Alternative fuels and vehicles: Good news on all fronts

If we’re going to replace the gasoline in our tanks, we’re going to need help from all kinds of directions. None of the alternatives is likely to do the whole job by itself, but every little bit helps.

That’s why it’s so encouraging that there was good news on all fronts this week, and why each little success gets us closer to having legitimate alternatives to take the place of gasoline.

Here’s a sampling of some of the news:

Batteries. A team at Stanford University announced it had developed a high-performance battery out of aluminum. This is important because aluminum is much cheaper than lithium, the current favorite among battery-makers. Aluminum has been used to make batteries, but the problem has always been keeping the voltage high after repeated charging and recharging. Now the Stanford team believes is has found the answer.

“We have developed a rechargeable aluminum battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames,” said Hongjie Dai, professor of chemistry who headed the team. “People have tried different kinds of materials for the cathode. We accidentally discovered that a simple solution is to use graphite, which is basically carbon. In our study, we identified a few types of graphite material that give us very good performance.”

This raises the question of whether Elon Musk can substitute aluminum batteries in his Gigafactory, a work in progress that is set to build lithium batteries for the new Tesla.

Hydrogen. Hydrogen cars are clean, producing only warm water for exhaust. But the problem is getting the hydrogen. The only known methods to date have been electrolysis of water, which is expensive and energy intensive, and “reforming” natural gas, which produces carbon dioxide and makes hydrogen just another fossil fuel. But now a team of scientists at Virginia Tech has come up with a catalyst the can make hydrogen quickly and cheaply from biomass.

“Researchers from Virginia Tech have developed a way to drastically cut the time and money necessary to produce hydrogen fuel,” reports The Christian Science Monitor. “By using discarded corn cobs, stalks, and husks, they have improved on previous methods deemed too inefficient by energy experts. Their research, which was funded in part by Shell, was published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Using genetic algorithms, Percival Zhang and Joe Rollin developed an “enzymatic pathway” that speeds up the reduction of hydrogen from biomass. By including two simple plant sugars, glucose and xylose, they were able to increase the rate of hydrogen production while emitting an “extremely low amount” of carbon dioxide.

“Cost effective and productive in volume, this method could breathe new life into the hydrogen car,” says the CSM.

Biofuels. And speaking of enzymes, another team of researchers working for the Department of Energy has come up with a bacterium that efficiently breaks down biomass without pretreatment. The team has been using the system to extract ethanol from switchgrass, a fast-growing weed that has long been a favorite of biofuels enthusiasts. The strategy, called consolidated bioprocessing, uses the Caldicullulosiruptor beseii bacteria to split cellulose and then ferments it into ethanol. The strategy eliminates the very expensive pretreatment that requires heat and more enzymes. Several facilities are now trying to break down cellulose and convert it into ethanol, but this one-stop process would be a huge saving.

EVs. A study at the Stockholm Environment Institute says that electric vehicles may be coming into their own much faster than everyone thought. This is because the price of batteries is coming down faster than anticipated. EV batteries now cost approximately $300 per kilowatt-hour. They weren’t expected to fall much lower than that over the next five years. But the authors Bjorn Nykvist and Mans Nilsson say that recent developments have brought the price down as low as $150 per kilowatt-hour, which could make electric vehicles appealing for a much wider range of customers. Since the batteries normally make up at least half the price of the vehicle, it could reduce costs significantly. Or manufacturers might use the new low price to load up on batteries, increasing the range of the electric vehicle. Either way, the package becomes more attractive.

And that doesn’t even include the possibility that the aluminum battery developed at Stanford could be making batteries more efficient and lowering prices even further.

There’s a tremendous synergy going on in these fields, as researchers pursue numerous pathways in exploring alternative vehicles. One way or another, it means that alternatives to foreign oil are soon going to be making their way into the customer’s field of vision very soon.

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