Make Love Not War

A return to making love, not war – Iraq and replacement fuels

Early on I wrote a column about an unanticipated Thanksgiving dinner conversation with a special operations soldier who had served in Iraq. His comment, in response to a question I asked about whether he and his buddies knew why they were sent to Iraq, was brief and blunt: “oil and U.S. security.” He would have none of what he thought was b.s. about “freedom and democracy” or “weapons of mass destruction.” Before I asked the question I actually already knew what his answer would be, but a glass of wine, a wonderful piece of turkey and good company suggested that my inquiry would lead to an opening for a longer repartee on the Middle East and U.S. policy. It did, and again oil and oil politics were the dominant theme.

I suspect that many of the writers of today’s headlines and op-ed articles anticipated Republican Eric Cantor would win. They are now arguing, in sometimes misleading reference terms concerning democracy, inter-sectarian harmony and morality, for a more aggressive U.S. policy toward the invasion by Sunni radicals of parts of what once on a map called the nation of Iraq.

But the real issue for many “experts,” I again suspect, is oil — a fear, whether factual or not, that if Iraq collapses, the world oil supply (already close to equilibrium concerning demand and supply) will relatively quickly reflect shortages and much higher prices per barrel of oil ($150 a barrel) and oil’s product, gasoline ($5 and more).

Should we be sending kids to fight for our apparent God-given right to Middle Eastern oil? Although I think a lot about the ethics of public decision making, I am not an ethicist. But as long as there are alternatives to supply, my hard-nosed policy advice would be against war or the steps that might lead to war. Iraq has not been the noble state that welcomed America in to rescue it ostensibly from Saddam Hussein. Its form of democracy has been limited, corrupt and sectarian.

What should our calculations be, concerning alternative supplies of oil? First, we ought to really think through whether a full or partial shutdown of Iraqi oil wells will mean a damn. Iraq alone supplies a small share of U.S. oil imports. Most of the often-shrill economic coverage of the radical Sunni invasion and its potential impact on U.S. oil seems to relate more to perceptions, not empirical evidence, about shortages and prices. Commentators “perceive” what the oil markets might or will do — really what oil speculators and investors will or will not do — based on what is currently happening in Iraq, not on facts on the ground. Neil Cavuto of Fox Business said, “Oil is a commodity, a global commodity, and like any stock in almost any market, it often trades on issues having little to do with basic fundamentals, and more to do with simple fear.”

Assuming, however, there is a real worldwide shortage of oil as a result of a closure of Iraqi wells, or that fear drives the prices up so much that there is a strain to the economy, the Saudis, probably, among all the OPEC nations, are the only ones with sufficient oil in the ground to make an immediate difference concerning supply. But will they? They have shown some flexibility in the past to U.S. petitioning. They have also, at times, despite their security relationship to the U.S., turned us down. This time around the Saudis could well be more than a bit sensitive, particularly if it looks like the radical Sunnis might win. The Kingdom is vulnerable with respect to a radical brand of Sunniism. I bet they also fear a potential Shiite effort to push the radicals back, particularly one led by Iran. Life is never simple for the House of Saud.

Okay, where are we? Oil is sold in an international marketplace. No matter which side you are on regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, if approved and completed, it will not have a major impact on U.S. gas supply or prices. Ask your friendly oil refinery or oil company executive where he or she believes Keystone-supplied oil will be going. Most of the assumed supply will be traded internationally for the highest global price. The predicted increased supply of U.S.-produced gasoline will probably help diminish price increases slightly, but don’t make a bet on how much. Today, a price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is well over $4 in California and U.S. production is at a very high level.

What would likely help keep gasoline prices from spiking significantly and, at the same time, lessen the amplitude of the cycles is a commitment to competition in the fuel marketplace. Let Adam Smith reign! Allow safe, cheaper, environmentally better replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol (and someday soon, methanol) to compete with gasoline. Encourage the conversion of older vehicles to flex-fuel vehicles! Push for renewable fuels and related vehicles that appeal to a larger market than at present, given costs and design constraints! Reduce our dependence on imported oil! Make love, not war! Drive (excuse the pun) for strategic solutions!

