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“Methanol Mania” Hits The Gulf Coast

Lane Kelley of ICIS Chemical Business calls it “methanol mania” and he probably wasn’t exaggerating. Last week Texas and Louisiana underwent an explosion of activity, promising to turn the region into a world center for methanol.

Earlier this month, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that Castleton Commodities International LLC (CCI), a Connecticut firm, will be building a $1.2 billion methanol manufacturing plant on the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish. The plant is expected to produce $1.8 million tons of methanol a year.

“This plant will help our children stay in Louisiana instead of leaving the state to find jobs,” said Jindal. “My number one priority it to make Louisiana a business friendly place.”

But that’s not even half of it. The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) just gave its final approval to a $1 billion methanol plant to be built near Beaumont, Texas. The facility will be operated by Natgasoline LLC, a subsidiary of a Netherlands-based company that already employs 72,000 people in 35 countries. It will employ thousands of construction workers and carry a $20 million payroll when it begins operating in of 2016.

Does that sound like a lot? Well, don’t forget Methanex Corporation, the country’s largest manufacturer of methanol, is in the process of moving two plants back from Chile to Louisiana. One plant is scheduled to open in a few months. And ZEEP (Zero Emissions Energy Plants), an Austin-based company, has just raised $1 million for a proposed plant in St. James Parish, La.

Does that sound like a full plate? Well, it’s still just the beginning. The Connell Group, a government-supported operation, announced long-range plans for what would be the largest methanol plant in the world — even if only half it gets built. The first unit, located in either Texas or Louisiana, would produce 3.6 million tons a year, twice the current world record holder in Trinidad. Together, the two units would produce more than the current U.S. demand, 6.3 million tons a year. The term “Gigafactory” soon may be standard vocabulary.

So what’s going on? Well, the plan is for nearly all this Texas and Louisiana methanol production to be exported to China. The widening of the Panama Canal for supertankers, scheduled to be completed in early 2016, will be a bit part of the puzzle. Believe it or not, China also has plans to build three more plants in Oregon and Washington. But they run into trouble there, of the West Coast’s dislike of fossil fuels.

So China is planning to use American natural gas as a substitute for its own coal, in producing large amounts of methanol. It’s no different from the Chinese buying up farmland in Brazil and Ukraine in order to grow crops.

But the Chinese have other things in mind as well. Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., Ltd, Chery International, Shanghai Maple Guorun Automobile Co., Ltd. and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. all produce methanol-adaptive cars, which now accounts for eight percent of China’s fuel consumption. Israel is also experimenting with methanol from natural gas as a substitute for imported oil.

Methanol produces only 50 percent of the energy of gasoline, but its higher octane rating brings it up into the 65 percent range. It produces 40 percent less carbon dioxide and other pollutants and would go a long way toward helping China improve its pollution problems. As far as methanol production is concerned, China sees only see an upside.

So what’s going on in this country? Well, so far we have the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, we are on the verge of becoming a world center methanol manufacturer — yet we still have a set of rules and regulations and sheer inertia that prevent us from powering our cars with methanol. For some strange reason, the United States is about to become a world center for the production of methanol, yet we still haven’t figured out how to put it to one of its best uses.

Sounds like an opportunity for somebody.

Will flex fuel save you money?

First the good news: Gasoline prices are at their lowest level in months, according to AAA. Now more good news. Flex-fuel prices have been falling, too, and are about $1 less per gallon than regular gasoline now, according to the Kiplinger Agriculture Letter.So maybe you’re scratching your head wondering what flex fuel is and why you should care that it’s cheaper than gas.

E85, or flex fuel, is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that can be used in vehicles specially designed to run on it as well as regular gasoline. There are more than 10.6 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. You might even be driving one and not realize it.

 

The Battle Over Ethanol Takes Shape

The decision isn’t scheduled until June but already opposing sides are converging on Washington, trying to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency over the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard for ethanol.

Last week almost 100 members of the American Coalition for Ethanol descended on the nation’s capital for its annual “Biofuels Beltway March,” buttonholing 170 lawmakers and staffers from 45 states.  The object was to send a message to EPA Administrators Gina McCarthy to up the ante on how many billions of gallons the oil refining industry will be required to purchase this year.

