Wednesday November 28, 2012

Below is a guest post by Steve Aplin, who is currently leading a number of government-industry funded research and development projects to develop low carbon hydrocarbon fuel (LCHF). Aplin is the vice president of energy and environment at HDP Group, an Ottawa consultancy, and blogs at Canadian Energy Issues. Below, Aplin makes the case for why gasoline-electric hybrid cars will prevail over pure electric cars.

On Monday, The Agenda aired a very interesting interview with Cara Clairman of Plug’nDrive Ontario on the subject of electric cars. (Editor's note: you can watch that interview, above.) A lot of people are concerned about climate change, and a lot of the man-made greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change -- more than 90 million tonnes per year in Canada alone -- come from petroleum-powered cars. For this reason, electric cars, which emit no pollution at all, are on the verge of going seriously prime time.

But which electric cars? Not all are alike. Aside from the hydrogen fuel, cell-powered cars we’ve all heard about, which for excellent reasons have not materialized at the commercial level, there are a number of competing models currently on offer in Ontario showrooms. Cara mentioned her Nissan Leaf, which is a pure electric car charged from the grid with a standard 240-volt plug and outlet. And Steve talked about his Chevy Volt, which is also electric-powered and chargeable from the grid, but comes with an on-board gasoline generator for when the grid is not available.

At that point, Steve asked a great question: which technology will prevail -- pure electric or hybrid gasoline-electric? This question, and its answer, are of fundamental importance, and not just from a casual technology-futurist point of view. Automakers, who continue to play a hugely important role in Ontario’s economy, have been for years putting enormous effort into asking the same exact question. Ontario’s economic well-being in large part hangs on the answer.

So what is the answer?

It’s obviously not hydrogen fuel cells. We haven’t yet invented a way to economically store enough hydrogen on board a normal-sized car to give that car, running on pure hydrogen, a level of performance anywhere close to that of a typical gasoline-powered car. (It is possible to store hydrogen in a way that enables it to deliver the right kind of performance. You may be surprised when you hear it. I’ll explain below.)

Plug-in, pure electric cars like the Leaf are a big step in the right direction in addressing the performance issue. But while they do offer a practical route to meaningful emission reduction, pure electric cars also cannot match the performance and convenience of gasoline-powered cars. Like with hydrogen fuel cells, this has to do with the way they store fuel. Their batteries have inherent limitations that make using and replenishing fuel (in this case, electricity) extremely inconvenient compared with gasoline. Pure electric cars are perfectly suited for city trips, which are typically 20 kilometres or less. But they have inherent problems when it comes to lengthier trips between Ontario cities.

Gasoline, on the other hand, contains much more energy density by volume than an electric battery does, or the equivalent volume of pure hydrogen. Even when gasoline is burned in a relatively inefficient internal combustion engine, a small tank of it can move a two-ton car at 100 kilometers an hour for five hours at a stretch. That tank takes mere minutes to fill, an important point when you’re en route at a highway filling station. Batteries, even in their current advanced form, simply haven’t proved they can deliver this kind of performance.

For these reasons, I think gasoline-electric hybrid cars are the wave of the future.

But does that mean the electric motor is the only part of the hybrid powertrain that can deliver clean energy? No. It is possible to make low carbon hydrocarbon fuel (LCHF) without using petroleum. This would dramatically reduce the emissions from the gasoline-fueled part of the hybrid powertrain. And we could make that LCHF right here in this province, from raw materials that are available, or could be available, right now.

How? We could make LCHF by storing hydrogen in carbon, in a molecular bond. An average gasoline molecule, for example, is roughly eight atoms carbon and 18 atoms hydrogen. If our artificial gasoline’s carbon component were to come from recycled material, and its hydrogen component from water (a molecule that of course consists of two atoms hydrogen and one oxygen), our raw materials would be clean. Such a manufacturing process would require a lot of heat. If the heat came from a non-carbon source, like nuclear fission, then the manufactured fuel would be much, much cleaner than petroleum-derived gasoline.

Such a manufacturing process is technically feasible. We already know how to make gasoline from separate carbon and hydrogen sources. The process was invented in the 1920s. South Africa today makes the equivalent of 150,000 barrels a day from separate carbon and hydrogen sources.

How would we recycle carbon? We could capture carbon dioxide (the principal man-made greenhouse gas), from coal-fired power plants. Capturing carbon dioxide is a major focus of government and industry-funded research and development in Canada. We know how to capture it, and some major efforts, including Shell Canada’s Quest project in Alberta, are under way right now. Currently, most plans are to dispose of carbon dioxide underground. We should recycle this captured carbon, and use it to make LCHF instead. The illustration below depicts the carbon dioxide reductions that are possible if we did this:

Click on the above image to enlarge.

Ontario is well-placed to develop LCHF. We have, or with a change in policy could have, the raw materials to make LCHF: water and power plant carbon dioxide. We certainly have large-scale chemical engineering expertise -- witness “chemical valley” around Sarnia. We of course also possess nuclear expertise: Canada’s nuclear sector was born in Ontario. Ontario-made nuclear reactors have since the 1970s provided most of the electricity that powers this province’s schools, homes, and businesses. And on the academic side, I can personally attest to the outstanding talent in the Ontario universities with which I have been privileged to collaborate.

So the answer to Steve Paikin’s question is: the clean-car technology that will prevail will incorporate the clean electric motor (charged with clean electricity from a nuclear grid like Ontario’s) with a standard internal combustion engine fueled with LCHF. That LCHF could, and should, be made in Ontario.

Steve Aplin blogs at: Canadian Energy Issues.

Image credit: The Guardian.

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