Some automakers are going beyond just letting you choose the color of your car, if you actually need an infotainment system, and whether or not you want seat-warmers (yes, duh). They’re letting you choose the fuel that it runs.
About three months ago, Cody Bishop, his wife Katie and their infant son went shopping for a new car, or rather a used car that was new to them. Like everyone, they had a multitude of choices. They narrowed them to a plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt and a shiny, black 2011 Volkswagen Jetta diesel TDI.
Tesla is trying to convert the world to the electric car. The Japanese are pushing hydrogen. But Audi, the German carmaker, has a different idea. It’s trying to synthesize fuel from the simplest of elements – water, carbon dioxide and solar energy.
Audi’s research facility in Dresden has produced what the company calls an e-diesel – a net-zero-carbon-footprint fuel made from carbon dioxide and water. The company announced the project to great fanfare on April 21. In May, it unveiled another advance – e-benzine, a fuel that acts just like gasoline.
The two are the latest of a suite of six fuels developed by Audi that behave just like traditional gasoline or diesel, but burn without releasing any sulfur or aromatic hydrocarbons, the stuff that produce air pollution. The fuels also can be labeled as carbon-neutral, since the carbon dioxide they’re removing from the atmosphere perfectly matches the CO2 they put back in when they burn. E-benzine currently derives its carbon from organic material – biofuels made from rapeseed, sunflower oil or corn. But Audi officials say they soon hope to switch to atmospheric carbon dioxide.
“To me, this is a historic moment,” said Marc Delcourt, CEO of Global Bioenergies, the French company that is partnering with Audi on the e-benzine project. “It is the first time that we have produced real gasoline from plants.”
The e-diesel process works like this: Audi begins by splitting water by electrolysis into hydrogen and oxygen. The electricity is provided by wind or solar energy, which makes it completely fossil-fuel free. The oxygen is released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, Audi filters carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The C02 is stripped down to carbon monoxide, and the CO and hydrogen are then mixed together under high pressure to produce a long-chained hydrocarbon that Audi calls “blue crude.” It has all the properties of crude oil and can be refined down to commercial fuels like e-diesel. “We’re thinking we’re bringing green-ness to a field that desperately needs green-ness,” said Rick Bockrath, vice president for chemical engineering at Global Bioenergies. “It’s basically how we’re moving away from an oil-based economy towards something that has a renewable, sustainable future to it.”
Johanna Wanka, Germany’s Minister of Education and Research, attended the ceremony at which the first batch of Audi e-diesel, five liters’ worth, was put into her official car, an Audi A8 3.0 TDI clean diesel Quattro (that’s her in the photo above). “This synthetic diesel, made using CO2, is a huge success for our sustainability research,” she said. “If we can make widespread use of CO2 as a raw material, we will make a crucial contribution to climate protection and the efficient use of resources, and put the fundamentals of the ‘green economy’ in place.”
The product has a 100 octane rating and can be used either as an additive or as a stand-alone fuel. Audi says cars run much smoother on the product because of the lack of aromatic compounds, sulfur and other impurities. It also converts to energy at 70 percent efficiency, which is much better than regular diesels.
Audi’s pilot project in Dresden is currently producing 160 liters of e-diesel per day. Obviously, that isn’t enough to shake the world. But the long-term plan is to scale up to a level that will make the product available to the public. The estimated price will be 1 to 1.5 euros per liter, which comes to about $3.75 per gallon. This would not offer any price advantage in the United States, where diesel is selling at $2.88 per gallon, but it would be competitive in Europe, where diesel currently sells for about 1.4 euros per liter.
The problem with all such inventions, of course, is whether they can scale up at a price that remains competitive. Robert Rapier, the highly respected energy analyst, is skeptical. In a lengthy piece in GreentechMedia, Rapier did a step-by-step analysis, including all the chemical reactions. He concluded that the price is going to be $3.76 per gallon, which would put it above the current price of diesel in the United States, but perhaps not in Europe. But that doesn’t include any price increases that may come with scaling up the process. In addition, several critics have wondered whether solar and wind electricity will be available on a scale capable of supporting such a commercial operation.
