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The Week in Sustainable Transportation (03/27/05)
Mike Millikin, 27 Mar 05

Every Sunday, Green Car Congress' Mike Millikin gives us an update on the week's sustainable mobility news, looking at the ongoing evolution of personal transportation. Take it away, Mike:

Announcements of new hybrids and research in hydrogen production and storage featured prominently this past week.


Toyota opened the week by rolling out two hybrid SUVs in Japan: the Kluger (sold in North America as the Highlander) and the Harrier. The latter is the Japanese version of the Lexus RX400h that goes on sale in the US in April. Toyota announced the hybrid Highlander at the Detroit Auto Show last year, and has targeted its delivery in the US at around mid-year-after.

The hybrid Kluger/Highlander combines a 3.3-liter V6 with a new, four-wheel drive version of the Hybrid Synergy Drive to produce approximately 270 peak system horsepower.

Toyota developed this version of the Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain specifically to meet the load-carrying requirements of a larger, mid-size SUV. It uses an all-new high-speed electric motor that operates at twice the speed and delivers more than twice the power as the motor used in the four-cylinder Prius. (GCC)

Then, at the New York Auto Show, Toyota unveiled the 2007 Lexus GS 450h gas-electric hybrid. The GS 450h is the first hybrid luxury sedan and the first full hybrid vehicle with a front engine and rear-wheel drive.

The hybrid system combines a 3.5-liter V6 engine with a high-output, permanent magnet electric motor to drive the rear wheels. Combined power output will be well in excess of 300 hp (224 kW), with zero-to-60 acceleration in less than six seconds.

The systemís large electric motor is capable of delivering maximum torque immediately upon demand. This unique power delivery characteristic is most noticeable -- and most useful -- during mid-range acceleration (30-to-50 mph) for passing and merging maneuvers.

The result is a level of acceleration performance similar to a V-8 engine, with combined fuel economy in the high twenties (akin to a current, conventional 2.0-liter four-cylinder compact), along with a SULEV emissions rating. (GCC)

During a session at the Morgan Stanley Global Automotive Conference in New York, running concurrently with the auto show, Bob Lutz, GM Vice Chairman, Product Development, and Chairman, GM North America, acknowledged that “Toyota scored a major coup by going ahead with hybrids even though they didn’t have a business case.“ (GCC)

It doesn’t matter [if Toyota had a business case or not]. We have this artificial separation in our mind between what we spend on consumer influence in advertising and what we spend on the product, and sometimes the most effective sort of consumer influence is to do things like a hybrid with the product.

GM had announced earlier in the week that it was cancelling its new rear-wheel drive project (the Zeta architecture), due to produce a new line of vehicles for brands such as Buick. GM is applying the freed-up engineering and manufacturing resources to hasten the arrival of its new full-size SUVs to market. Although these (such as the refreshed Tahoe, Yukon and Escalade) will be one of the first applications for the GM-DaimlerChrysler two mode hybrid system, those vehicles are still in the future.

On a related note: Toyota President Fujio Cho stated during the Kluger/Harrier event that the company expects to sell 1 million hybrids per year, although without specifying a year. AutoWeek this week reported, amidst a number of other forecasts of hybrid market size, that Toyota expects to sell 2 million hybrids annually by 2010. (GCC)


Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories are investigating the use of a new type of nanodevice for photocatalytic solar hydrogen production from water.

The new devices are porphyrin nanotubes -- nanotubes made entirely of oppositely charged porphyrin molecules that self-assemble in water at room temperature. The better-known carbon nanotubes are formed at high temperatures and have covalent bonds between carbon atoms.

Porphyrins are light-absorbing molecules related to chlorophyll, the active part of photosynthetic proteins and light-harvesting nanostructures (chlorosomal rods).

When exposed to light, some porphyrin nanotubes can photocatalytically grow metal structures onto tube surfaces to create a functional nanodevice. For example, when the nanotubes are put into a solution with gold or platinum ions and exposed to sunlight, their photocatalytic activity causes the reduction of the ions to the metal. Using this method the researchers have deposited platinum outside the nanotube and grown a nanowire of gold inside the tube.

The nanotube with the gold inside and platinum outside is the heart of the photolytic nanodevice that may split water into oxygen and hydrogen. (GCC)

Also on the production side, Ohio State University researchers have developed a chemical catalyst that increases hydrogen production via coal gasification without using a toxic metal common in other catalysts.

The new catalyst uses a combination of iron and aluminum (Fe-Al) with other metals (such as cobalt (Co) or copper (Cu)) to harvest hydrogen from the synthetic gas (syngas) resulting from gasification. In tests, the catalyst performed up to 25% better than a commercially available alternative. (GCC)

With the meeting of the American Physical Society in Los Angeles, it was big week for small things in the hydrogen storage arena.

Improved solutions for storing hydrogen in vehicles is one of the major milestones for delivering on the vision of a hydrogen-based transportation system. While compressed or cryogenic storage of hydrogen gas in tanks is one option, another is to use a solid storage device. Think of it as a chemical sponge that soaks up hydrogen and releases it.

There are numerous factors that go into finding an effective solid storage medium: the amount of hydrogen it can hold, the energy cost for "filling it" with hydrogen, the environmental impact of byproducts (if any), the number of fill and discharge cycles without degradation, the rate at which it can fill and discharge, stability, the ease of manufacturing and, of course, the cost.

Although much of the work is being done a hydrides, a number of presentations were on new nanomaterials, such as carbon buckeyball-metallic complexes and nanoscaffolds.

The DOE has set a target for hydrogen solid storage solutions to hold 9 wt% hydrogen by 2015—a number of these projects exceeded that target already.

GM researchers presented their work with a new hydride with > 10 wt.% capacity. (GCC)

Policy and Legislation

Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland) presented a cogent 60-minute backgrounder to the House of Representatives on peak oil and its implications.

His speech, which is worth reading in its entirety, is a clear overview of the theory and the current state of affairs. He challenges the economists’ stance that higher prices will lead to increased production and notes furthermore that more drilling “just will not solve the problem.”

We now are doing a lot of talking here in the Congress and fortunately across the country about Social Security, and it is a big problem. But I tell the Members if the problem of Social Security is equivalent to the tidal wave produced by the hurricane, then this peak oil problem is equivalent to the tsunami. The impact and the consequences are going to be enormously greater than the impact and the consequences of Social Security or Medicare or those two put together.

Bartlett, a conservative Republican now in his seventh term in Congress, has an established record as a researcher, academic, inventor and small businessperson. In the last role, he also became involved in building solar homes. (GCC)

And speaking of oil and consumption, The US EPA approved Arizona state regulators’ draft permit for a proposed $2.5-billion oil refinery in Arizona. This would be the first refinery built in Arizona and the first new refinery in the United States in nearly 30 years.

The refinery, with expected output of 150,000 barrels per day of motor fuel, was designed to produce lower sulfur fuels. Gasoline will contain less than 10 ppm (parts per million), versus the current sulfur content of 30-ppm and 180-ppm gasoline coming into Arizona. The EPA's standard is 30 ppm (refinery average). (There is a relatively complex rule set around refinery averages, corporate averages, and production caps that allows for some higher sulfur-content gasoline -- hence the 180-ppm.) The diesel will be ultra low-sulfur, with a sulfur content of less than 15 ppm.(GCC)

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