Who Says Cars Have to Fill a Parking Space?

You’ve seen them zipping around city streets or squeezed into some illegal-looking space between a normal car and a fire hydrant.  At first you might have thought they were some kind of joke. Who would drive such a thing?  But the new mini-electrics are catching on and may be on the way to revolutionizing urban driving.

There is now a whole menu of them – the Chevrolet Spark, the MINI E, the Toyota IQ, the Fiat 500. Oddly, many of them are available only in California. That seems like a mismatch because they’re obviously better suited for the densely populated cities of the Northeast than California freeways. But those are the vagaries of state incentives and government mandates.

Most of them have a highly limited range.  125 miles is good and some are as low as 75. (A regular gas-powered vehicle can go 400 miles on a full tank.)  But they’re a niche model, obviously suited for running around town and finding a parking space in the vehicle-choked precincts of places like New York City. They can get up to the equivalent of 125 miles per gallon and with some newer accessories don’t take up to seven hours to recharge. Most important, they are getting down into a price range where they are accessible. Leasing prices are impressive (some of them are only available by lease) and with the incentives that the Golden State is offering, people in California can say they are getting a really good deal.

Here’ a list of some of the contenders:

  • Chevrolet Spark.  Originally produced as the Daewood Matiz by GM’s Korean division, the all-electric Spark went on sale in California and Oregon in 2013.  The car is a 146-inch-long four-door hatchback that sells for $27,000.  With a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $2,500 California rebate, however, it comes in at well below $20,000. The Spark can be leased for $199 a month. With an optional connector, it can be charged up to 80 percent in 20 minutes.
  • Fiat 500e.  An electric version of a car that has been sold in Europe since the 1950s, the 500e went on sale in California last year, selling 645 units. Range is barely 100 miles but it gets the equivalent of 116 mpg. The car is priced at $32,000.  Fiat says it will be available in several more states in 2014.
  • Chrysler’s Smart FortwoThe Smart Fortwo is a model that looks like you could fold it up in your back pocket or park it in your living room. Manufactured in France, it is barely eight feet long. It sells everywhere in the United States. Previously built for gasoline and diesel, the new all-electric model sells for only $12,000 and leases for $99 a month. You’re starting to see them more and more on the streets of New York City.
  • Toyota Scion IQPositioned as a direct competitor to the Fortwo, Toyota’s “city car” sold as a 3-cylinder gasoline engine until the electric version was introduced last year.  Estimated range is only 50 miles with a three-hour recharge, so it’s really limited to city driving. The price is high – $35,000 – and right now it’s only available for fleet purchases and car share programs. The first 30 units were bought by the University of California at Irvine.
  • Mitsubishi i-MIEV EV.  Introduced in Japan in 2008 and soon sold almost everywhere but in the United States, the “i” version was finally brought to these shores in 2011, a slightly larger version with some additional features.  The American version has a range of only 62 miles but was ranked by the EPA as the most fuel-efficient car in America until surpassed by the Honda Fit EV in 2012. It sells for $23,000.
  • Honda Fit EVStill only available on a lease basis, the Fit EV goes for $259 a month. Introduced only in California and Oregon in 2011, it is now available in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island as well. The car only has an 80-mile range but is highly fuel efficient.

Getting people to accept the proposition of driving around city streets in something that looks like it could be sold on the floor of FAO Schwarz, of course, is an entirely different matter. In test driving a city car for The New York Times, Jim Motavalli reports a neighbor commenting, “It’s adorable, but I’m afraid it would be crushed by a Suburban.” The idea of weaving in and out of traffic in what amounts to a tin can is certainly not for everyone. But electric vehicles have lots of torque at the lower end of the spectrum and can be easily maneuvered. Plus if nothing else, they are loaded with safety features.

To anyone familiar with the dense urban streets of Athens or Buenos Aires, city cars would be a familiar sight. And of course the more there are of them, the less dangerous driving becomes. The progress of mini-cars is slow but you’re seeing more and more of them. In the end, they may revolutionize urban driving.

What Do Iceland and Israel Have in Common?

In New York City politics they used to talk about the “three I’s” – the Irish, the Italians and the Israelis, which formed the major voting blocs. Today we can talk about the “two I’s” –two countries that are making significant progress in methanol as an alternative fuel – Iceland and Israel.

Iceland is by far the leader.  The Icelanders are blessed with a string of volcanoes that bristle with geothermal energy. Tapping these vents, they are able to get 25 percent of their electricity from this natural, renewable source – the highest proportion of geothermal in the world. Drawing the other 75 percent from the island’s ample hydroelectric resources, you have a grid running entirely without fossil fuels.

But that’s just the beginning. Blessed with this amplitude of natural resources, the Icelanders have decided to turn it into an auto fuel as well. In 2011 a Reykjavik-based company called Carbon Recycling International set up a unique operation that will capture the small amounts of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emitted from geothermal vents and transforming that into an auto fuel as well.

The target ingredient is methanol, the simplest alcohol, made up of a single carbon, three hydrogens and a hydroxyl ion. Methanol is a liquid at room temperature and can be easily funneled into our existing gas-station infrastructure. Methanol burns with about 50 percent of the energy content of gasoline but has a higher octane rating so the real effect is about 66 percent. Methanol functions similarly to the corn ethanol that currently constitutes 10 percent of our gasoline.

