Imagine standing in front of global auto executives in 1999 and presenting a forecast that within ten years an Indian Automaker would be planning to build and sell electric vehicles in Europe. You might have walked away with that negative ‘futurist’ stereotype of a fringe corporate strategic thinker thinking way too far ahead!
Now India’s Tata Motors has announced plans to build an electric vehicle for European markets in 2009.
The company’s UK subsidiary has acquired a 50.3% holding in Miljø Grenland/Innovasjon of Norway to advance solutions for electric vehicles. The move brings Tata closer to realizing its vision of building affordable, clean electric motor vehicles powered by a combination of batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
The first generation of Miljø produced electric vehicles will use Electrovaya Lithium Ion SuperPolymer® batteries. Tata plans to launch Indica EV in Europe during 2009 as a 4 person vehicle with a predicted battery charge range of up to 200 km (125 miles) with an acceleration of 0-60 kmph (40 mph) in under 10 seconds.
There are only a few energy companies in the world that have generated as much attention and skepticism as BlackLight Power Inc. The company has demonstrated a controllable, scalable energy system the cannot be explained by conventional scientific paradigms of combustion or nuclear reactions.
Simply put the company has devised a way to capture the chemical energy from the electrons of hydrogen atoms as they transition to lower-energy levels. It is not combustion-based or nuclear but releases tremendous amounts of energy. [Flash video of process]
While the claims have, not surprisingly, generated a lot of criticism and doubt, Black Power has now confirmed successful independent replication and validation.
The validation of its 1,000 watt and 50,000 watt reactors was led by Rowan University’s Dr. Peter Jansson which conducted 55 tests of the prototypes, including controls and calibrations, during a nine-month study. Results indicated that energy generation was proportional to the total amount of solid fuel, and only one percent of the one million joules of the energy released could be accounted for by previously known chemistry. According to Dr. Jansson “Our experiments on the BlackLight technology have demonstrated that within the range of measurement errors the significant energy generated, which is 100 times the energy that could be attributed to measurement error, cannot be explained by other known sources like combustion or nuclear energy.”
Algae bioenergy is based on a powerful idea that is still just off the radar of mainstream conversations on the future of energy. We can 'grow energy' by tapping 'carbon eating' algae that create usable forms of hydrocarbons for fuel or biomaterials.
The idea seems strange and futuristic, but it actually describes our past. We already tap the power of bioenergy everyday. Coal is ancient plant life, and oil is (likely) ancient microbes that lived in shallow oceans. Both plants and microbes fuse hydrogen and carbon bonds using the power of sunlight. But algae is a more efficient in that conversion and results in a higher hydrogen to carbon ratio. That means a cleaner burning fuel!
Everytime you turn on the light (via coal power plant) or drive a car you are capturing the energy released from carbon-hydrogen bonds form by ancient biology. Now energy visionaries are looking at how we can tap the same processes today to 'grow energy' without relying on food crops like corn or soy.
This week The Takeaway has been running Power Trip a series of programs on the future of energy. Earlier this week, Host John Hockenberry visited algae biofuels company Bionavitas in Seattle, WA.
General Motors and Segway unveiled a new type of small electric motor vehicle with advanced software that could shift how we look at mobility as a service.
In an effort to appeal to digitally connected urban audiences, GM describes Project P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) as a low-cost mobility platform that 'enables design creativity, fashion, fun and social networking.' This protoype model travels up to 35 miles per hour (56 kph), with a range up to 35 miles (56 km) between recharges (though it's not clear how urban residents will access wall sockets!)
Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication systems that relay alerts and information to drivers to reduce congestion and prevent collisions are already being integrated into luxury vehicles. But within a decade or two we can expect low cost vehicles embedded with sensors and ‘situation awareness’ detection systems that make cars 'smarter' than drivers.
Access and Ownership (and Potential Chaos) A compelling vision of Personal Urban Vehicles is the emergence of personal 'mobility as service' companies that connect outer hubs with urban destination points (offices, retail, recreation, et al). In addition to owning personal vehicles, we can imagine paying for 'access' to fleets of vehicles that we don't have to park. (Of course, adding fleets of small vehicles could mean chaos in urban areas for pedestrians! Not to mention pushback from the Cabbies in New York!)
More Images and Related Posts on The Future of Auto Industry
Last week bloggers across the web from sites dealing with energy, the environment, tech gadgets, mainstream business and policy pushed up MIT’s press release of a major breakthrough in ‘solar-hydrogen energy storage.’
Engadget asked is the energy crisis solved?, Treehugger mirrored MIT’s spin of this Giant Leap and blog Comment sections were flooded with posts ranging from curiosity and praise to flames from skeptics.
The announcement came from the lab of MIT’s Daniel Nocera with work from Post-doc Matthew Kanan. The breakthrough was a low-cost catalyst able to use sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.
The twist? The catalyst is made of cheap, earth-abundant materials (cobalt-phosphates), works at room temperature and is designed for a low scale production ‘energy appliance’ units (not major centralized power plants).
Why the excitement?
