Burn's Biodiesel Sexpot
By Bill Moore
My interview with Jim Burns, the San Diego State University professor who has championed the cause of sustainable mobility for years, almost didn't happen.
Ironically, he was stuck in one of those notorious Southern California traffic jams; this one caused by an jackknifed fuel tanker, which fortunately appeared to him, at least, to be empty, though HazMat crews were on hand to deal with any potential spill.
It is about the more efficient use of fuel in general, and biodiesel in particular, that was the reason for my call. Burns and his engineering students are organizing the "Spirit of LIndbergh Freedom Drive" to publicly demonstrate that it's possible to get dramatic improvements in energy efficiency in a high-powered vehicle while burning a 100 percent renewable fuel; biodiesel in this case.
"Most of the (hybrid vehicle) offerings out there, except for a few coming out from European manufacturers of small SUVs, are typically in a power range that doesn't excite or motivate mainstream drivers who want to have them in their larger vehicles," Burns told me. He explained that he and his students are planning to demonstrate this with their L3 Enigma, a 260 hp, plug-in diesel-hybrid sports car, which sports a single 34 gallon fuel tank.
I first saw the L3 when Burns and a fellow faculty member showed up at the California Fuel Cell Partnership facility in West Sacramento back in the fall of 2001. The event, which was part of the then-EVAA's annual conference, was meant to showcase hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology. As you might expect, a biodiesel hybrid making an unannounced or approved visit to the Ride & Drive event wasn't particularly appreciated, but that didn't stop Burns from taking me aside and explaining to me his vehicle, which is a mid-engine, carbon-fiber sports car mounted on a tubural steel frame.
"We showed up at this signature event for fuel cells," he explained, "because, frankly I felt and many other people out there feel as well, that hybrid technology is getting very short changed in the marketplace, except for some of the Japanese automakers. So, we wanted to come out and make a presence there in a way that was utterly unique and different and get people to notice that there are solutions out there that may be a lot nearer term and more practical for implementation in American society than hydrogen is right now".
The car is a parallel hybrid similar in concept to Toyota's Synergy Hybrid Drive, but with dramatically more electrically-produced horsepower from the car's 200 hp AC Propulsion drive system, which is much more than is delivered by the small, 3-cylinder, 1.2 liter VW TDi diesel engine rated at 61 bhp.
But the L3 also has a couple added "wrinkles".
"We've added a couple of unique twists", Burns told me. "We have a lot more energy storage on board in the form of electrochemical battery storage than any of the commercial hybrids. Scientific studies show that increasing the energy storage in terms of electric batteries greatly enhances fuel economy".
The combination of lots of electrochemical storage and high power electric drive translates into blistering performance. Burns calculates the L3 is approaching 4 second, zero-to-sixty acceleration. It's already under 5 seconds, despite weighing 2,900 pounds with its full complement of lead-acid batteries.
All that battery capacity isn't just for the drag strip. The L3 is one of a tiny handful of plug-in hybrids, meaning that it can operate for twenty miles at highway speeds on battery power only; the diesel engine doesn't fire up until the car's batteries reach a predetermined state of charge. And unlike some battery electric cars of the late 1990s, the L3 has its charger built in, meaning it can be plugged in anywhere without need for specialized charging equipment. If a grid connection isn't available, the diesel engine will recharge the battery pack automatically.
The L3 team, made up of scores of SDSU engineering students over the last three years, have made significant modifications to the original AC Propulsion drive, converting it from a single drive shaft to the through saft, which allows for different drivetrain configurations. They also improved the electric drive cooling system, which translates into higher peak power output and improved efficiency. Burns sees the spin-off of this effort as not only making the coast-to-coast-on-a-tank-of-fuel drive possible, it also means that the technology can be applied to larger, heavier vehicles. SDSU students have a "Humvee" design being developed on their automotive CAD system. There are also plans afoot to build a 200 mph super car hybrid.
Like most high-performance sports cars, the drive system, both the electric and diesel, are mounted in a "mid-engine" configuration with the rear-wheels being driven. Burns acknowledged that the tubural steel frame and graphite body technology utilized in the L3 isn't particularly well-suited for stamped steel, unibody mass-production, something carmakers are very good at doing. But the L3s approach lets it carry more batteries, which are the heart of the design. Specifics on the layout of the design can be found at www.l3research.com.
Burns pointed out to me that, "we have an aerospace-grade center section of the vehicle that forms a wonderful torque structure, much like a Formula One car, and that section contains the fuel and high-voltage energy sources -- in this case, biofuel, which is very safe anyway -- and also the high-power electronic components are located there under normal operations. That whole section drops out and rolls away for maintainability, but also give the vehicle incredible torsional stiffness for handling. In addition, there's a tubural chassis construction in the back to house the actual propulsion unit".
From Virtual World to the Real
Pro Engineer,a leading CAD software firm chose SDSU to beta test its software several years ago, and the school has gone on to win several awards for its designs. It is this software that enables Burns and his class to fine-tune their designs before ever welding a piece of metal or molding a piece of plastic. He estimates that between 150-200 students have had their lives touched by this project over the last few years, and as many as thirty have gotten what he likes to call, a "high-grade" engineering experience with cutting edge technology.
