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America, Don't Copy...Build Something Better!

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About a month ago I wrote an article in The Huffington Post, wondering if there was a better option than the plug-in electric vehicle. Evidence indicated that the direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) was worthy of exploration. To quote from that posting:


Per unit volume, a fuel cell should be able to provide five times more energy than the lithium battery. Chapter 3 of Simple Solutions for Planet Earth can be referenced for details. In short, this device works like a battery to produce electricity, but uses hydrogen as the energy source instead of lithium, lead or cadmium. However, and this defies common sense, one gallon of methanol has more accessible hydrogen than one gallon of liquid hydrogen. So as hydrogen is very expensive to manufacture, store and deliver, with no existing infrastructure...

...the logic argues for producing methanol from biomass to power a fuel cell. This simplest of alcohols is the only biofuel capable of directly and efficiently being utilized by a fuel cell without passing through an expensive reformer.

There were 32 comments, the most significant had to do with the glaring fact that there is no DMFC available for ground transport, and might well be impossible to build. Feedback from experts in the field, though, overwhelmingly indicated that, first, the DMFC is real, and could in a few years begin to replace batteries in portable applications such as computers and iPods. One obvious reason why there is no DMFC for cars is because the U.S. Department of Energy has prohibited R&D on this option. The Farm Lobby effectively convinced Congress and the White House to only focus on ethanol and biodiesel, purposely leaving out methanol. Details are provided in the above posting.

So therefore, where are we as a Nation on next generation cars? Not unlike our ethanol fiasco, the plug-in electric car has a different kind of gigantic problem: we don't produce any advanced batteries for this application. Panasonic and Sanyo manufacture nearly all of the nickel metal hydride batteries used in our current hybrid autos. The irony to all this is that Stanford Ovshinsky of Ovonics in Detroit invented this technology, and even succeeded in suing Panasonic for stealing his idea. Ovshinsky worked out a partnership with General Motors, but their conventional wisdom must have prevailed, for nothing much happened.

The story of the lithium battery is also a national nightmare. If you trace the expertise, you will find yourself in Japan, Germany, South Korea, France and China. Where are the American companies with the world patents and leadership? They don't exist!

But, ah, we have coming the ballyhooed Chevy Volt. This hybrid will use a South Korean lithium battery and cost $40,000 when it becomes available in the fourth quarter of 2010. The Toyota Prius ranges in price somewhere in the twenties. The Volt is the car that will save Detroit?

We need to instead invent our own new power system. Toshiba and a few other Japanese companies do have a current advantage for portable uses of the direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC), but no one is doing anything about using this technology for cars, yet.

How ideal and opportune, then, for Detroit and the Obama Administration to partner on a new pathway for our future: initiate an Apollo-like project to develop the DMFC. The heartland of our country can also become involved, for the non-food portion of our crops and fields, cellulose, is the ideal feedstock for biomethanol.

The traditionalist might say, isn't this risky? It will take another decade or more just to build a competitive DMFC. Yes, they are right, it will take some time. But ten years from now, if we maintain our current course, we will be importing foreign batteries or paying royalties for our domestic brand. Is this smart?

The simple solution comes in two parts. Sure, continue the thrust to combine 14 American companies in a billion dollar federally funded venture to design an advanced battery. This will almost surely be a lithium battery. Even though this already been done, that's all right as a necessary hedge, for the plug-in concept has merit as a transition option. For one, the electricity can begin to come from wind energy.

The parallel focus should be to provide an equal sum to a consortium of American firms to accelerate the prospects for a direct methanol fuel cell. An important part of this effort should be to find a substitute for the platinum electrode, as, for example, carbon nanotubes. The potential is at hand to again become the world leader in vehicle production.

This second challenge is not currently being discussed in the White House or the Congress or Detroit. Why copy the world? Let us invent our own future.

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