05/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Solution for the American Auto Industry

President Barack Obama took steps to re-invent General Motors and Chrysler for the better, hopefully. The current focus is on survival. Unaddressed was how to regain American leadership in the automobile industry.

President Obama earlier this month visited the Edison Electric Vehicle Center located in Pomona, California, where he spoke glowingly of this option and mentioned the availability of large development funds. His stimulus plan, he said, provides $2.4 billion to help Detroit make the transition to hybrid cars. He also talked about a $2 billion battery R&D program to compete with the world, which could well be the same program.

A year ago I would have rejoiced at his dedication to EVs. Today, I'm not quite so sure. I've written two posts on this related subject, comparing plug-ins with the fuel cell and suggesting that we develop our own technology for powering cars.

The vaunted GM plug-in Volt, for example, will sell beginning in 2010 for $40,000. As an intermediate step, I guess this is the best they can do, but this is no way to reassert American dominance in the field, for the Volt will use a lithium battery from South Korea. Why? It appears that countries from Europe and the Orient have a lock on workable next generation battery patents for lithium. The sad conclusion is that we have no future in battery powered vehicles.

The announced American battery consortium of 14 companies with the Argonne National Laboratory (note, particularly, the absence of GM, Ford and Chrysler) is seeking billions to advance our cause. Their announced focus will be on lithium, so one immediately can speculate that all they will be able to do will be to streamline the marketing and importation of these batteries. Why don't they, instead, produce a better battery, you say? Well, it turns out that battery technology has reached the end of the line. There is no future material on the horizon, save for maybe some mysterious super capacitor or blue-sky nanotech pathway.

Why then don't we use some American ingenuity to develop a superior way for moving vehicles? Immediately scratch the ICE and lead acid batteries. Heartbreak, but eliminate the nickel hydride battery, an invention of American Stanford Ovshinsky of Detroit. His travails with GM deserve a tragic re-write by the next Shakespeare. Also delete the lithium battery, for we missed the boat here. What else is there?

There is a technology that was invented 170 years ago in Wales. It is called a fuel cell and is used on NASA journeys to produce electricity and freshwater for drinking. Being readied for commercialization is the micro fuel cell to run your iPod and portable computer. For the same space as a lithium battery, this device can operate five times longer. The fuel is methanol.

Methanol is the simplest alcohol and can be directly fed into a fuel cell without reforming, a very expensive process. Now this is difficult to believe, but one gallon of methanol has 1.4 times more accessible hydrogen than one gallon of liquid hydrogen.

Today, methanol is produced through the steam reforming of natural gas, but in the future, biomass can be gasified and catalyzed into biomethanol. This is a natural for the farm industry, for all the non-edible portion of any crop can be collected for processing into methanol.

Why then don't we do this already? Well, it turns out that the Farm Lobby a decade ago came up with what then was a brilliant idea. Why don't we ferment corn into ethanol, which can be used to reduce oil imports. Then, the price of corn will rise and farmers will be more successful. But prohibit methanol, for it is too cheap and will affect the marketing of ethanol. The ploy worked!

Now that people are beginning to wise up to using food for fuel, as the laws are already in place, the Farm Lobby is turning to cellulosic ethanol. While this is technically possible, it will be an economic disaster. If you have any relatively dry biomass, it is much cheaper to produce methanol. As this methanol is the perfect fuel for the direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) to power cars, what a match made in heaven between the heartlands of American and Detroit.

But we have a problem. There is no DMFC for cars. Our Department of Energy has purposefully banned any methanol R&D. Details on parameters such as politics, safety, energy density, etc., can be found in Simple Solutionts for Planet Earth, one of the book icons in the box on the right.

This is then the golden opportunity for our new administration seeking change. As other countries usually watch what we're doing, they also have not done much in this area. The Japanese are on the cusp of commercializing the DMFC for portable applications, but a device for vehicles is a decade away.

Rather than spending billions on a next generation battery to nowhere, we have a once in a lifetime chance to take a leadership role in the solution to Peak Oil, Global Warming and Economic Development. We need a Marshall (but call it Obama) Plan for Detroit to develop the Direct Methanol Fuel Cell for vehicles. In time, we will be able to export products, instead of burying ourselves further by quickly converting to plug-in vehicles where the batteries will need to be imported.