 3 trendy new technologies: hybrid-electric engines, plug-in hybrid, and ethanol, all rolled into one dreamy Al Gore burrito, with some Ralph Nader sprinkled on top. From the L.A. Times:

Add in "flexible fuel" options that already allow many cars to run on a combination of petroleum and fuels like ethanol (derived from corn) and methanol (from natural gas or coal), and you could build vehicles that could get --— drum roll, please --— 500 miles per gallon of gasoline. That's not science fiction; that's achievable right now.

Set America Free estimates that if we convert entirely to flexible-fuel, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, U.S. gasoline imports in 20 years will drop by two-thirds.
... This would not only reduce the Middle East's strategic importance but also help reduce emissions to Kyoto-mandated levels.
There is a detail here, though, that many are missing: the G in MPG stands for gallon, not gasoline. You may get 500 miles per gallon of gasoline, however, you will not come close to that in miles per gallon of fuel.

When you consider the whole fuel, you see that it is not as green as promised. For one thing, ethanol requires a great deal of energy to produce. Much of that energy comes from (drumroll...) gasoline and diesel fuel. Fuel for the tractors. Fuel for refining and pumping. Energy to make the fertilizer.

If ethanol was cheaper than dinosaur juice, we would be using more of it. But Congress has to pay farmers to produce it, and require its use by law--because ethanol is more expensive to produce than gasoline. If the market was allowed to work, ethanol would go extinct.

Methanol is derived from coal and natural gas. Where are the large deposits of natural gas? Russia, and the Arab states of the middle-east. How does using more natural gas reduce reliance on foreign energy sources? Do the greenies really want to encourage more coal mining?

Ethanol is less energy-rich than gasoline. You need to burn more of the stuff to get the same power output. Ethanol has a heating value of 11,500 BTU/lb, compared to gasoline's 18,000 BTU/lb (source: Alternative Fuels Data Center). Also, the stoichiometric mass ratio of Ethanol is 9:1 air/fuel, compared to 14.7:1 for gasoline. That means that for a given engine displacement, you need 1.6x as much ethanol as gasoline, by weight. Given an engine, and a driving cycle, you will get worse MPG running ethanol.

The other detail here is the "plug-in" part. Again, most of our electricity is generated from fossil fuels--natural gas or oil. Unless the greenies are going to agree to build lots of nuclear power plants (which I would heartily support), they are not going to reduce carbon emissions or imported energy use by much. California already has a problem generating enough power for its current needs--can you imagine what would happen if Californians had to plug their cars in to recharge every night? I have previously criticized the economics of plug-in hybrids (here).

Given a set of requirements, such as passenger capacity, crash performance, and 0-60 acceleration, a plug-in flex fuel hybrid will be dramatically more expensive than a comparable gasoline car, even at high production volumes. You have to pay for a whole parallel powertrain, including electric motors, batteries, charging transformer, etc. And the extra components will break, increasing overall maintenance costs over the vehicle lifetime.

As usual, the greenies are throwing up a (marijuana) smoke-screen by moving the emissions around. Don't be fooled. The goal of the greenies is to make personal transportation very expensive. If they wanted to reduce carbon emissions, they would be clamoring for nuclear power. If they wanted to reduce oil importation, they would approve more exploration in non-Arab states, and places like ANWR. What the greenies really want is for us to ride government controlled mass-transportation systems.

(Peter DeLorenzo at AutoExtremist does a nice job on this topic)


The Angry Engineer said...

Nuclear power may not be the answer - fuel enrichment is terribly energy-intensive. Breeder reactors provide a solution to that problem, but everyone's scared stiff of them because they make P239 (kinda the whole purpose of a "breeder"). Scratch that one off the list.

ANWR's a drop in the bucket compared to our overall needs. Check out this graph:

I don't know if I qualify as a "greenie", but I see energy as being one of the world's biggest problem moving forward into the next few decades. Bringing a few billion people up to our standard of living will not be sustainable. This is going to require some radical changes in transportation technology. I don't wish to see personal transportation go away, which is exactly why I'd like to see some alternative ideas presented. If the only solutions on the table are nukes and ANWR, we're not going to make it very far. Conservation cannot be yet another issue that's lost to this really f*ckin' stupid left-vs-right mentality, or else we're in for a world of hurt.

Anonymous said...

The 500mpg performance benchmark is a round figure that represents the fringe of currently realistic mechanical design objectives. Educational funding of such design is speculative and based on the notion that a dramatic and sustained rise in energy prices might make such technology economically viable for large scale production and consumption within a time frame that is near enough to make the present funding economically sensible. It is more than simply a long shot investment. It serves as insurance against a worst case scenario where, conceivably, personal transportation manufacturers and consumers would have otherwise had to wait considerable time, in the wake of an energy price shock, before getting vehicles designed with a virtually optimum tradeoff of efficiency verses other factors. Such design also serves as an extreme from which to interpolate a broader spectrum of practical compromises.

Aside from such flattery of government misappropriation, it does seem to be a deviance related to a demonic forbiddance of certain types of foods (read energy). Cross reference 1 Timothy 4:1-5.

So let us pray, "Father, we thank you for the heavenly energy of nuclear power."