Driving Away From Oil

/ by Ted O'Callahan /

Auto show offers a bounty of green alternatives

The biodiesel/electric hybrid Ford Reflex   Courtesy of Ford

The desire to reduce dependence on oil, while keeping cars on the road, is driving the automotive industry in several directions.

For one, hybrids are starting to hit the mainstream—at least that’s what manufacturers seem to be betting on. Nissan, Mazda, GM, Toyota and BMW are introducing hybrid models at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which runs from January 14th to 22nd.

So, what’s on offer?

Honda announced that the no-emissions, hydrogen-powered FCX will begin production in the next three to four years. Their V Flow cell stack will put out 100 kW of power, running three motors—an 80 kW one under the hood and a 25 kW motor on each rear wheel. Honda believes it can use a newly-developed hydrogen tank to double fuel capacity and extend the car’s range to 560 km (350 mi) before refueling. Honda is also moving ahead on a natural gas-powered home energy station that would provide households with heat and electricity, along with hydrogen storage for refilling the car.

PSA Peugeot Citroen announced its new hydrogen fuel cell, which, at roughly the size of a hefty suitcase, provides 80 kW of power. It’s the smallest cell available thus far, but is still too large for a car. The company will plans to use the modular fuel cell stack in urban delivery vehicles before integrating the cells into electric vehicles (as a range extender). The current cell can run a vehicle for 500 km (310 mi).

According to a Reuter’s report, even while making the announcement about the fuel cell, Peugeot Chairman Jean-Marie Folz acknowledged that using diesel engines is the best way to reduce fuel consumption in the short term. Folz dismissed hybrid engines, saying they “serve no interest whatsoever in industrialized countries” because they are less efficient than diesel ones. New standards from the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that Folz is correct, and that diesel is ready for a big new push in the American market. Diesel fuel with much-reduced sulfur content will phase in this year in the US, and DaimlerChrysler is ready to take advantage.

The US’s third-ranked auto maker says its Bluetec engine will be the cleanest diesel in the world, able to meet emissions standards in all 50 states. Seeking to shake diesel’s image as dirty and short on power, Bluetec is slated to first appear in the higher-performance Mercedes line. DaimlerChrysler promises powerful, clean, fuel-efficient vehicles in all classes, including SUVs.

The primary issues with diesel-vehicle emissions are particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. Bluetec works by optimizing engine combustion to minimize emissions. A new filter eliminates particulate emissions by as much as 98%, and an advanced catalytic converter breaks down nitrogen oxides. Bluetec diesel technology will be available in the US in fall 2006, appearing in the Mercedes E320 sedan.

The hydrogen fuel cell-powered Honda FCX Courtesy of Honda

Although we have the technology needed to make a commercial biodiesel/electric hybrid car, nobody has attempted it. Ford has taken a long drive down that road by announcing the Reflex, a sporty compact concept car that has a diesel hybrid engine, designed to get 65 mpg and go zero-to-60 in under seven seconds. The top of the Reflex will be lined with solar panels, used to help charge its hybrid electric battery, and the car be equipped with fans that cool its interior while it’s parked.

But Ford isn’t putting all its money in the diesel camp. They also announced the F-250 Super Chief concept pickup. It is a flexible-fuel vehicle that can run on hydrogen, gasoline or E85, a biofuel made up of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.

The auto industry is also revisiting ethanol. Gasoline blended with 5% to 10% ethanol, typically distilled from corn, can be safely used in any vehicle.  There are an estimated four-million flexible fuel vehicles on the roads in the US today that can run on regular gasoline as well as high-ethanol blends.

The efficiency of ethanol has been debated for quite some time. Because ethanol comes from agricultural crops, accurate measures of energy efficiency must take into consideration the petroleum products used in farming. However, from field to wheels, using a 10% ethanol blend can reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 1%. E85 obtains a 19% reduction. 

E85 can be found at some 500 stations across the country. Up to this point, flex-fuel vehicles have typically been heavy-duty trucks. But Saab has announced an E85-burning version of its top-of-the-line 9-5 Aero wagon.

From ethanol to hydrogen, car manufacturers have myriad choices and schemes for future fuels. The Auto Show offers a gauge as to how companies will proceed. But consumer demand will, ultimately, tell car-makers which way to drive.

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Originally published January 16, 2006

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