It is a cost breakthrough for distributed hydrogen production and an advance from basic science to engineering for oxygen. The MIT approach also hints at how small energy appliances could become someday. And the media is reporting on the importance of energy ‘storage’.
MIT’s ‘giant leap’ was the most hyped story of the week and also likely the least understood.
So why is energy storage potentially disruptive for the future of the energy sector? (Continued)
Hawaii might be the perfect market environment for transforming its vehicle fleet from liquid fueled combustion engine vehicles to electric cars powered by batteries and fuels cells. There is strong support for ‘green’ policies, most vehicles trips are over short distances, and the islands’ fixed boundaries make it easy to plan out the cost of infrastructure. There are a number of strong cleantech startups and state has aggressive plans to expand its own local renewable energy production from solar, wind, geothermal and bio energy so it could tap this locally produced energy into electricity or hydrogen to fuel electric vehicles. Now it appears to be planning new fueling infrastructure for the coming wave of electric vehicles.
Today, the Honolulu Advertiser is reporting that electric vehicle infrastructure builder Better Place (Palo Alto, CA) has plans to build a network of electric recharge units and battery ‘swap out’ stations to service Hawaii’s first wave of battery powered electric vehicles.
Is this good news? Yes.
Will it be easy? No.
The Good News
We appear to have taken the first step – getting the auto industry on board. Every major automobile company has announced plans to release its first generation electric vehicles between 2010-12 around lithium ion batteries. Automobile companies appear ready to leverage the manufacturing cost benefits of killing of the combustion engine and adopting more modular electric motors powered by lithium ion batteries, capacitors and hydrogen fuel cells. Auto engineers are now taking the next step towards integrating all systems- to make a viable electric propulsion platform for the 21st century. With this commitment we can expect other companies to start developing infrastructure. The problem? Overcoming the politics of utility power generation.
Forcing Change on Big Utilities
While this news might feel good, the saying “It’s not a revolution if nobody loses” is certainly relevant. Transforming how we fuel our vehicle fleets is not going to be easy or conflict free. But where might we anticipate pushback?
Common sense says ‘Big Oil’, but the real challenge in accelerating this shift towards electric vehicle infrastructure might be ‘Big Utilities’ who are now struggling to imagine their place in a world of fueling homes and vehicles.
In recent years advocates of plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles have argued ‘the infrastructure for electric cars exists. We only need to plug in our cars at night while nobody is using the electricity.’ This was the source of their disdain for the other electron energy carrier hydrogen. Why waste time on building something new, when it already exists?
It turns out that this observation of our electricity grid was only a snapshot of reality, not the description of a future-ready system for supporting electric vehicles. The world’s electric grids are not ready to support commercial vehicle fleets. And now auto makers like Renault are leading efforts to rally utility grid operators, energy storage companies and entrepreneurs to prepare for the electrification of the global auto fleet.
France’s EDF & Renault creating the future
Business Week is reporting on a pledge by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Paris Auto Show to dedicate 400 million euros ($549 million) in state support for the development of electric and hybrid cars.
The funds are likely to be packaged with a major agreement between Renault and France’s utility EDF to jointly develop the infrastructure needed to recharge electric vehicles, allowing Renault to deliver vehicles in 2011. (The French government owns 85 percent of EDF and 15 percent of Renault.)
GDF is already the owner of the world’s biggest corporate fleet of electric vehicles and has an obvious stake in developing a “smart” charging stations.
Meanwhile Business Week confirms that Renault-Nissan is to establish infrastructure in Israel, Denmark, Portugal, the U.S. state of Tennessee and the Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan, with production plans for electric cars from 2011.
Are electric recharge stations the best path?
Futurist Jamais Cascio has been quoted as saying ‘The road to hell is paved with short-term distractions.” And as someone who has followed the hype cycle of transportation propulsion systems I wonder if a strategy based solely on batteries and electricity could be that? A short-term distraction.
The future of vehicle fueling infrastructure might actually be more complicated than just plugging in. Why should we hedge our bets with powering electric vehicles around other electrons carrier systems like fuel cells and capacitors? (Continue)
Need more evidence that the electric vehicle industry is going global, quickly?!
Bloomberg is reporting on plans that General Motors is expanding its investment and partnership with China’s SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile Co. It is unclear whether this investment is simply to secure GM’s position in China’s growing market, or if GM might tap China as the manufacturing hub for electric vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and capacitors.
Why this is important to the future of energy?
The fastest way to move beyond the combustion engine is to tap the power of global markets. But it requires us to rethink our assumptions about the future. Namely, if Asia does leap ahead, the US and Europe will have to rethink their aspirations of being ‘energy independent’. Instead they will trade ‘foreign’ oil, for ‘foreign’ batteries!
The Good news
Electric cars can help to clean up air pollution around the world, expand opportunities for renewables to compete in transportation fuels, and could help us better manage the flow and storage of electrons currently limited to a one-way electrical grid.
Electric vehicles can change the world, but they are likely to do so in ways that we cannot currently imagine by mere extrapolation.
