Friday, March 11, 2005

Energy Undependence (the next Bushism?)

In the summer of 2003, after the start of the Iraq War, I became very interested in alternative energy. Being a news and politics junkie, I had given much reflection to the causes and effects of the foreign policy issues facing America and the string of events

that had led us to this point in our history. I began a self taught crash course in the basics of fuel cell technology, and even pondered going back to school to get degrees in electrochemical engineering so that I could pursue a career in developing hydrogen fuel cell propulsion.

My thought at the time was that because of dependence on foreign sources of energy, the US was not self sufficient enough to be able to sidestep fluctuations in energy indexing due to external political events. I scoured my basement and the neighborhood and

scrounged up enough parts to build myself a rudimentary wind powered electrical generator. It worked, somewhat. Living in Illinois, I had more than my fair share of wind, and I was able to move some electrical current with my little (and I do mean little) device.

The entire exercise was more or less to prove a point that it would be possible to make enough electricity to attain hydrolysis, and therefore be able to separate the hydrogen from oxygen in water and get hydrogen fuel. I am sure that most of us remember this experiment in high school chemistry class.

As time passed, so did my desire to endure another 5-7 years in a University. But my desire to see the US more energy independent has never waned.

Last week, I found an article by Fareed Zakaria claiming a bold idea,driving a car that could get 500 miles per gallon of gasoline. On the surface, you'd think it was either science fiction or something out of the Sierra Club. But as I read further, and did some of my own research, I began to slowly warm to the idea that this could be a possibility?

The premise behind the 500 miles per gallon of gasoline idea rests in a couple of different components mixed together. The first is the hybrid car technology. This technology is currently available and has been gaining speed over the last few years. Essentially, your car uses both electricity and gas to move you down the road. At slower speeds, your car would use an electrical battery to move the car. When you needed a boost of speed or get to a higher speed, say on the highway, your car would switch from battery to gas seamlessly. By mixing the two technologies, your car would use less gas overall. Imagine all the time you spend in stop and go traffic. The propulsion responsibilities would be solely run on the electric battery, and not gas. There are other things that make this happen, like regenerative breaking, but I'll let you read about them here.

The second premise is an unsourced statistic that says that most people only drive 20 miles a day. Now, I probably drive a little

less than that during the week to and from work. For this type of driving, it was proposed that you plug your car into the electrical outlet in your garage and during your commute, you would only use a charged battery. Now this idea came around during the
late 90's and failed for a couple of reasons. First of all, people thought that all it would do would be to run up your home electrical bill. Secondly, it just didn't seem like you could get all that far on a battery. And the third point was that it didn't seem logical that you could get the power and performance out of a battery driven automobile. And I will concede those points.

The third part of the puzzle was what is called E85 and Flexible Fuel
. Flexible fuel vehicles are those which can not only burn gasoline, but also Ethanol based fuels. It costs about another $100 to make your car capable of using Ethanol.

Ethanol is an alcohol that is derived from starches, mostly corn. Currently, there is an Ethanol fuel that is available in the Midwest (they had to do something with all that corn) that is 85% Ethanol and 15% gasoline. The name? E85 (they not only grow corn in the Midwest, but they are clever with their naming conventions too). Cars that have the Flexible Fuel tank and lines can use both

regular gasoline, as well as E85. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference to the car. In fact, E85 burns cleaner than gasoline because is has a higher oxygen component.

Now, the 500 miles per gallon of gasoline figure comes from the idea that if you use hybrid technology (which gets you a higher mpg because part of your distance uses battery), plus the plug in feature, plus using E85 (which only uses 15% of the gasoline that gas does), you will get this amazing distance out of a gallon of gas.

The biggest problem with this concept is that you are not getting 500 miles per gallon of fuel. So people shouldn't expect to put $2.00 of E85 into their tank every other week and expect to be fine. It just wonꊰ happen. But what would happen is that you would be using less petroleum based fuels (you know, like oil, which is located in a pretty crappy part of the world).

So I had to ask myself, how much would a gallon of E85 cost in comparison to regular 87?? Well, I did the research so you don't have to.

I called a couple of service stations that carry E85 and asked them the prices for a gallon of each:

FairFax Mobil Mart
Fairfax, MN
E85: $1.79
R87: $1.90

Phillips 66
Rockford, IL
E85- $2.01
R87- $2.09

Hillard, OH
E85- $2.15
R87- $2.15

In each of these stations, the price of E85 either matched or beat the price of Regular 87 Octane. Not too shabby. And before you start complaining that I am cooking the books, feel free to look up any of those stations if you wish.

Now, I don't have much faith in Americans plugging in their cars at night. But I do have faith in both hybrid technology and E85. If there was a major push by not only the Administration, but that American consumer as well, we could slowly start to diminish the amount of petroleum needed to be imported on a daily basis to get us where we need to be (which for me is either work, the beach or the bar).

500 miles per gallon of gas? I don't see it as a commonplace thing. I think that with current hybrid technology, you could only push it to about 100 miles per gallon of gas. But if it were to only cost me $100 to have the option on my new car, I would consider it.

For more information on the project to make this reality, visit the obviously biased link here (pdf).

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