The ethanol program is currently in turmoil.  The latest problem is rail bottlenecks that have slowed shipments and created supply shortages over the winter months.  Record-breaking cold and four-foot snow pack have been partly responsible but the rail lines are also becoming overcrowded.  With all that oil gushing down from the Bakken and Canadian crude now finding its way into tank cars as the Obama Administration postpones its decision over the Keystone Pipeline, ethanol is getting tangled in traffic.  .

“Ethanol for April delivery sold for about $3.02 a gallon on the Chico Board of Trade, an 81 percent increase over the low price during the past 12 months of $1.67 a gallon reached in November,” reported the Omaha World-Herald last Friday  “This weeks settlement price of $2.98 a gallon was the highest since July 2011.”  With only so much storage capacity, some ethanol refineries have been forced to shut down until the next train arrives to carry off the inventory.  As ethanol becomes mainstream, it is becoming more and more subject to market events beyond its control.

But the big decision will be EPA’s ruling in June.  In accord with the 2008 Renewable Fuel Act, Administrator McCarthy must set a “floor” for amount of ethanol refiners will have to incorporate into their blends during 2014.  The program ran into trouble last year when the 13.8 billion gallon requirement pushed ethanol beyond the 10 percent “blend wall” where the auto companies will not honor warrantees in older cars.  Refiners were forced to purchase compensating Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which exploded in value from pennies to $1.30 per gallon, forcing up the price of gasoline.  Contrary to expectations, gasoline consumption has actually declined over the last six years, from 142 billion gallons in 2008 to 134 billion in 2013 as a result of mileage improvements plus the lingering effects of the recession.  Last November McCarthy proposed reducing the 2014 from 14.4 billion gallons to 13 billion.  The industry has been crying “foul” ever since.

But there are other ways to fight back.  Last week in Crookson, gas stations were offering Minnesota drivers 85 cents off a gallon for filling up with E-85, the blend of 85 percent ethanol that many see as the real solution to the blend-wall problem.  “We want the public to understand there are different ratios of gasoline and ethanol and how they can save you money,” Greg LeBlac, of the Polk County Corn Growers, told the Fargo Valley News. 

At the annual meeting of the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers (APFM) in Orlando last week, Anna Temple, product manager at WoodMac, made the case that the industry should forego efforts to raise the blend wall from 10 to 15 percent and instead shoot for the moon, leapfrogging all the way to E-85, where ethanol essentially replaces gasoline completely.  (The 15 percent only ensures starts in cold weather.)

“E-15 is a non-starter in terms of market share,” Temple told her audience, as reported by John Kingston’s in Platts.  http://blogs.platts.com/2014/03/25/eight-fillups/  She argued the incremental battle would absorb vast amounts of political capital yet still not be enough to absorb the 15-billion-gallon target for 2021.  Instead, Temple pointed to the growing fleet of flex-fuel vehicles that now numbers around 15 million, headed for 25 million in 2021 or 10 percent of the nation’s 250-million-car fleet.

“If U.S. drivers poured about 200,000 barrels-per-day of E-85 into their flex fuel cars in 2021, that would take care of about 17 percent of the scheduled ethanol mandate,” Temple said.  “It would only require that flex-fuel owners fill a 15-gallon tank eight times a year.”   The remainder would be absorbed in the 10 percent blend and ethanol producers would not have to cut output.

Platts’ Kingston checked the math and found that even this goal would leave ethanol consumption slightly above the blend wall at 10.5 percent.  “Still, the very modest number of eight fill-ups per flex fuel vehicles per year makes the whole blend wall issue seems a lot less daunting,” he confessed.

Of the 15 million people who own flex-fuel vehicles, of course, many don’t even realize it.  (The yellow gas cap or a rear-end decal are the giveaway.)  But the number of gas stations offering E-85 pumps is rising.  The Energy Information Administration now estimates the number at 2,500 with most of the growth taking place outside the Midwestern homeland.  California and New York each have more than 80 stations apiece.

The problem of rail bottlenecks can probably be solved by increasing the number of E-85 outlets and flex-fuel vehicles to bring supplies closer to the place of consumption.  Still, the industry would probably be happy to have a bigger renewable fuel mandate as well.

