It appears that gas prices in the Twin Cities have hit record highs at this point, averaging about $3.23/gal in recent days. This might also be an all-time (for the last century, at least) inflation-adjusted high. National average prices hit today's equivalent of $3.22/gal in March 1981. Of course, adjusting for inflation is one of those black arts, so I can't say if it's really true or not. Certainly within the margin of error at this point, but very close at any rate.
I'm really suspicious of the reasons for the recent hikes. Gasoline is actually getting hit harder than diesel, apparently because of disruptions in the gasoline refining process. We really have no way of knowing right now, since nobody goes to refineries and actually checks to see if they're doing what they say they're doing. Are things really breaking down at refineries? If so, why are they primarily hitting gasoline refining? My conspiracy theory is that they want to hit your wallet, but not the wallets of businesses which primarily transport things using diesel fuel. Then again, that basically gets thrown out the window since diesel had been more expensive than gasoline for about a year and a half up until recent declines.
I've paid some attention to to technologies which improve fuel economy for a long time, and it's nice to see more of them getting closer to market. It was amazing when hybrids finally appeared, and they still have a lot of buzz. I still don't like the way Ford and GM are applying the technology at this point, primarily on huge SUVs, but... Actually, "but" nothing. They should have applied it to cars by now. There are some on the horizon, but they should have gotten the technology earlier.
A lot has been said about ethanol, so I'll just summarize some things. Does it really reduce the amount of pollution coming out of your tailpipe? I have my doubts. Doing some rudimentary chemical equations, it should be about 30% better than gasoline in that department. Unfortunately, it's also got 30% less energy per unit volume. It's pretty clear that current ethanol production does have a positive net energy balance, but it's nowhere near what I'd like to see. And energy balance is only part of the picture—ethanol production goes through a lot of water. I've also advocated moving away from corn as an initial source since there are other plants which are much better feedstocks, but the corn lobby is pretty entrenched...
Oh, and don't forget that ethanol is being used in vehicles that aren't taking full advantage of the fuel. It's practically a super-premium racing fuel, and it works best in engines which have high compression, so E85 vehicles really should be equipped with turbochargers. I'm not aware of any that are aside for a few non-U.S. cars from Saab using their "BioPower" engines.
There are efforts being made to improve the combustion of gasoline engines. Turbocharging and supercharging has helped a number of cars improve their numbers. Volkswagen and BMW have some of the most advanced setups, using either one supercharger and one turbocharger (the supercharger is only engaged at low revs) or two turbochargers. Combined with direct injection of fuel into the combustion chamber, this has boosted economy in the range of 10%.
A small contingent of "lean burn" engines have been around for probably 20 years at this point, and my understanding is that they essentially have diesel-like combustion under certain conditions. Today, several companies are working on homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI) engines, which take that idea a bit further. With modern computers, it's possible to run gasoline engines in a compression-ignition mode through a much wider operating range.
Of course, this creates other problems—exhaust begins to look a lot more like what comes out of a diesel engine! There are increased NOx levels and other problems. All this, and you only achieve the efficiency that diesels have inherently. Sheesh, why don't you just cut out the middleman? Diesel fuel has 15% more energy per gallon than gasoline, and because most modern diesels have turbochargers to make the best of this highly-compressible fuel, they get about 30% better fuel economy. Add in the fact that you're already off to a better start while standing at the fuel pump because it takes less energy to refine the fuel in the first place, and you can feel pretty green. Oh well, at least HCCI research is also leading toward better diesel engines too.
Honda is going to start leasing it's FCX hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in 2008 for $500 a month in an EV1-like program. When do they think they'll actually put it into regular production? 2018. GM also has a "Project Driveway" program which is getting fuel-cell vehicles into the hands of regular people, but they also have rather vague targets. Those cars are still an order of magnitude more expensive than even the high-end all-electric cars, so I have my doubts they'll ever make much impact. Besides, even the simple act of fueling the car ends up using a massive amount of energy, as the fuel in the tank needs to be compressed to levels of 5,000 to 10,000 psi. Crazy.
Considering the whole hydrogen infrastructure problem, I'd prefer they focused on methane fuel cells instead. In Minnesota at least, about 70% of homes already have natural gas lines, why not leverage those existing pipelines? In addition, methane can be captured from a number of natural and not-so-natural sources at very little cost.
Still, since I've personally got a diesel car, I'm most interested in what can be done there at this point. I'm disappointed that I don't have a friendly neighborhood biodiesel pump yet, but hopefully it won't be too long before that happens. Biodiesel seems to win out massively in the energy game, since two to three times as much energy comes out compared to what you put in versus ethanol. If we ever get algae-sourced biodiesel running on a large scale, I suspect we'll get the hydrocarbon equivalent of nuclear's old "power that's too cheap to meter" argument. Unfortunately, like nuclear, I see some trouble on the horizon. Many organizations are looking at using genetically-modified types of microalgae, which bothers me. You know that some of this stuff is going to escape, so do you really want some sort of "super-algae" clogging up waterways?
So, what do I want to see in the future? Well, probably all-electric and hybrid-electric cars like the Tesla WhiteStar (their successor to the Roadster) and Chevrolet Volt. Hopefully people running pure electrics would be able to either run off their own solar panels or sign up with their power provider to get into a program like Xcel Energy's Windsource where I pay a little more each month to get wind-generated electricity. I'd like to see the hybrid cars using diesels with HCCI improvements running on biodiesel or one of the currently rare biomass-to-liquid fuel types. Hopefully exhaust heat would also be recaptured to assist in generating electricity for the vehicle. Even with all of the costs involved, these cars would still probably be an order of magnitude cheaper than fuel cells, yet the efficiency could meet or exceed that of hydrogen cars, both in "(fueling) station-to-wheel" and (especially) in "well-to-wheel" numbers.
Too bad all of the numbers are still so fuzzy at this point, but hopefully the market will see this pretty clearly in the future. The Roadster is supposed to be delivered to customers by this fall, and the Volt and WhiteStar should both be on the road in 2010. Fuel cells will take much longer to appear.Posted by mike at May 14, 2007 02:24 PM | Car