Enigma Hybrid-electric sports car
Using a diesel engine in combination with an electric-drive is, in Burn's view, a win-win for the consumer and the environment, especially if the fuel is biodiesel.

It's An ENIGMA - Part 2

Interview with SDSU's Professor Jim Burns.

By Josh Landess

To Part 1

Why Diesel?
EVW: How important was the biodiesel angle in your thinking?

JB: Well, we always expected that we would be using biodiesel for the diesel engine component. Remember, our goal was to do what the Big Three couldn't do and that was to hit the eighty mile-per-gallon barrier. Single-mindedly, it had to be a fun-to-drive-car that got eighty miles to a gallon. Anything else was not going to fly with us.

So add to that, that the most fuel efficient engine technologies in the world are diesel and you're going to say I don't like that necessarily, but I can ameliorate the difficulties by going to biodiesel. So it was always a strategy. It's just that in the short term we had to make sure we got our technical goals or it wouldn't matter. "Oh they have a nice biodiesel car that gets sixty." Who's going to care? Eighty is the magic number.

EVW: Okay, but if you'll allow me to play devil's advocate here for a second...

JB: By all means.

EVW: When I read articles discussing attempts to progress towards the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle, they always emphasized that it wasn't just a seventy or eighty mile per gallon vehicle but one that met absolutely or virtually all of the consumer's present demands for four doors and luxury and power and range. And I think since you've taken advantage of the whole small sports car power to weight angle, realistically if we took your drivetrain approach and put it into a larger vehicle, would you be hitting say fifty or sixty miles per gallon or something along those lines?

JB: It's a good question. On the road, on the highway I don't suspect that a larger car is going to be that much more of a burden. Because aerodynamically if you took a Taurus it's going to be much better than this car, an open top, you know, open side vehicle like this. If you look at different tires, lower rolling resistance.

The only thing we have against us with changing to a sedan is that it might be a little heavier. And so, you know, the rolling resistance a the multiple of the weight. So, I'm suspecting that on the highway that this is still going to do a very, very good job.

EVW: Since diesel has more BTU per gallon, ...

JB: Thirteen percent more energy per pound, right.

EVW: ...I've always thought of it in a way, sort of as cheating.

JB: [laughing] And yet it's always about fifteen or twenty percent cheaper than gasoline except for lately of course with the artificial manipulation. The main reason is that for every barrel of crude oil that's refined there's two gallons of diesel produced for every gallon of gasoline. Commodity-wise it's always going to be cheaper that way.

EVW: When they produce a gallon of gasoline from that barrel of oil, did they not also take out several other useful chemicals that are not produced when they go towards diesel? I don't know the facts on that.

JB: If you look at the stream, gasoline comes out, diesel comes out, paraffin comes out. There's a number of other products. But the ratios in the current methods of production are two to one. So it's always going to be more plentiful. If you're looking at supply-side price determinants, diesel by itself is always going to be cheaper.

EVW: I've always had this question: If I'm at a refinery and I have decision making process, if I choose to make gasoline out of a barrel of oil...

JB: You don't get that choice. You don't get to say I want, you know, 99.8 % of this to be gasoline. Because the economics of it are such that you're fractionating it into whatever is energetically most favored to be produced in the reactions that occur.

And as a result you get a certain fraction of this, a certain fraction of that. You can make it favor one or the other a little bit, but you can't make it all one or all the other.

You can take diesel fuel and crack it and do other various catalytic activities on it and make it into a synthetic gasoline. They were just doing it with low grade stocks in World War II; the Germans were making synthetic gasoline from very low-end stock. But you have to work at it. You have to supply a lot of energy. The current economically viable processes, the ones that people have paid for and run for thirty-five, forty years, they produce this particular mixture of end products.


EVW: I'm a fan of biofuels, but it never seems possible to do an entirely renewable gallon of energy. It seems like there's almost always some petroleum content.

JB: Likely. And this is philosophically a problem that I've had with the entire industry and in many people's thinking. And that is that there is a pure solution to this. "We're going to run pure electric cars, powered by the sun." -- It's not going to happen. But pick out the tools that are already available that you've already paid, and for a great price. And even if they have drawbacks, use them sparingly.

EVW: You can take an evolutionary approach to our various vehicle efforts rather than revolutionary....

JB: And if revolutions are possible that's wonderful, but if you'd rather spend twenty years thinking about it than building it, that's really the impetus behind this car; it's that the technology existed. We want to force people to realize that there's just an inertia to trying to make a difference. Let's put some things out there on the road that have a real shot at meeting the goals and then develop them into other quantities, other technologies that will meet your other needs.