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle

Japan bets big on hydrogen fuel cells

Remember when Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) used to sit atop the Japanese industrial complex, steering it like some giant Godzilla hovering over the entire world?

Those were the days when Japan’s government-industry partnership was supposed to represent the future, when Michael Crichton wrote a novel about how Japan would soon devour America, when pundits and scholars were warning that we had better do the same if we hoped to survive – before, that is, the whole thing collapsed and Japan went into a 20-year funk from which it has never really recovered.

Well those days may be returning in one small part as METI prepares to direct at least half the Japanese auto industry into the production of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

“Japanese Government Bets the Farm on Fuel Cell Vehicles” ran one headline earlier this month and indeed there’s plenty at stake for everyone. The tip-off came at the end of May when Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American operations, told Automotive News that electric vehicles are only “short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile…But for long-range travel, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and, tomorrow, fuel cells.” The target here, of course, is Tesla, where Elon Musk appears to be making the first inroads against gasoline-powered vehicles with his $35,000 Model E, aimed at the average car buyer. Toyota was originally in on that deal and was scheduled to supply the batteries until it pulled out this spring, ceding the job to Panasonic.

But all that was only a preview of what was to come. In early June, METI announced it would orchestrate a government-private initiative to help Toyota and Honda market fuel-cell vehicles in Japan and then across the globe. Of course that leaves out the other half of Japan’s auto industry, Nissan and Mitsubishi, pursuing their version of the EV, but maybe the Japanese are learning to hedge their bets.

The hydrogen initiative will put the fuel-cell vehicle front-and-center in the race to transition to other forms of propulsion and reduce the world’s dependence on OPEC oil. Actually, hydrogen cars have been in the offering for more than twenty years. In the 1990s soft-energy guru Amory Lovins put forth his Hypercar, a carbon-fiber vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inaugurated the “Hydrogen Highway,” a proposed network of hydrogen filling stations that was supposed to blanket the Golden State. Unfortunately, only ten have been built so far, and there are still no more than a handful of FCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) on the road. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW all have small lines but none are marketed very aggressively in the United States.

This time, however, there may be a serious breakthrough. After all, Toyota, Honda and METI are not just in the business of putting out press releases. Toyota will begin production of its first mass-market model in December and Honda will follow with a 5-passenger sedan next year. Prices will start in the stratosphere — close to $100,000 — but both companies are hoping to bring them down to $30,000 by the 2020s. Meanwhile, GM is making noises about a fuel-cell model in 2016 and South Korea’s Hyundai is already unloading its hydrogen-powered Tucson on the docks of California.

What will METI’s role be? The supervising government ministry promises to relax safety standards, allowing on-board storage of hydrogen at 825 atmospheres instead of the current 750. This will increase the car’s range by 20 percent and bring it into the 350-mile territory of the internal combustion engine. Like the ICE, hydrogen cars can “gas up” in minutes, giving them a huge leg up on EVs, which can take anywhere from 20 minutes with superchargers to eight hours with household plugs. METI has also promised to loosen import controls so that foreign manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz can find their way into Japan. And, of course, it will seek reciprocal agreements so Toyota and Honda can market their models across the globe.

So will the one-two punch of government-and-industry-working-together be able to break the ice for hydrogen vehicles? California seems to be a particularly ripe market. Toyota is already the best-selling car in the state and the California Energy Commission is promising to expand the Hydrogen Highway to 70 stations by 2016. Still, there will be stiff competition from Elon Musk if and when his proposed Gigafactory starts turning out batteries by the millions. Partisans of EVs and fuel-cell vehicles are already taking sides.

In the end, however, the most likely winners will be consumers who will now have a legitimate choice between hydrogen vehicles and EVs. It may be a decade or more before either of these technologies makes a significant dent in our oil consumption, but in the end it will be foreign oil providers that will be feeling the pain.

Tesla Electric Car

Can supercapacitors replace batteries?

The electric car depends on batteries, and before EVs become a large chunk of our automotive fleet, there are probably going to be some changes.