Outnumbered 100-to-1, Methanol Is Upbeat

“Why is it that we hear every day some new story about Elon Musk’s electric car, about Clean Energy Fuel’s efforts to build a CNG highway, or about some laboratory breakthrough that is at last going to bring us cellulosic ethanol, yet with methanol now cheaper than gasoline, you still never hear anything about it?”

That’s the question I posed to the three-member panel while serving as moderator for the wrap-up session at the 2014 Methanol Policy Forum in Washington last week.  The sponsors were the Methanol Institute, the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) and the Energy Security Council.

Anne Korin, co-director of IAGS, who earlier had moderated an even bigger panel that included former U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and former Ambassador to the European Union Boyden Gray, had a very unusual answer.  “If I may be permitted to be a bit cynical here,” she said, “I think the reason may be because methanol doesn’t require any subsidies.”  The implication, of course, is that those who come to Washington begging for money receive a lot more attention from Senators and Congressmen than those who don’t.

The question of politics versus economics had been raised at the outset of the daylong conference by Korin’s co-director at IAGS, Gal Luft, in his opening remarks.  “We’ve all heard this business about the circular firing squad and how the various alternatives to foreign oil shouldn’t be fighting each other,” he told the audience of about 400.  “But you have to acknowledge the importance of what goes on in Washington.  You can’t just talk about production you need money.  If you’re not at the table, that means you’re probably on the menu.

Luft showed a chart illustrating that while corn ethanol production exceeds methanol production by a factor of only 5-to-1 (14 billion gallons/year as compared with 2 bg/yr), the amount of money spent lobbying for ethanol is 50-to-1 (less than $100,000 vs. $5 million).  “When you add in the politics of the farm belt, it’s probably closer to 100-to-1,” he added.

So was anyone discouraged?  Not at all.  The news from industry executives is that methanol production is ramping up everywhere due to the bonanza of the fracking revolution.  It seems like only a matter of time before the idea of replacing large portions of our fuel imports with domestically produced methanol begins to command attention.

“In the past decade we closed down five methanol plants in the U.S. and moved them all to China,” John Floren, CEO of Methenex told the gathering of 400 at the Capital Hilton.  “The price of gas had become just too high.  Now we’ve moved two plants back from Chile and are looking at a third relocation.  We’ve got 1000 people working on our Louisiana site.  The chemical industry is starting to build as well.”

Tim Vail, the CEO of G2X, another methanol producer, had a similar take.  “The U.S. is a great place to invest right now,” he told the audience.  “The argument was always that you had to go to the ends of the earth to build methanol plants because that gas wasn’t available here.  Now all that has changed.  Our big worry is labor shortages but the construction industry is responding to our needs.  It takes away a lot of anxiety about having your assets appropriated by other countries.  China may seem like a good place to invest, but can you really trust the rule of law?”

Philip Lewis, chief technology officer of Zero Emission Energy Plants (ZEEP) was equally upbeat.  “I think the whole shale thing is being underestimated,” he said at the close of the morning session.  “It’s another industrial revolution.  And it won’t happen anywhere else because we have the thing that makes it work – private ownership of the resource.  In France, the government owns all the mineral rights and no one wants drilling on their land.”

But governments do have control over other things in this country and there was some questioning of whether federal agencies will be receptive to methanol as a fuel substitute or additive.  Matt Brusstar, deputy director of the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory, claimed that his agency had been in the lead of methanol development for 30 years.  “Charlie Grady, who was in our department, was a big supporter of methanol,” said Brusstar.  “He even wrote a book about it.”  (Unfortunately, a Google search for Charlie Grady and methanol turns up no mention of Grady or his book.)  Patrick Davis, the director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Department of Energy, was even less encouraging.  “The Office of Science does not currently have any projects to create methanol as an end fuel,” he said.  “It could take a decade to sell enough methanol-compatible vehicles before a widespread distribution network would be feasible.”

When I queried Brusstar about Robert Zubrin’s documentation of the multi-thousand-dollar fines that the EPA is imposing for unauthorized conversions of engines to methanol, [See “Making the Case for Mars and Methanol,” Feb. 11] several government officials, plus Fuel Freedom Foundation director of research Mike Jackson, argued that faulty conversions can increase air pollution.