“To sum up, can Audi produce fuel from thin air? Sure. There is no question about technical viability,” Rapier wrote. But “The question boils down to economic viability, which appears to be challenging given what has been released about the process.”
All this doesn’t mean Audi shouldn’t continue experimenting. There’s always room for improvement, and there may be other breakthroughs down the road. A carbon tax would also benefit the process, particularly if Audi could be given credit for the carbon it takes out of the atmosphere. There is also the possibility of combining the procedure with a carbon-capture and storage operation at a fossil-fuel plant, where carbon dioxide is currently regarded as a noxious waste material.
A system that would manufacture automotive fuel out of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be like the philosopher’s stone of the transport sector. Audi should keep trying.
(Photo credit: Audi)
Shrugging off any concern about falling gas prices, Tesla is planning to have its medium-priced Model III on the road by 2017. If it meets with anything like the reception of the 2014 Model S, Tesla will be in good shape.
Auto reviewers were ecstatic about the Model S, saying it put Tesla in a class by itself. As Ali Aslani wrote on MasterHerald.com:
If you think electric cars are slow and wretched creatures, you obviously haven’t seen the 2014 Tesla Model S. This vehicle is a beast on wheels that will make you forget half your life’s problems, until you look down at the dash and remember that you cannot pull up to a gas station for refueling, once you run out.
That refueling is becoming less and less common, however, as Tesla’s battery technology has pushed the range for its vehicles to 400 km, or 250 miles. It’s enough for a good commute to work. And recharging stations are becoming more common as Tesla and other auto manufacturers push to have them installed.
What really turns on car enthusiasts, however, is the acceleration possible with an electric motor. Alex Kerston posted a video on CarThrottle.com, in which a user who normally drives a Lamborghini Aventador has just ridden in the 691-hp Model S P85D:
The acceleration is ridiculous. I daily drive an Aventador and I thought I got used to fast acceleration. But no. … As a passenger, you do not get a chance to get ready for it at all. My internal organs were glued to the back of my body. … after about a dozen of those 0-60 accelerations, I felt like I had to puke – probably the first time I’ve felt this way in many years.
The question is, is this the kind of performance ordinary drivers are looking for? The Model III will weigh 1,000 pounds more than the Model S and therefore won’t be in the same class as the roadsters. But at $35,000 to $50,000, it will still be in the higher class of buyers. With all the inconveniences of recharging and being a first mover in the electric field, it will be a wonder if the Tesla standard model will be able to reach the 500,000 sales mark at which the company is aiming.
Meanwhile, other auto manufacturers are not standing still. Last week, Volkswagen, the largest auto company in the world, reportedly bought a stake in the Silicon Valley battery manufacturer QuantumScape, which gives VW access to a technology that could potentially deliver far more range that Tesla’s 400 km. QuantumScape’s solid-state batteries also carry a smaller risk of fire than the lithium-ion batteries used in many electric vehicles, including Tesla’s. Hybrid technology leader Toyota has been developing comparable technology since at least 2010, and EV leader Nissan has been promising similar developments. By the time Tesla comes to market with its lithium-ion-driven Model III, it could end up looking downright conservative in its technology.
Volkswagen’s investment in solid-state batteries is especially interesting, since at one point it was actually copying Tesla’s approach to EV battery technology. In 2009 and 2010, Volkswagen was working with Tesla co-founder Marin Eberhard on Tesla’s cylindrical-style lithium batteries but rejected the technology as too complex when it brought the e-Golf to market. Now Volkswagen is looking to leapfrog Tesla into solid-state technology.
Volkswagen Group is planning a short-term offensive against Tesla. It will bring out the $100,000 electric R8 sports car to compete with the Model S. Also in the works is the forthcoming Q8 crossover coupe. Both cars will be produced by VW’s Audi subsidiary.
Other manufacturers are taking aim at Tesla’s share of the $100,000 electric sports-car market. BMW is likely to add more products to its electric “I” brand and has unveiled an electric powertrain that it’s calling the “Tesla killer.” Porsche, also owned by Volkswagen Group, is said to be planning an electric version of a smaller sedan, code-named the Pajun. Former Tesla investor Mercedes-Benz is also working on an electric version of its flagship S-Class vehicles.