Through a simple procedure, CRI takes the carbon dioxide exhaust from the 75 MW Orka geothermal plant and combines it with hydrogen to produce methanol. The hydrogen is obtained through the electrolysis of water, using electricity from the power plant. The outcome is 5 million gallons of methanol per year. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has not yet approved methanol as a gasoline additive but Iceland allows it to be mixed at a rate of 3 percent (although they also have some Fords running on 50 percent). Cars would actually run on 85 or 100 percent methanol – the Indianapolis 500 cars have done it since the 1960s – but government regulators in both countries are reluctant to give it a try (It would require replacing a few elements in the fuel line to avoid corrosion).

Iceland’s experiment has been so successful that the country has now decided to export the product to Europe. This year CRI has begun to send its “green methanol” to the continent to add to Europe’s gas tanks. The Icelanders advertise that the product adds no additional carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This is because the carbon dioxide that is captured was already headed for the atmosphere. Instead it is burned in gasoline engines, also ending up in the atmosphere, but along the way it has replaced an equal amount of gasoline that would have produced its own carbon emissions.

Icelanders proclaim they are putting into effect what Nobel Prize Winning chemist George Olah called the “methanol economy.”  In his 2009 book, Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy  

Olah and his co-authors outline how methanol from a variety of sources – natural gas, coal and any biological material – could serve as the basis of an economy much less dependent on fossil fuels. At the Orka carbon recycling and geothermal plant, they appear to be doing just that.

At the same time, Olah is finding recognition in Israel as well. This month Olah and his University of Southern California colleague G.K. Surya Prakash became the first recipients of the Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bestowing the first-ever award. The Israelis are also looking for alternatives to gasoline in order to reach their proclaimed goal of reducing dependence on oil by 60 percent by 2025. With the discovery of new gas supplies in the eastern Mediterranean they are in a good position to apply Olah’s proposed technology in transforming natural gas into methanol for transportation.

Nor is Olah standing still. In an October op-ed contribution to the Wall Street Journalhe announced that he has developed a new technology that will allow large quantities of carbon dioxide from power plants to be transmuted into methanol so that carbon exhausts can be “recycled” just as the they are at Orka. The plan could make use of carbon exhausts in the U.S., perhaps rescuing the fading coal industry.

Iceland and Israel are already taking steps toward the vision of a methanol economy. Will Iowa and Illinois be next?

A Thanksgiving Feast of Alternatives

Over the river and through the wood

To grandmother’s house we go.

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh\

Through white and drifted snow.”

Thanksgiving has come and gone, Christmas is coming, and that makes me think of alternative fuels and finding something to replace gasoline in our engines.

What, after all, was the horse and sleight except an old-fashioned means of transportation?  It had served humanity since the Bronze Age.  It has often been said that Julius Caesar and George Washington used essentially the  same transportation technology in pursuing their wars

All this held through the early days of the 20th century. There is a famous scene Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, written in 1875, where the adventurers go to investigate a mysterious submarine – in a horse and carriage!  When people started assembling on the New York docks in 1913 to hear reports of the missing Titanic, half of them arrived in horses and carriages.

We eventually made the energy transformation to the “horseless carriage” of automobiles but it wasn’t easy. People were afraid of the new invention.  They didn’t know how to work it. They fretted over the extraordinary speeds that could be reached – 30 miles an hour!  They did not like the nasty exhausts that some new technologies produced.

Nor was it ever certain which means of propulsion for the new “automobiles” would prevail. There were three contenders – the electric car, the steam car and the internal combustion engine running on any number of fuels.  Gasoline was not the foremost possibility. When Henry Ford built his first model in 1895, called the “quadricycle,” he designed it to run on corn ethanol, which seemed like a reasonable alternative.

The steam car set speed records of 200 miles per hour and the electric showed great promise as a gadabout town car. But the internal combustion eventually prevailed. Why?  The steam car, running on coal, took too long to warm up – about 20 minutes.  The electric car had a very short range, as it still does today. The internal combustion engine was awkward because it required the driver to hand-crank the engine from the front.  There was also a question of whether there would be enough fuel available to run large numbers of cars.  At the time, oil was still a relatively rare commodity, marketed mainly for the “lamps of China.”  But when Spindletop gushed forth in 1901, questions about the oil supply faded.  And when Charles Kettering invented the electric starter in 1912, the battle was over.

Still, Henry Ford didn’t particularly like gasoline and never gave up on the idea that ethanol was a better alternative.  Gasoline had a lower octane rating, was much more toxic (particularly when blended with tetra-ethyl lead to raise its octane rating) and emitted more pollutants. It was also more explosive and required complex refining, whereas ethanol was relatively easy to produce. Ford had roots in farm country and as late as 1925, with the farm belt in a chronic recession, he argued that farmers should be growing their own fuel. “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything,” he told The New York Times. “There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”

These ideas still resonate today.  Making auto fuel from crops has become a reality since we add 10 percent corn ethanol to our gasoline supplies, cutting our dependence on foreign oil.  There is still talk about using the much larger portions of “crop wastes” to produce cellulosic ethanol, although the technology to do this economically has not emerged yet.  Electric cars are getting another run as battery life and range are extended.  And there is a range of other alternatives – compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), hydrogen fuel cells and methanol derived from natural gas, coal or any number of organic sources, including garbage, crops and crop wastes.  We have a regular Thanksgiving feast of options before us.  It’s just a question of finding out what works best.