Despite the notable lack of enthusiasm from government agencies, however, there was a strong sense among the rank-and-file that methanol may be about to find a place in the sun.  “This is a much bigger crowd than we’ve ever had,” said one veteran of previous conferences.  “It’s a very exciting time for methanol.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can New Catalysts Turn the Corner for Methanol?

The concept of converting our abundant natural gas supplies into liquid methanol in order to replace oil in our gas tanks has had trouble gaining traction for several reasons, all of which are about to face change.

The first reason is that most of the attention towards additives has been focused on ethanol made from corn. Driven by highly specific government mandates, corn ethanol — which now consumes 45 percent of the country’s corn crop — has taken up whatever role industrial methanol might have been chosen to play as a gasoline additive.

Secondly, there’s the problem of the Environmental Protection Agency. Not only has the EPA not approved methanol for gas tanks, the organization actually imposes huge fines on anyone who converts a gasoline engine to methanol without its permission.

The third, and less distinguishable explanation for methanol’s difficult implementation, is that the whole idea has never been very sexy. Methanol has little to do with the “Cutting Edge” or the “New Age Economy.” The manufacturing of methanol is a 60-year-old process practiced doggedly by dozens of industrial facilities around the world. They produce 33 billion gallons a year at the reasonable price of $1.50 per gallon; the energy equivalent of $2.35 gas. Meanwhile, Elon Musk seems to announce a new milestone for the Tesla, or some “breakthrough” in battery technology or cellulosic ethanol emerging from the university laboratories each week, making methanol appear rather plain-Jane and old fashioned. In effect, the solution to our gas tank woes has been hiding before us in plain sight.

Now an announcement from the Scripps Howard Research Institute and Brigham Young University may change everything. In a paper published last week in Science, a team led by Roy Periana of the Scripps Florida Center and Professor Daniel Ess of Brigham Young University say they have found catalysts made from the common elements of lead and thallium that facilitate the conversion of gaseous methane to liquid methanol, potentially making the process even cheaper and more accessible.

The hydrogen bonds in the alkanes (methane, ethane, propane, etc) are among the strongest in nature. To break them involves a heat-driven process invented in the 1940s that is conducted at 900 degrees Celsius. For more than two decades, the Scripps team has been looking for catalysts that would shorten this heat requirement. In the 1990s they came up with a series of catalysts employing platinum, palladium, rhodium and gold, but quickly realized that these elements were too rare and expensive for commercial application. So it was back to the drawing boards in search of something more useful.

Last week in Science they reported success:

The electrophilic main-group cations thallium and lead stoichiometrically oxidize methane, ethane, and propane, separately or as a one-pot mixture, to corresponding alcohol esters in trifluoroacetic acid solvent.
The process reduces the heat requirement to only 200 degrees Celsius, which introduces enormous potential for energy savings. That “one-pot” notation is also crucial. Methane, ethane and propane all come out of the Earth together in natural gas. Currently, they must be separated before the heat-driven process can begin, With the new catalysts, no separation will be necessary. This means that methanol could become significantly cheaper to harvest than it already is. More importantly, these findings signify that methanol conversion will be able to weather the inevitable price increases that will result as demand for natural gas supplies multiplies.

Periana says the process is three years from commercialization. Reports Chemical & Engineering News:
The team is in discussion with several companies and entrepreneurs and would ideally like to jointly develop the technology with a petrochemical company or spin off a startup.

Periana also claims that “Initial targets would be higher-value, lower-volume commodity chemicals such as propylene glycol or isopropyl alcohol directly from propane.” He told reporter Stephen Ritter:

The next target could be to develop lower-temperature processes for higher-volume chemicals, such as converting methane to methanol and ethane to ethanol or ethylene as inexpensive sources for fuels and plastics.

An enormous portion of the world’s energy consumption is still tethered to oil, particularly the transportation sector, where oil constitutes 80 percent of consumption. As oil becomes more and more difficult to find, natural gas use is escalating. In addition, 25 percent of the world’s gas is still flared off because it has been uneconomical to capture. All this could change rapidly if a low-cost conversion to methanol becomes a reality. Reuters grasped the implications of this development when it reported that the new catalytic processes “could lead to natural gas products displacing oil products in the future.”

Batteries, EV, Charging, EV Charging Sign, Plug-in

Are We Entering the Age of Batteries?

