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Electricity as Alternative Fuel in Cars
Posted: August 9, 2009

A variety of alternative fuels is now available for our cars: ethanol, methanol, butanol, Bio diesel, natural gas, hydrogen, and electricity in the shape of fuel cells and batteries. The cleanest energy for powering a car these days seems to be electricity chemically stored in batteries. As energy source fuel cells are an alternative to batteries but they are not really ready to be installed in cars for another 15 to 20 years. See what the latest generation of batteries can do to get us from A to B in style and reduce carbon emissions.

There have been many arguments in the past debating whether electricity should be belong in the alternative fuel category. Usually we determine alternative fuels as something other than a "fossil", oil-based product, but still having similar characteristics such being used to heat our homes, power our cars and being storable in some type of shape.

Electricity, when generated on a large scale can not be stored in its native state and hence demands literally its immediate consumption at time of generation. Storing large amounts of electricity requires its conversion into a different state and that is only economical on a massive scale in hydro-electric power plants by either building dams or using cheap, night-time electricity to pump water into a higher altitude reservoir - converting electricity into kinetic energy. When released during day-time the kinetic energy was converted back into electricity which in turn was sold at higher day-time peak prices. See Hydro-Electric Power Generation.

Besides this kinetic storage model there are only batteries and the laboratory-bound conversion of electricity to hydrogen that could escape stationary installation and go mobile in a car. And while batteries have a long history in this application, hydrogen has a long way to go before becoming a commodity in automobiles. (see Hydrogen Economy >>)

Batteries seem to be the obvious answer, but the storage of electricity in its pure form was reduced to a marginal business, supported by a technology that has not changed much over the last century for two reasons - economy and demand. Lead-acid and Ni-Cad batteries did their dirty, inefficient job because they were cheap and built for their dedicated tasks: such as powering flashlights and tools, radios, starting car engines, and driving remote control toys. At the other end of the scale where batteries are used to provide backup power for critical operations in datacenters or hospital, they are stationary and much to heavy to be installed in cars.

Only in the last two decades have we seen advances in rechargeable battery technologies that made them mobile - mainly driven by the rise of cordless power tools, but more importantly, by the rise of the laptop computer. Weight and capacity (ounce per watt) of a battery became key to their success and our desire for longer lasting batteries in these devices drove research and development. Still - these batteries where sold in small packages and used in portable devices - nothing to "write home about".

Then things sped up. Literally. Though there had been efforts by small companies to push batteries into cars in the 1990's, but either the scale of their operations and/or politics relegated the work to much more that a cottage industry or sad entries into the history books. (Read more about or watch the movie: Who killed the Electric Car?) The blunders of General Motors in this chapter of history prevented the company from “owning” the electric car market today.

But what can create more PR than the announcement of a two-seater sports car, powered by an electric motor, going from 0 to 60 miles in 4 seconds, letting you drive more than 200 miles on a single charge, and being developed in the Silicon Valley? A small startup - Tesla Motors - did just that in 2006, and when they began to ship those cars in 2007, it created one of the biggest success stories in auto design and manufacturing of the last two decades. However, the real star of the story was a rechargeable power pack the Energizer Bunny would have been proud off. Tesla's engineers connected 6186 (!) state-of-the-art lithium-ion [laptop] batteries together, added electronics and cooling - and were able to transfer 165 KW or about 200 HP to the road. 

Two years later Tesla is not only continuing to ship its Roadster. Its production is sold out for a year and is also developing battery packs for other car manufacturers around the globe. On the drawing board is a manufacturing plant for battery packs and a 4-door sports sedan that is scheduled to be released in 2011. Other car companies to follow.

And then there is Better Place, headquartered in Palo Alto, California - just down the road from Tesla Motors. This company built its business model completely around the key part of the electric car - the battery and its economics. Today the battery is the most expensive part in an electric car. Look at it as the amount of money you spent on gasoline over the life of your car, but having to pay it all when you buy a new car. Tesla's Roadster power pack costs about $25,000. Better Place wants to take that cost out of the manufacturing equation. Their future customer will pay for the battery per charge; very similar to the way we pay for gasoline today, whether he re-charges that battery at home or - and here is the kicker - replaces the empty battery with a full one! Better Place is specifying a quick-change battery power pack in the cars which will be build by companies such as Nissan, and the built-in GPS system will guide the driver to the next available changing and charging station that will be build around the country starting in metropolitan areas first.

The electric car has come full circle and it took about 175 years.

So is electricity an alternative fuel for cars? Without a doubt. High capacity batteries have become mobile and are viable power sources today and they will get lighter and increase in capacity every year.  They are a bridge technology until fuel cells will be ready. In that future these fuel cells will replace on-board batteries, but until then batteries will march forward, will get better, providing us with almost a carbon-free transportation and freeing us from our oil dependency one battery at a time. 

The Pope cannot be wrong
Posted: August 12, 2009

It is believed that the Vatican always had and has a good connection to the divine powers. Did it just get even better with the new Pope? - Pardon the segue way but is there a better way to herald the city-state's intend to harness the power of the sun for the better of their citizens? The pope has ambitious plans. Germany-born Benedict XVI wants to build Europe's largest Solar Power Plant and Germany-based SolarWorld AG will deliver it:
Check this - 100 Megawatts for about $660 Million by 2014. And they don't have to sell the St. Peter's Cathedral name to Fiat.

The installation will generate enough electricity that the surplus will be sold to the surrounding community, the city of Rome in this case, and making the Vatican more than compliant with the Kyoto treaty. And - as a side-effect - making electricity for the Vatican essentially free. More >>



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