By Michael Rau
August 13, 2007
We're headed down a slightly different road than normal today. Our normal foray into the realm of consumer technology warrants a little expansion.
Recent news out of Chesapeake has discussed plans for two facilities to manufacture alternative fuels - namely ethanol and bio-diesel. I would describe myself as supportive of the bio-diesel facility, but not the one for ethanol.
My reasoning for that lack of support is simple: While ethanol produced from sugar cane and certain other plants can produce up to a 10 to 1 ratio of fuel produced for energy used for production, ethanol made from corn, as we do here in America, only produces a ratio of roughly 1.5 to 1 - not exactly impressive. Sadly, as often happens, it's rapidly becoming a corporate welfare cow, with the big agri-businesses getting huge government subsidies to grow corn-for-fuel, in spite of the inefficiency of the process.
Bio-diesel, on the other hand, is produced much more cleanly and efficiently, and when ignited, produces very little carbon. As opposed to gasoline engines, which are used almost exclusively in cars and small engines, diesel motors are used from cars to ships, and in a multitude of applications in between. Thus, changing the type of fuel used in these engines could have quite a dramatic impact on the carbon footprint attributed to internal combustion engines.
But even with all the talk about alternative fuels and hybrid vehicles, there's a method of propulsion for vehicles favored by many of us for a long time. I'm talking about the all-electric car.
Okay. You say it's been tried and didn't work very well. And you'd be half-right.
In 1990, acting on a California initiative designed to cut air pollution, you may remember that General Motors introduced an all-electric car called the EV1. It was truly an innovative vehicle, but as had always been the case because of electricity storage issues, it was limited in range to less than 70 miles-per charge.
Nevertheless, people who drove them loved them, and the car established a very hard-core cult following.
GM never sold the cars, instead, choosing to only offer them for lease, and only in California. As it turns out, the reason was that GM was never serious about the car, had probably never intended it to be available to a mass market, and in fact had only manufactured them to get California off their collective back. They eventually repossessed all the EV1s and destroyed them.
The political and industrial mindset behind the rise and fall of the EV1 is laid out in fascinating detail in a film called "Who Killed the Electric Car?". It's all about conspiracy with a capital 'C'. I highly recommend it.
The reason I bring this up is because I want tell you about recent technological developments that could spell change in the air for the way we drive.
We can, in fact, attribute these to developments in battery technology brought about by trying to find better powering methods for small portable devices like cell phones and laptop computers.
In California (of course), a small startup company called Tesla Motors (http://www.teslamotors.com) has created a slick 2-seat roadster that is all-electric, will go from 0-60 mph in 4 seconds, and will go over 200 miles on a single charge, or about what you'd get from an average tank of gas.
It helps charge itself through regenerative braking, meaning that every time you step on the brakes, the energy created is absorbed by a generator and fed back to the batteries. You can also charge it in about 3 1&Mac218;2 hours with the included home charging station, as well as charge it away from home with a 110 volt adapter. There's also a system under development that could charge it in 15 minutes using induction.
Speaking of the batteries, they're something new for cars. The underlying technology is lithium-ion - the same that's used in cell phone and laptop batteries. Unlike older generation rechargeable batteries, they don't deteriorate in a manner that causes them to gradually store less and less energy, they're easily recyclable, and can store a lot more electricity in less space.
That's the big secret behind the Tesla Roadster's amazing specifications. And Tesla is also offering licensing of this underlying technology to other companies.
Not surprisingly, Detroit has shown no interest (These are, of course, the same far-sighted thinkers who were designing the Hummer and the Excursion at the same time Toyota was designing the Prius.
Sadly, the Tesla is out of the reach of most of us at $90,000 a pop, but they plan to introduce a 4-door model in 2010 at about half that price. And if things develop the way they logically should, and some large progressive industrial concern sees the profit potential, mass production and adoption of the Tesla battery system would likely bring the cost down to something affordable by the masses.
When that happens, I'll be one of the first in line.
Who'd have ever thought that something as tiny as a cell-phone battery could lead to change in the way we get from here to there
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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