But first solve the problem in some rational sense to get a solution out there. And this certainly hurts the environment in no great way more than the current infrastructure. In fact if you look at the reduction in greenhouse gases here compared to the slight increase in oxides and nitrogens that people are complaining about for diesel.... And that's without any remediation. If you look at trading off one for the other, it's an absolute win-win situation. A slight amount of oxide and nitrogen increase over the total decrease in CO2 emissions, it's a bargain I'm willing to make.

EVW: That decrease coming because it's a renewable biodiesel or...?

JB: Or simply because it uses less fuel. End of story. I mean, yes, you go to renewable biodiesel and now you're able to make other good arguments. I'm sorry, for me at least, say "It's fine, we're going to have a few more oxides and nitrogen, let's go after cleaning those up instead."

Universities and PNGV

EVW: I think there's a myth out there that building a higher mileage vehicle is a technological challenge that hasn't been solved. The real strange thing that needs to be overcome is that obviously it's not true.

JB: This was your earliest connection we made, that the technology exists. The will to create a new generation of vehicles is predicated on whether there is a profit motive that can be easily sold to upper management. And I think that in our case we had no upper management and we had no reputation to uphold and we were glad to use anybody's technology.

And yet, many universities are still, I wouldn't say they have bought into propagating that myth, but in a sense they are doing it by proxy. This whole PNGV activity called the Future Car Challenge, it always seemed to be a little disingenuous in service to the public because essentially what it was, it was a way for the Detroit auto interests to have universities essentially help them research their own problem.

EVW: I didn't understand why they needed so much federal money, we see car advertisements all the time about all this great research they're doing. And then when it comes to building higher mileage vehicles into their designs, they need billions of government dollars.

JB: And they need to sort of shackle the best minds in academia by starting them from faulty premises, not that all the cars that were delivered to the various schools from the Detroit sponsors were faulty, but certainly in terms of doing something fresh and breaking out of the mold, to start with, again, the Ford Taurus, or I forget what GM car, maybe a Saturn or something that was given around at that time, to start from that presupposes that that was a good place to start.

If you look at Avery Lovin's approach, to start from the ground up and say "hey let's go with the lightest vehicle we can, and let's make choices unique to this kind of technology", it [starting with a Saturn or Ford Taurus] just doesn't seem like what you'd want to do. And yet it was a way to fund programs and get schools involved.

I personally shunned that program simply because we would have started late and been an also-ran, solving the wrong problem. The right problem is let's use the best technology, even if we have to buy it, to go out there and produce a vehicle that can't be claimed it looks like a spaceship or, you know, it's not fast enough or capable enough.

There's always some reason a consumer's going to look at a university offering that doesn't start from scratch and end up with excellence. They're going to look at it and wonder: "OK, well what is it missing?" And I still get that here: "Where's the airbag?" "Where are the anti-lock breaks and things that we've come to expect?" Well those can be added on, but what can't be added on is the extra 20 miles per gallon starting from the wrong premise. I'll do that first and then we'll add all the other stuff and see what happens.

EVW: There's an irony in your several mentions of Lovins' effort. They built the coach that is appropriate for a certain type of power plant. In trying to theorize why the Detroit companies don't want to build electric cars, my perception is that one part of it is maybe they don't want to become coach makers.

JB: And they have a vested interest in maintaining the value production mechanism that they have now. I mean, internal combustion has been making them money for a hundred years. And the methodology and the training and the tooling and the general thought processes around those are hard to replace immediately and make money. I understand that. But at the same time, we as consumers are still not getting what we deserve.

EVW: Yet, Lovins has actually embraced making the coach and the chassis and has sort of left the power plant to see what comes up.

JB: Well, this is my understanding, but it could be that there are other plans I don't know about. But certainly the idea that they seized upon was that the vehicle had to be much lighter, and that technology was not embraced probably as well as it could have been by automakers.

There is a natural brain trust out there from the Reagan era of defense industry in terms of understanding composite materials and lightweight design and so forth. The two came together and produced a wonderful body prototype; maybe it's just a matter of time before there is an appropriate propulsion pack for this.

I also want to give credit to that group for being the genesis of this program. Lovins came here in '95 and gave a lecture to our group, and it was inspiring and far-reaching and made us want to go do this. Some other activities along the way also inspired us, but at the same time, that was kind of the kickoff. I saw myself as a person with composite materials experience and automotive experience as naturally able to contribute here. We found a source for funding and, again, being people with no real allegiances, we didn't know we were going to fail, so we didn't.


Times Article Viewed: 6727
Published: 10-Mar-2002


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