Last week in Houston, Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz told CERA Conference attendees that storage batteries may be the next big energy breakthrough.  “It’s pretty dramatic,” he said.  “The research is moving very, very fast.”

Indeed, if you’re looking for “energy breakthroughs” on the Internet these days, most of the hits are likely to turn up something new about “flow batteries,” “ten times the storage capacity,” or some new cathode material that dramatically improves the performance of lithium-ion batteries.

So where do we stand in this energy revolution now, and what are the possibilities that any of these breakthroughs are likely to lead to real improvements in our attempts to wean ourselves off traditional energy resources like fossil fuels?

A good place to start is “Next Generation Electrical Energy Storage: Beyond Lithium Ion Batteries,” a panel put together for last February’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.  Three experts – Haresh Kamath; of the Electric Power Research Institute, Mark Mathias; of General Motors, and Jeff Chamberlain; of Argonne National Laboratory – discussed the latest developments in the industry.

All three panelists agreed that battery research is progressing along two separate tracks:

1) lithium-ion batteries that power most consumer electronic devices are now being scaled up for electric vehicles; and

2) larger and more durable conventional batteries for the storage of grid-scale electricity.

Despite whatever hopes Elon Musk may have that his new “Gigafactory” will be able to address both of these markets at the same time, that does not seem likely.  “Lithium-ion just doesn’t have the durability that we’re looking for in the utility industry,” Kamath of EPRI told the audience.  He continued:

I was doing cable research one time and we had a model for a product that would last 40 years.  The utilities looked at it and said, `Could you try for 60 or 80?’  The utilities are looking for things that last a long, long time.’ said Kamath.

“There’s a lot of experimenting going on,” Kamath added, “but everything that is on the grid right now is a demonstration.  No one has yet come up with a sustainable business model.”

With electric cars, on the other hand, the challenge will be in equipping batteries with enough energy density so that their weight does not load down the vehicle to the point of being counterproductive.  “The standard measure is that you need 100 kilowatt-hours of power to drive a mid-sized vehicle 300 miles,” said Mathias, who works at GM’s electrical storage research and development project.  He explained.

If you get up in the density range of 350 Watt-hours per kilogram, you can make it.  But current batteries are operating at around 150 Wh/kg, which gives them a range of 125 miles.  The best we can project is that they can achieve 225 Watt-hours per liter, which still leaves them short. (Mathias).

“Fuel cells operating on hydrogen actually do a much better job at this point,” he added.  “They can now get us up in the 300-mile range.  We regard them as electric vehicles as well.  It’s just that you generate the electricity on board.”

Then there’s the matter of cost.  Capital costs for lithium-ion batteries quickly rise into the $20,000 range.  Fuel cells cost only $6,000 and gas-electric hybrids, $4,000.  “The good news for EVs is that fuel costs are only about one-third that of gasoline,” said Mathias. “Over a span of 100,000 miles, a gasoline engine will cost you $10,000 in fuel.  A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle will cost only $6,000 and a pure EV, $3,333.”  Still, that’s a long time to wait and a long way from complete cost recovery.

Refueling time is also a bit of a problem.  “When you pump gasoline into your car, you’re actually adding range at a rate of 150 miles per minute,” said Mathias.  He went on to say:

With hydrogen fuel, it’s 100 miles-per-minute, which is acceptable. But even with the new 120-kW superchargers, you can only add mileage to an EV at a rate of 6 miles per minute.  If you take a long- distance trip, you’re going to spend 20 percent of your time       recharging. (Mathias)

Overall, Mathias was not overly optimistic about further improvements.  “There’s not much on the horizon,” he concluded.  He was more optimistic about hydrogen cars.

Chamberlain, of Argonne National Laboratory, is part of a $120 million program funded by the Department of Energy that is aimed at developing batteries with five times the current energy density at 1/5th the cost within five years.  “That’s a very ambitious goal,” he told the audience, “but we feel that’s what’s needed to transform the transportation sector.”  A long chain of national and university laboratories are involved in the project.  Of course, government goals and mandates are just that – projections that may or may not come true.  Steve Jobs was good at inspiring his cast to pursue seemingly impossible goals but the federal government does not always have the same success.

