Is There An Option More Promising Than The Plug-In Electric Vehicle?

01/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thomas Friedman recently published an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, "While Detroit Slept," equating any congressional or presidential rescue of the Detroit auto industry to saving the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of eBay or improving typewriters just before the advent of the personal computer and the internet. In his mind, the Big Three has been anachronistic, and entrusting them with an eleven-digit taxpayer loan would be foolish. He is probably right, even though the specter of a Depression triggered by their bankruptcy nevertheless cannot be totally discounted, so our domestic auto industry will no doubt be given one more chance.

He muses that the internal combustion engine/gasoline transport system is approaching obsolescence, and other concepts such as Shai Agassi's Better Place electric vehicle network model a more promising future. Appropriately enough, an agreement was announced early this month for Hawaii to be one of their first demonstration sites. A few days later, Maui Electric Company and Phoenix Motorcars signed a memorandum to use their electric pick-up trucks. All this is well and good, for Hawaii, naturally blessed with all the renewable energy options, has, for a variety of reasons, lagged behind much of the nation and world in going green.

A predictable trend is, no doubt, a gradual shift to battery-powered cars which can be charged with wind and solar energy. The lithium battery is poised to serve as this power source.

I say, let us support this effort, but be watchful for two impacting factors, one bad and the other, possibly monumentally good. First, the bad: my HuffPo article of December 7 on "A Gift for Planet Earth and Humanity" worries that the petroleum excursion below $50/barrel has, maybe fatally, dampened large-scale investments of renewable energy for a long time to come. T. Boone Pickens' abandonment of his wind farms is only one of many such crushed ventures you'll be reading about in the months to come. Crude oil, of course, will again shoot pass $100/bbl, if not next year, then certainly in five. However, financial organizations, rightfully so, are allergic to risk of any kind, and fickle oil prices have historically bedeviled all solar options. Thus, read the above posting to take advantage of this "gift" of time so that a range of remediative strategies can be applied.

The second factor has to do with the long-term viability of battery systems. It is possible that lithium might well be the end of the line. So, in answer to Mr. Friedman, an earlier HuffPost on "Simple Solutions for Our Biofuel Problem" suggests another next generation technology as maybe a more hopeful choice rather than plug-in vehicles.

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 found in one of the boxes to the right provides the details on fuel cells, but, 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. Thus, the logic argues for producing methanol from biomass to power a fuel cell, as hydrogen is very expensive to manufacture, store and deliver. 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.

Yes, methanol has only half the energy value of gasoline, but the fuel cell has at least twice the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, so there is a wash, here, regarding onboard storage. And methanol is no more toxic than gasoline. You shouldn't drink either one.

But we have problem. The U.S. Department of Energy has prohibited providing funds for vehicular DMFCs, and furthermore, stopped supporting biomass to methanol R&D. It has mostly to do with ethanol and biodiesel being selected as the only national biofuels. Thus, we are probably a decade away, if not longer, from being able to convert to a biomethanol economy for transportation.

Thus, unless some sudden advancement can be realized in bringing a transport DMFC to the marketplace, it makes sense to cultivate options such as the plug-in electrical car system, hoping that electricity from the renewables can enjoy a quick commercial transition. In any event, watch out for the direct methanol fuel cell, for this virtually ignored opportunity could well either someday replace vehicles powered by batteries or in parallel maybe develop even faster.