Right now, Elon Musk is betting he can produce millions of small lithium-ion batteries not much bigger than the ones you put in your flashlight and string them together to power a $35,000 Tesla Model E over a range of 200 miles at speeds of up to 70-80 mph. The Model E also will also need an infrastructure of roadside “filling stations” and home chargers, although the best superchargers still take more than 20 minutes to achieve 80 percent capacity.

But there is another way to store electricity, long familiar to the designers of electrical circuits. It’s the capacitor, a device that stores a small current by static electricity rather than a chemical reaction. Capacitors sit in all of your electrical devices, from radio circuits to the most sophisticated laptops, and are essential to providing the steady electric current needed to run such electronics. But what if the concept of capacitors could be scaled up to the point where they could help power something as big as an electric vehicle? Granted, it’s a long, long way from the 1.5-volt capacitor in your iPad and powering a 4,500-pound Tesla along the Interstate, but researchers are out there probing and are already thinking in terms of a breakthrough.

Right now there’s a huge separation between the things that batteries can do and the things that capacitors can do. In a way they are complementary — the strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other. But researchers are working toward a convergence — or perhaps just a way of using them in tandem.

A battery employs chemistry by splitting ions in the electrolyte so that the negative ones gather on the cathode and the positive on the anode, building up a voltage potential. When they are connected externally an electric current flows. Batteries have a lot of energy density. They can store electricity up into the megawatt range and release a flow of electricity over long periods of time. The process can also be reversed, but, because the reaction is (once again) chemical, it can take a long time.

Capacitors store electrons as static electricity. A thundercloud is a great big capacitor with zillions of electrons clinging to the almost infinite surface area of individual raindrops. And as everyone knows, this huge stored capacity can be released in a “bolt of lightening.” Capacitors can be recharged almost instantly but also they release their energy almost instantly, rather than the even flow of a battery. One of their major uses is in flash photography. But their capacity for storing power is also limited. On a pound-for-pound basis, the best capacitors can only store one-fifth to one-tenth the equivalent of a chemical battery. On the other hand, batteries can start to wear out after five years, while supercapacitors last at least three times as long.

Back in the 1950s, engineers at General Electric, and later at Standard Oil, invented what have come to be called “supercapacitors.” Basically, a supercapacitor changes the surface material and adds another layer of insulating dielectric in order to increase storage capacity. Surface area is the key and engineers discovered that powdery, activated charcoal vastly increased the capacity of the storage plates. Dielectrics were also reduced to ultra-thin layers of carbon, paper or plastic, since the closer the plates can be brought together, the more intense the charge. Since then they have begun experimenting with graphene and other advanced materials that may be able to increase surface area by orders of magnitude. All of this means that much more electricity can be stored in a much smaller space.

But the problem of low energy density remains. Even supercapacitors can only operate at about 2.5 volts, which means they must be strung together in series in vast numbers in order to reach voltage levels required to power something like an electric car. This creates problems in maintaining voltage balance. Still, some supercapacitors are already being employed in gas-electric hybrids and electric buses in order to store the power siphoned off from braking.

Researchers in the field now see some possibility for convergence. Most exhilarating is the idea that the frame of the car itself could be transformed into a supercapacitor. Last month, researchers from Vanderbilt University published an online paper entitled, “A Multifunctional Load-Bearing Solid-State Supercapacitor,” in which they suggested that load-bearing materials such as the chassis of a car or even the walls of your house could be transformed into supercapacitors to store massive amounts of electricity on-site. Combined with advances in evening the flow of electrons from supercapacitors, this opens up whole new avenues of approach to the electric car.

All of these developments are a long way off, of course. Still, supercapacitors support the possibility of pulling out of your driveway in the morning and returning at night in your EV without needing to gas up with foreign oil at your nearest filling station.