So far, the research has involved searching the periodic table for more candidates.  “We’re not sure what we’re going to come up with,” said Chamberlain, elaborating:

We’ve decided that capacitors will never help us reach our goal.  The charge dissipates too quickly.  So we’re exploring other materials.  It may involve a metallic anode and a suspended-particle cathode.  If you move to magnesium or aluminum, you’re releasing two electrons  instead of one.  But zinc-air and lithium-air doesn’t get you there               because they simply don’t have the power.”  (Chamberlain)

Chamberlain said that a lot is already known about lithium-ion.  “We may be able to get two times what we have now.”  He had to agree with Mathias that no other significant developments are on the horizon right now.

Mathias warned against new reports that are constantly announcing progress at the material level.  “We often realize right away that they’re not going to work,” he said.  “It’s not worth the manufacturing dollars.

Overall, the takeaway from the panel was that Tesla has its work cut out for it.  Progress on electric vehicles will be tough.  The panelists agreed that natural gas vehicles make a lot of sense.  “The problem is you don’t really solve the CO2 problem,” said Mathias.  He did express confidence that battery research would eventually pay off in the end.  “All this progress will eventually be harvested at the hybrid level,” he said.  “It may not lead to pure electric level, but there is going to be a lot of improvement in hybrids.”

Progress on Fuel Efficiency: More is needed

Every now and then I will read a White House Blog.  They’re sort of a fun read when you’re depressed about the state of the world and the country.  The content always somehow reminds me of  Gene Kelly dancing in the street in the middle of the rain, or that old (possibly New Yorker) cartoon where the patient tells the psychiatrist that he is not doing well and the good doctor says ‘no you’re just fine, you’re happy and healthy.’  Probably neither is the proper analog to the politically necessary positive nature of the White House blurbs.  I marvel at times at the President’s ability to seek a better America, especially given the politics of the present.  While his optimism and tenacity don’t always come through as “Morning in America,” I believe that his attitude is based on a reasonable outlook about what the nation can do, if it can engage in an honest dialogue about key environmental and alternative fuel issues.

Last week’s blog focused on the White House’s effort to increase fuel efficiency standards.  It notes correctly that the President’s legislative approach to the environment has resulted in the toughest fuel economy standards in history:

“Under the first ever national program, average fuel efficiency for cars and trucks will nearly  double, reaching an average performance equivalent to about 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025….In 2011, the President also established the first-ever fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles, covering model years 2014 through 2018.”

More is to come! Increased fuel efficiency standards are currently being addressed by the Administration, and the EPA is hard at work developing Tier 3 rules.

The Administration’s record is a decent one and has benefited the environment, lessened ghg emissions, and strengthened the economy. Regrettably though, fuel efficiency regulations primarily apply to new cars.  They should be matched by a cost efficient and comprehensive federal effort to encourage the conversion of older non flex fuel vehicles; they also should encourage Detroit to continue producing larger numbers of flex fuel cars.

In this context, EPA and Detroit automakers need to reach a consensus concerning effective engine recalibration alternatives, as well as an extension of consumer warranties and related financial coverage of recalibrated vehicles.  Without permitting older cars to achieve the fuel efficiency and environmental advantages of flex fuel vehicles, we will not be able to respond to Pogo’s admonition and Commodore Oliver Perry’s initial statement (paraphrased): that we, as a nation, have met the enemy, and he is us!

To grant primacy to new or relatively new flex fuel cars would increase the nation’s ability to reduce ghg emissions and other environmental pollutants (e.g. NOx and SOx). There are well over 200,000,000 non flex fuel cars in the U.S. that cannot readily use available fuel blends higher than E-15 and will not be able to use natural gas based ethanol that hopefully relatively soon will come on the market.

Lowering the certification costs of conversion kits by the EPA and increasing the number of manufacturers of those kits would bring down their price from around 1,000 dollars to the near 300 dollar level that is common in the “underground” market.  Simplifying legal conversion could  —and indeed would —-make an important environmental difference.  Such action would also open up the fuel market to competition, and likely lower the price of gas at the pump for consumers. Finally, such actions would also support the President’s objective to wean the nation off of oil and gasoline.  Oh Happy Day!  Go for it Gene Kelly and the American Association of Psychiatrists!  It might be time to show some real love for environmentally and efficiency neglected and needy older vehicles.

