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The Week in Sustainable Transportation
Mike Millikin, 13 Mar 05

Every Sunday, Green Car Congress' Mike Millikin gives us an update on the week's sustainable mobility news. Green Car Congress is by far the best resource around for news and analysis covering the ongoing evolution of personal transportation. Take it away, Mike:

Once again, oil and politics set the backdrop for the past week. In its monthly forecast, the IEA raised its earlier estimates of the growth in global demand by another 330 thousand barrels per day. Supply increased also, matching demand at 84.3 million barrels per day. (GCC) This is now the second month in a row where that has been no cushion between the supply and demand forecasts.

Separately, the DOE’s EIA also raised its forecast for oil prices from the month before. (GCC)

President Bush renewed his push to have drilling approved in ANWR, noting that “...it would eventually reduce our dependence on foreign oil by up to a million barrels of oil a day. And thatís important.” The math and the policy are both flawed. Reducing dependence on foreign oil means reducing consumption of oil. The path to that has been well defined by many, and that path does not lead through ANWR. (GCC)

Transportation research programs were much in the news this week.

The United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC) selected Maxwell Technologies to begin development of a compact, low-cost, high-performance, 48-volt ultracapacitor-based electrical energy storage module for use in passenger vehicles.

Ultracapacitors, like batteries, are energy storage devices. Batteries store charges chemically, whereas ultracapacitors store them electrostatically. Currently, ultracapacitors are more expensive (per energy unit) than batteries. However, ultracapacitors provide very quick bursts of energy with more power than batteries, and they can withstand hundreds of thousands of charge/discharge cycles without degrading. The FreedomCAR requirements for ultracapacitors, for example, specify a cycle life of 750,000 (equivalent to 150,000 miles) and a calendar life of 15 years.

That capability makes them promising devices for the capture and discharge of energy captured by regenerative braking in a hybrid. A battery-ultracapacitor combination could provide a power management solution that prolongs the range of electric-powered vehicles: the ultracapacitor handles spike loads (starts, acceleration), allowing the battery to maintain a steady, and longer lasting, discharge. (GCC)

The DOE awarded RTI $1.6 million to develop a new hydrogen storage technology that could provide a stable and recyclable hydrogen source for fuel cell-powered vehicles. The four-year project is to develop synthesis and extraction processes for aminoborane, a nitrogen/boron hydride compound. Aminoborane (H3BNH3) is a stable solid at ambient conditions that, when heated, decomposes and releases 19.6% of its weight as hydrogen.

Researchers at the University of Delaware discovered a new NOx Storage and Reduction (NSR) catalyst that could work well in supporting lean-burn engines. Lean-burn engines mix more air with the fuel under lighter load conditions. The enhanced oxidation improves the thermal efficiency of the engine, reduces fuel consumption, and lowers HC and CO emissions. But the higher combustion temperatures increase the amount of NOx, making it very difficult for current three-way catalysts to handle the burden. The Honda Insight is one example of a car with a lean-burn gasoline engine. It uses a dual catalyst system that includes an extra NOx storage and reduction catalyst to handle the extra emissions load.

The group found that its new cobalt-barium catalyst worked just as well as those with platinum—the big difference being cost. Additionally, they discovered that adding 1% platinum to the catalyst created a material with twice the NOx-storage capacity of current platinum-based NSR catalysts. (GCC)

Finally, the House approved $284 billion highway and transportation bill that provides $65 million to fund a national fuel cell bus technology development program. (GCC)

Two very different types of projects seeking to combine the generation of electricity and the production of vehicle fuel surfaced.

FuelCell Energy and QuestAir are working on a preliminary design and economic analysis of a system to produce pure hydrogen from a Fuel Cell Energy Direct Fuel Cell (DFC) power plant. Direct Fuel Cell power plants equipped with this hydrogen export system could be used by FuelCell Energy’s customers to produce pure hydrogen for industrial uses or to fuel fleets of fuel cell vehicles, in addition to generating electrical power and heat from the fuel cell. The current generation of DFCs are carbonate fuel cells; Fuel Cell Energy is exploring the use of solid oxide technology for smaller size units in the future. This is not the same type of fuel cell as the PEM used in an automobile, which is smaller, runs at lower temperatures, produces less power and requires an external supply of hydrogen.

The DFC takes in methane (or variant) as a fuel, and reforms the gas internally to produce the hydrogen required for use in the fuel cell reaction. During normal operation, the fuel cell itself only consumers some 70%ñ80% of the hydrogen feed, leaving 20%ñ30% available for export. The hydrogen would first need to be cooled, pressurized and purified prior to external use, but that’s where QuestAir comes in. Projected hydrogen yields from the DFC-H2 units are 3.8 kg/hr from a 250 kW DFC and 15.1 kg/hr from a 1,000 kW plant, with a projected 64.4% hydrogen energy efficiency.

On a much larger scale, and from a completely different perspective, Houston-based DKRW Energy signed an option agreement with Arch Coal to acquire undeveloped coal reserves in the Carbon Basin of Carbon County, Wyoming to provide the feedstock for a $2.75-billion integrated power and coal-to-liquids (CTL) facility to be located near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. The company estimates using 6 million tons of coal per year in the plant.

The integrated facility (which seems like it will be an advanced IGCC (coal-based Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle)-style plant) will create a synthesis gas from the coal. Some of this syngas flows to a Fischer-Tropsch liquefaction system to produce 33,000 barrels per day of synthetic diesel and naptha. The rest of the gas will support gas and steam turbines for a 350 MW power generation system. (GCC)

The resulting F-T diesel is very clean—the energy and emissions cost in generating it is very high, however. The gasification process is cleaner than a conventional coal-fired power generating facility. The Illinois Sierra Club, in a campaign against a new conventional coal plant, compared that facility to gassified, natural gas and wind power plants with similar output. The gassified plant produced 83% less sulfur dioxide, 76% less CO, 38% fewer oxides of nitrogen, 36% less PM and 7.5% less mercury. That said, a gassified plant still produces substantially more than the gas plant. The wind plant, of course, produces zero.

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