So remember, no technology is forever.  The holiday revelers sleighing toward grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving never dreamed they might one day be making the same trip across 300 miles of countryside at speeds of 60 miles an hour. And today when you’re speeding down the Interstate in a car powered by gasoline from Saudi Arabia, you may not dream that in ten years you could be driving a car running on switchgrass grown on the scrubland of South Dakota or natural gas pumped from the Marcellus in Pennsylvania.  Yet stranger things have happened.  You never know where that path over the river and through the woods is going to lead.

Robert Rapier loves methanol

Robert Rapier – “R2” as he calls himself in good scientific notation – is one of the smartest people out there when it comes to energy. A master’s graduate in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University, Rapier is chief technology officer and executive vice president for Merica International, a renewable energy company. He also writes a regular column at

And he is a big enthusiast of methanol.

In a series of recent columns, Rapier has made a strong case that methanol is our best option for replacing foreign oil. He believes it can be done cleanly and in a way that also reduces carbon emissions. Unfortunately, one of the biggest impediments, according to Rapier, is the huge political momentum behind corn ethanol, which he regards as an inferior fuel. He is also highly critical of the biofuels effort, which has attracted so much attention in the form of venture capital from Silicon Valley.

“You can buy methanol today for around $1 per gallon,” he said. “This is a big, well-established business that does not receive heavy subsidies and government support as ethanol does. On a per BTU basis, unsubsidized methanol costs $17.61 per million BTUs. You can buy ethanol today – ethanol that has received billions in taxpayer subsidies – for $1.60 per gallon. On a per BTU basis, heavily subsidized and mandated ethanol sells for $21.03 per million BTUs.”

Yes, you read that correctly. We are paying 20% more for ethanol, enabled via highly paid lobbyists, heavy government intervention, taxpayer funds and protectionist tariffs than we are for methanol that has long been produced subsidy-free.

Unfortunately, the decision to mandate ethanol consumption while ignoring methanol has been based much more on politics than on the two fuels comparative advantages. “The fact is, methanol simply has not had the same sort of political favoritism, but is in [Rapier’s] opinion a far superior option to ethanol as a viable, long-term energy option for the world.”

Where biofuels are concerned, Rapier states that the effort has always been predicated on the assumption that we will eventually switch from corn ethanol to much more abundant, non-food cellulosic feedstocks such as switch grass. We just have to wait until somebody comes up with a way to break down cellulose. What investors do not seem to realize is that techniques for breaking down cellulose have been around since the 19th century. They just have proved to be too expensive.

But “high costs have never been a deterrent for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who wielded Moore’s Law as the solution to every problem. In their minds, the advanced biofuel industry would mimic the process by which computer chips continually became faster and cheaper over time. But advanced biofuels amounted to a fundamentally different industrial process that was already over 100 years old. A decade into this experiment it is clear that Moore’s Law isn’t solving the cost problem.”

(Actually, if you read George Gilder’s latest book, “Knowledge and Power,” you would realize that mathematicians such as Claude Elwood Shannon and John von Neumann have determined that information as an entirely separate entity from energy and matter. Moore’s Law applies only to information, not matter and energy.)

Rapier says biofuels will never succeed until the effort at developing them is redirected into producing methanol rather than ethanol once again:

For methanol, we can produce it from biomass via a similar process to how it is produced for $1 per gallon today. There are numerous biomass gasifiers out there. Some are even portable. They do not require high fossil fuel inputs and they utilize a much larger fraction of the biomass. They aren’t limited to cellulose. They gasify everything – cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, sugars and proteins – all organic components. And if there is also a heating application, the combined heat and fuel or power efficiency of a biomass to methanol via gasification route is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame. In any case, the efficiency of biomass gasification to methanol is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame, because it doesn’t have to deal with all of that water present in the ethanol process.

Altogether, Rapier argues that methanol has a much broader potential feedstock, is easier and cheaper to produce and could be manufactured in much larger quantities than corn ethanol. And this doesn’t even consider the possibility of synthesizing it from our superabundant supplies of natural gas. The problem is that “methanol doesn’t have a big lobby and 42 senators from farm states it can count on for perpetual support.”

At Fuel Freedom Foundation, we believe we should pursue all these options – ethanol, biofuels, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and electric cars. They all offer the possibility of reducing the $350 billion we shell out each year for imported oil. But we can’t help but admire Rapier’s observation that the methanol option is greatly underappreciated. The reasons are: 1) the EPA restrictions that make it illegal to use in car engines and 2) the lack of any large constituency such as the farm lobby that stands to gain from it. For that reason alone we’re very encouraged by Rapier’s writings and look forward to more in the future.