William Shakespeare cartoon

Shakespeare and Julia Child on monopolies, competition and alternative fuels

You must remember the famous community activist who once asked, “To be, or not to be, that is the policy and behavior question; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously high, constantly shifting gasoline prices or to take arms against a sea of troubles generated by monopolistic fuel markets and open them up and end them.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare, now that we need him, is no longer available. But his question, articulated by his political friend Hamlet, still needs to be answered. I suggest we respond to his query in the context of another question: Is competition in the market for vehicular fuel a public good and in the public interest? Ah ha, you ask, why must we ask this question? Don’t we live in a capitalist or quasi-capitalist nation? Gosh, ever since we all were kids, were we not brought up on the wisdom of free markets and their ostensible link to freedom and democracy, a trifecta holy grail?

Sure we were! But the presented wisdom apparently didn’t mean all markets, and most important for this article, the market where most of us purchase fuel. By and large, the market for fuel is limited to a single, generally similar, primary product — gasoline. Competition, when it exists, generates from relatively small price differences, more often than not. Overblown value propositions in advertising concerning engine performance benefits from brand X or Y notwithstanding.

Consumers who, many times, assiduously read the papers or go online to find out where different brands of tires are cheapest or travel miles to visit dealers to get a perceived “good deal” on a car are frequently constrained to their neighborhood gas stations or the stations located near the nearest shopping center or big box store. While price may be a key factor in driving their decision as to which station will fill up their tank, absence of diverse fuel alternatives results in a relatively narrow band of prices per gallon and a competitive floor on consumer savings and costs.

Opening up gas markets will be tough. The oil industry controls or strongly influences over 40 percent of the stations and holds a big, profitable stick concerning what can be sold and how it can be sold at its franchised facilities. Prices are set low enough to scare independents into selecting less-than-favorable locations, or pricey enough to give them some room to keep their own costs relatively high.

To date, state pilot or demonstration programs concerning alternative fuels like ethanol and methanol have had mixed results. Why? Their costs of production and their environmental/GHG costs are lower than gasoline. Are we Americans just dumb? No. Initiatives to date have had to surmount problems including: consumer access to fuel stations with flex-fuel pumps (their costs range from $50,000 to over $100,000); a growing but still relatively small percentage of flex fuel autos compared to the total number of vehicles; the lack of consumer information concerning their own flex-fuel vehicle’s ability to use ethanol; the fear generated by some interest groups often related to the oil industry about the impact of alternative fuels on engines; the seeming ability of the oil industry to manage local prices; and the decisions by supply chain participants, particularly retailers to raise alternative fuel prices to capture immediate profits (reducing their intermediate and long-term ability — as the new kid on the block — to compete with gasoline.)

Evidence from Brazil suggests that demand emanating from an educated public, combined with a commitment to increase the pool of alternative-fuel vehicles and readily accessible fuel stations with ethanol pumps will cause a reduction in gasoline prices. Juliano J. Assunção, Joao Paulo Pessoa and Leonardo Rezende noted in a December 2013 London School of Economics publication, “Our estimates suggest that the model prediction is correct and that as the percentage of flex cars increase by 10%, ethanol and gasoline energy equivalent prices per liter fall by approximately 8 cents and 2 cents, respectively. Considering the volume of sales and size of the flex fuel fleet in 2007, a rough estimate suggests consumer savings to the order of 70 million Reais in the Rio de Janeiro state that year. Our estimates also show that the price gap as well as the price correlation between the two fuels has increased with the increased penetration of flex fuel cars.” Other studies have suggested similar positive impacts.

A U.S. recipe appears clear and consistent with America’s assumed belief in letting the market decide most resource allocation issues connected to the production of non-social welfare related goods and services. Ingredient one: Amend laws and regulations to encourage individual owners to convert older cars to flex-fuel automobiles; ingredient two: mix the resulting converted cars with newer flex-fuel vehicles to create a large flex-fuel pool; ingredient three: liberally sprinkle in enough information to inform consumers and potential-ethanol-supply-chain participants, including potential blenders and retailers, of the potential demand for ethanol as a fuel; ingredient four: add real, solid seasoning to the mix by fostering development, distribution and the sale of natural-gas-based ethanol to achieve significant increased environmental and cost benefits. Julia Child couldn’t build a better dish for the nation as it simultaneously tries to expand the viability of renewable fuels, and Shakespeare’s friend, Hamlet, would not need antidepressants.