The takeaway is that powerful electric vehicles with a suitable range are no longer going to be a luxury item. If Tesla is successful in breaking through with the Model III, it’s going to be followed quickly by competitors in the same class and perhaps with a different technology.
Things have always been a little easier in Europe when it comes to saving gas and adopting different kinds of vehicles. The distances are shorter, the roads narrower, and the cities built more for the 19th century than the 21st.
Europeans also have very few oil and gas resources, and have long paid gas taxes that would make Americans shudder. Three to four times what we pay in America is the norm in Europe.
Thus, Europeans have always been famous for their small, fuel-sipping cars. Renault was long famous for its Le Cheval (the horse), an-all grey bag of bones that’s barely powerful enough to shuttle people around Paris. The Citroën, Volkswagen and Audi were all developed in Europe. Ford and GM also produced models that were much smaller than their American counterparts. Gas mileage was fantastic — sometimes reaching the mid-40s. A big American car getting 15 miles per gallon and trying to negotiate the streets of Berlin or Madrid often looked like a river barge that had wandered off course.
More Europeans also opt for diesel engines instead of conventional gasoline — 40 percent by the latest count. The overall energy conversion in a diesel engine is over 50 percent and can cut fuel consumption by 40 percent. But diesel fuel is still a fossil fuel, which have a lot of pollution problems and don’t really offer a long-range solution. So, Europeans decided that it’s time to move on to the next generation.
Last week the European Union laid down new rules that will try to promote the implementation of all kinds of alternative means of transportation, making it easier for car buyers to switch to alternative fuels. The goal is to achieve 10 percent alternative vehicles by 2025 over a wide range of technologies, removing the impediments that are currently slowing the adoption of alternatives. If everything works out, tooling around Paris in an electric vehicle within a few years without suffering the slightest range anxiety would become a reality.
By the end of 2015, each of Europe’s 28 member states will be asked to build at least one recharging point per 10 electric vehicles. Since the U.K. is planning to have 1.55 million electric vehicles. That would require at least 155,000 recharging stations, which is a pretty tall order. But members of the commission are confident it can be done. “We can always call on Elon Musk,” said one official.
For compressed natural gas, the goal is to have one refueling station located every 150 kilometers (93 miles). This gives CNG a comfortable margin for range. With liquefied petroleum (LPG) it will be for one refueling station every 400 kilometers (248 miles). These stations can be further apart because they will mainly be used by long-haul trucks travelling the TEN-T Network, a network of road, water and rail transportation that the Europeans have been working on since 2006.
Interestingly, hydrogen refueling doesn’t get much attention beyond a sufficient number of stations for states that are trying to develop them. There is noticeably less enthusiasm for hydrogen-powered vehicles than is expressed for EVs and gas-powered vehicles. All this indicates how the hydrogen car has become a Japanese trend while not arousing much interest in either Europe or America.
At the same time, Europeans are planning very little in the way of ethanol and other biofuels (they also mandate 20 percent ethanol in fuel). Sweden is very advanced when it comes to flex-fuel cars. They have been getting notably nervous about the misconception that biofuels are competing with food resources around the world — Europe does not have its own land resources to grow corn or sugarcane the way it is being done in the United States and Brazil. Europe imports some ethanol from America but it is also now developing large sugar-cane-to-ethanol areas in West Africa.
Siim Kallas, vice president of the European Commission for TEN-T, told the press the new rules are designed to build up a critical mass of in order to whet investor appetites for these new markets. “Alternative fuels are key to improving the security of energy supply, reducing the impact of transport on the environment and boosting EU competitiveness,” he told Business Week. “With these new rules, the EU provides long-awaited legal certainty for companies to start investing, and the possibility for economies of scale.”
Is there any chance that the public is going to take an interest in all this? Well, one poll in Britain found last week that 65 percent would consider buying an alternative fuel car and 19 percent might do it within the next two years. Within a few years they find the infrastructure ready to meet their needs.
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.