A group of researchers from Boston College and MIT have created a new catalyst that could reduce the negative environmental impact of hydrocarbon or ‘petrochemical’ derived materials found in everyday products.
[Don’t run away! Big words, but simple concepts!]
The new catalyst is used in a very common and energy intensive process known as olefin metathesis. Just think of olefins as simple carbon and hydrogen packets (image of ethylene) that are used to make more complex chains that form the backbone of materials used in everything from cleaner fuels, soaps, bags, to pharmaceuticals. The process, ‘metathesis’, simply means transforming the order of AB + CD into AD +BC
How does a simple packet of hydrogen and carbon vary so much in
different industry applications? In the most simple terms – the difference between a ‘good’ compound for people and the Earth, from a ‘bad’ compound is the use of additives (other elements) and the shape of the molecule chain (polymers). These variations make materials more or less reactive to things like light, water, and heat. It also makes it more or less soluble, biodegradable or toxic. The goal is to create compounds that break down into non-toxic elements that do not harm ecosystems. The more precise we are in building key polymer materials, the less harmful waste we produce.
Why is this important to the future?Another step towards ‘greener’ hydrocarbon materials
The BC/MIT catalyst will help to reduce the waste and hazardous by products of this massive industrial chemical reaction as we try to make chemistry more ‘green’ and environmentally friendly.
“In order for chemists to gain access to molecules that can enhance the quality of human life, we need reliable, highly efficient, selective and environmentally friendly chemical reactions,” said Amir Hoveyda, Professor and Chemistry Department chairman at BC. “Discovering catalysts that promote these transformations is one of the great challenges of modern chemistry.”
We might be closer to reframing the public conversation about the future of the auto industry.
The real problem for the auto industry is its manufacturing footprint, not its carbon footprint.
Of course we must build more efficient vehicles.
But the industry's problems have nothing to with small cars vs big cars, or fuel efficiency.
The real problem is the manufacturing intensity of building mechanical engines, and their inability to produce multiple chassis on one factory floor. The other problem is that they build new cars then have them sit on dealership lots until someone buys it.
Yes, we must reduce the eco-impact of vehicles, but to get there we must recognize that the real revolution is changing how we build cars, not how we fuel them. Need more evidence?
Fiat exchanges Access for Equity Fiat is negotiating a 35% stake in Chrysler in exchange for access to its small vehicle manufacturing capacity and revival of its European brands in the US.
But we should not be confused. The future is not 'small cars', but leaner manufacturing.
Does Chrysler need small vehicles to meet current market demand? Probably.
But the real takeaway is Chrysler's inabilty to build different types of vehicles (small or large) without major retooling investments.
So the company exchanges access to manufacturing for equity.
The future is modular manufacturing
The future is a factory floor that can build multiple chassis using modular electric motors and energy storage devices (batteries, fuel cells and capacitors).
What we don't know about the fundamental science of energy systems might actually help us! The problem is that most people assume we already know everything, and that we are running out of solution sets. In fact, we are only at the beginning of a new era of understanding nanoscale (molecular) energy systems engineering.
MIT Chemistry Professor Dan Nocera's lecture Whales to Wood, Wood to Coal/Oil to What's Next? describes what we do not understand about solar energy conversion (photosynthesis) and effective energy storage in nature's form of chemical bonds. His focus is to uncover the science of nature's recipe for storing energy: Light + Water = Fuel.
The Future of Energy will be based on our ability to elegantly control the interactions of light, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and metals. And for all our engineering prowress of extracting and blowing up ancient bio-energy reserves (coal/oil), there is still so much to learn about basic energy systems from Mother Nature.
Laying Down Algae Shells for Solar Panels Researchers from Oregon State University and Portland State University have developed a new way to make “dye-sensitized” solar cells using a 'bottom up' biological assembly processes over traditional silicon chemical engineering.
The teams are working with a type of solar cell that generates energy when 'photons bounce around like they were in a pinball machine, striking these dyes and producing electricity.'
Rather than build the solar cells using traditional technqiues, the team is tapping the outer shells of single-celled algae, known as diatoms, to improve the electrical output. (Diatoms are believed to be the ancient bio-source of petroleum.)
The team placed the algae on a transparent conductive glass surface, and then (removed) the living organic material, leaving behind the tiny skeletons of the diatoms to form a template that is integrated with nanoparticles of titanium dioxide to complete the solar cell design.
Biology's Nanostructured Shells & Bouncing Photons? “Conventional thin-film, photo-synthesizing dyes also take photons from sunlight and transfer it to titanium dioxide, creating electricity,” said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor of chemical engineering “But in this system the photons bounce around more inside the pores of the diatom shell, making it more efficient.”
The research team is still not clear how the process works, but 'the tiny holes in diatom shells appear to increase the interaction between photons and the dye to promote the conversion of light to electricity... potentially with a triple output of electricity.'
According to the team, this is the 'first reported study of using a living organism to controllably fabricate semiconductor TiO2 nanostructures by a bottom-up self-assembly process.' So, chalk up another early win for advanced bio-energy manufacturing strategies!