DME poses a challenge to CNG

If there’s an Achilles’ heel to the efforts being made to introduce compressed natural gas (CNG) into the country’s vehicles, it is that somebody is going to come along with a liquid fuel that works much better.

CNG has many things going for it. Natural gas is now abundant and promises to stay that way for a long time. That puts the price around $2 a gallon, which is a big savings when gas costs $3.50 and diesel costs $3.70 per gallon. Trucks — mid-sized delivery trucks and big 18-wheelers — are the target market. Delivery vans usually operate out of fleet centers where a central compressor can be installed to service many vehicles. Meanwhile, pioneering companies such as Clean Energy Fuels are busy building an infrastructure at truck stops along the Interstate Highway System to service long-hauling tractor-trailers on their cross-country routes.

But there is a weakness. As a gas, CNG requires a whole new infrastructure. Compression tanks must be built at gas stations, much stronger than ordinary gas tanks and tightly machined, so gas does not escape. Even under compression, CNG has a much lower energy density than gasoline. This requires special $6,000 tanks that must still take up more space. In passenger vehicles they will devour almost all the trunk space, which is why vendors are concentrating on long-distance tractor-trailers.

As a result, there always seems the chance that some liquid derivative of methane is going to come along and push CNG off the market. Methanol has been a prime candidate since it is already manufactured in commercial quantities for industrial purposes. M85, a mixture of 85 percent methanol and 15 percent gasoline, is legal in the United States, but has not been widely adopted.

Now a new candidate has emerged in the long-distance truck competition — dimethyl ether or “DME.” Two methane ions joined by a single oxygen molecule, DME is manufactured from natural gas and has many of the same properties as methanol. It is still a gas at room temperature but can be stored as a liquid at four atmospheres or -11o F. It can also be dissolved as a gasoline or propane additive at a 30-70 percent ratio. In 2009 a team of university students from Denmark won the Shell Eco Marathon with a vehicle running on 100 percent DME.

So is it practical? Well, we’ll soon find out. Volvo has just announced it will release a version of its D13 truck in 2014 that runs on DME. At the same time, Volvo pushed back the launch of its natural gas version of the same line, meaning it may be changing its mind about which way the technology is going to go. In case you haven’t been keeping abreast, Volvo is now the largest manufacturer of heavy trucks in the world, having acquired Mack, America’s oldest truck company, in 2000.

So does that mean that CNG may turn out to be a dead end and Clean Energy Fuels is going to get stuck with a lot of unused compressor pumps? Well, hold on a minute. Technology does not stand still.

Last week at the Alternative Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif., Ford and BASF unveiled a new device for the Ford F-450 CNG fuel tank. It’s called a Metal Organic Framework (MOF), a complex of clustered metal ions built on a backbone of] rigid organic molecules that form one-, two-, or three-dimensional structures. Lots of surface area is created, making MOFs porous enough to hold large amounts of gaseous material such as methane.

MOFs create the possibility that on-board CNG tanks will not have to operate under extremely high pressure or extremely low temperatures. Like a metallic sponge the high-surface material soaks gas right up, where it can be easily dislodged as well. According to BASF and Ford, the same amount of natural gas that requires 3,600 pounds per square inch (PSI) can be stored in an MOF tank at close to 1,000 PSI. That makes a big difference when it comes to designing an automobile.

So does that mean natural gas is going to be able to hold its own against DME and other liquid competitors? Well, wait a minute, there’s still more. Not only is MOF technology good at storing methane, it also works with hydrogen! That means the hydrogen-fuel cell — still the favorite among Japanese manufacturers — may be able to work its way back in the game as well.

In fact, Ford isn’t playing any favorites. Equipped with its new MOF tanks, the F-450 will offer drivers a choice of seven — that’s right, seven — different fuel options using the same internal combustion engine. “Ford has no idea which of these fuels will make the most sense,” Ford’s Jon Coleman told Jason Hall of Motley Fool. “So we need to build vehicles that have the broadest capability and the broadest fuel types so our customers can choose for themselves.”

That’s the name of the game. It’s called Fuel Freedom.