Tesla Takes It to the Next Level

This will be a week for watching Tesla, not only because the company’s stock had soared to new heights but because Elon Musk seems poised to take it to the next level – manufacturing batteries.

Musk has scheduled a conference call this week and gives every indication is he will be announcing plans for a new “Giga factory” where the Silicon Valley auto company will manufacture its own batteries. “Very shortly, we will be ready to share more information about the Tesla Giga-factory,” Musk told shareholders in his 4th quarter letter last week. This will allow us to achieve a major reduction in the cost of our battery packs and accelerate the pace of battery innovation.”

In a way the company has little choice. If Tesla is to move down-market from its current luxury niche – which has always been the plan – it is will need to buy the equivalent of the world’s entire current output of lithium-ion. The easiest thing to do is to go into manufacturing itself.

As usual, Musk will be doing things with a flair. Rumor is that he will be combining with SolarCity, which is run by his cousin Lyndon Rive, to produce a facility running largely on solar power. This will take us way beyond fossil fuels into the kind of world environmentalists imagine, where intermittent solar and wind power are stored to provide the kind of “high-9’s” reliability required by an industrial, digital society. And the key to that will be the same thing that Musk is working on now – batteries.

This kind of convergence is the reason for the number-two rumor of the week – that Tesla and Apple have engaged for a possible collaboration, even a merger. Last week San Francisco Chronicle reporters Thomas Lee and David Baker revealed that Apple’s M&A specialist Adrian Perica met with Musk last spring. What did they talk about?  Obviously a joint venture is in the air. Remarkably, only last October German stock analyst Adnaan Ahmad wrote an open letter to Apple saying it should consider entering the auto business by buying Tesla. The reasoning is as follows:

  • Despite its reputation for cutting-edge products, Apple’s traditional market for personalized devices seems to be reaching its limits. Sales of smart phones and tablets are maturing. Apple’s Next Big Thing is supposed to be a smart watch. A watch?  Is that an appropriate ambition for the world’s most innovative company?  As Steve Jobs did so many times, Apple need to enter an entirely new business and turn it upside down.
  • Apple is sitting on $160 billion in cash. It could literally buy almost any company in the world. Even with a market capitalization that is inflated by high expectations, Tesla is only worth $24 billion. The whole thing is doable.
  • Tesla needs an infusion of cash if it is to break out of its luxury niche and provide a car for the masses. The company’s proposed Gen III would sell for $35,000 and compete with the Chevy Volt and the Ford Focus. But more than half of that cost is in the battery. If Tesla can achieve vertical integration and come up with some new innovations, it may be able to turn a profit. But Apple is in the battery business as well, since most of what’s under the hood in an iPad or iPhone is lithium-ion. There is a convergence taking shape.

Of course there are many things working against this vision. Both Tesla and Apple may deal in lithium-ion batteries but designs aren’t the same and the chemistry is different. Also, when it comes to storing huge amounts of electricity at the factory, lead-acid remains the preferred technology. It’s cheaper in a way that lithium-ion will find if very difficult to duplicate.

Still, there seem to be breakthroughs coming in battery research almost every week. Only two weeks ago, researchers at Harvard announced the invention of a “flow battery” that stores a charge in organic liquids rather than metals. At the University of Limerick, researchers announced the development of a new germanium nanowire-based anode that greatly expands the capacity and lifetime of lithium-ion batteries. And researchers at Stanford said they had developed a silicon anode based on the design of a pomegranate seed that improves lithium-ion storage capacity by a factor of 10. All this is within the space of the last two weeks.

Batteries are hot and Elon Musk will be walking right into the middle of it. He has proved Tesla’s charging system has legs. The first Model S just made the 3,464-mile journey from Los Angeles to New York in 76 hours using Tesla’s new network of supercharger stations. Recharging has been reduced to just over an hour. Model S sales hit 22,500 for 2013, exceeding expectations. With all this success under its belt, the company is preparing to move down-market, where it can really have an impact on our fossil fuel dependence.

Like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Musk is obsessed with space travel. He says he wants to be buried on Mars – “and not on impact.” With Steve Jobs gone, Musk may be the man to take Silicon Valley’s venture into alternative automobile propulsion to the next level.