Translating these virtual designs into the "real" world isn't as easy as it is in the virtual world, Burns admits when I asked him what would happen if carmakers adapted his approach to building a high-performance, high-efficiency vehicle. His answer was that many of the relatively costly, off-the-shelf components that go into the L3 Enigma simply are not "commoditized" enough to make it practical for a mass manufacturer to replicate in quantities need to make a profit; it's the inevitable "chicken 'n egg" conundrum new technology always faces.
"So, we've adjusted our sights", he told me, explaining that some spin-off business opportunities are developing in the 500 +/- vehicle category. He estimates that comparable technology as that found in the L3 would add at least a $12-15,000 premium to the price of a new car, significantly narrowing the market to wealthy, performance-oriented, but, hopefully, also environmental conscious individuals, of which Hollywood seems to have its share.
This situation is likely to chance with the introduction of affordable, high-performance lithium chemistry-based batteries that will be far more amenable to integration into conventional car technology. Where the L3 had to rely on its buttress of welded steel tubing in order to find room for and support the weight of heavy lead-acid batteries, lithium batteries promise the ability to reduce the volume and weight of the battery pack while offering superior energy storage capability that can -- theoretically -- be squeezed into all sorts of nooks and crannies in the car.
Burns also sees utlracapacitors as a potentially promising pathway to volumetrically fitting more energy storage on-board the future cars and trucks.
The Spirit of Lindberg Freedom Drive is planning to schedule the event in conjunction with the July 4, 2005 Independence Day holiday here in America, though much depends on the amount of funding and in-kind support they receive between now and April. The route of travel will take the car, and its support team from San Diego across the southern United States to Jacksonville, Florida, a distance of over 2,400 miles. Burns hopes to have enough fuel on board to then make a couple runs at the Daytona Beach speedway. With a 33 gallon tank, the car will have to turn in 74.24 miles per gallon, a figure Burns seems confident he can achieve using B100, which is straight, 100 percent soybean oil with some minor flow additives mixed in.
While diesels in general are about 30% more efficient than gasoline engines, they do have higher particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions, which has caused the state of California to take a very tough regulatory stance against them. While B100 burns very cleanly compared to petroleum diesel, it does generate slightly higher NOx emissions than straight diesel. Burns said to me that he's looking at a couple of European technologies, one developed by a company called Rhodia EC, to help reduce the NOx problem. As he understands it and as he explained it to me, the company uses a fuel-borne catalyst that cleans out the particulate trap. This enables the engine to run at a slightly richer, cooler fuel-air mixture that produces less NOx.
Burns emphasized that in addition to looking for financial contributions to help fund the drive -- he figures he has just 25 percent of the funds he need -- he is also interested in 'Big Name' sponsorship by firms like Rhodia and Johnson Controls, the latter of whom is supplying him with a newly developed, spiral-wound lead-acid battery that is lighter and more compact than the current set found in the L3. The car will then be in the 400 volt power range with 28 Amp Hours of storage capacity at a C3 rating.
"This is a significantly large, powerful and relatively energy dense battery pack". He estimates it'll weigh between 500-525 pounds.
Besides the engineering challenges of a cross-country excursion in an experimental car, Burns is also wrestling with the logistics and funding. He said that not only does he need funds to pay the expenses of his team on the Freedom Drive from California to Florida.. and back, obviously, he also needs financial help for public relations events at both ends of the trip, as well as along the way. Unlike DaimlerChrysler which kept a very low media profile when it drove its methanol fuel cell NECAR 5 from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., Burns wants to get out the word before, during and after the event, which really puts on the pressure.
Another challenge confronting the Drive is finding an appropriate sanctioning body to oversee the event, to assure it's on the up-and-up and gets into the right record book. So far, Burn's search for that group hasn't gotten much traction, in part, he believes, because the attempt simply don't fit the purview of the group's he's talked to.
"There are plenty of sanctioning bodies and regulatory bodies for all sorts of other motor sport activities, but this is an odd enough activity [that] it's hard to find anyone that wants to be there". Burns urged any EV World listeners/readers who could suggest an appropriate sanctioning or certification group to contact him.
Why No Fuel Cell Enigma?
I asked Burns why he's focused on internal combustion engine hybrids and not fuel cells, especially living in California with its strong commitment to a hydrogen highway?
He immediately replied that, "Hydrogen is not a fuel. Hydrogen is an energy storage medium. There is no free hydrogen floating around out there that you can pull out of the ground or condense out of the air". From his perspective, he believes that business and regulators are ignoring this reality. Hydrogen is best made on site or near the vehicle, he told me, "or you're going to have to have some surrogate, 'real fuel' that's converted to hydrogen on-board your vehicle and deal with the subsequent creation of carbon dioxide, a well-known greenhouse gas and something the rest of the world pays very great attention to [in order] to reduce the effect of industrialization".
Somewhat tongue-in-check, he envisioned people driving fuel cell cars in the future having to deposit their carbon dioxide at the local auto parts story, the way they do their waste motor oil.
"There are some practical issues, at present, not solved by hydrogen. There are some very good people working on that", he continued. "My thoughts and feelings are, we certainly entertain hydrogen where its appropriate and fuel cell technology where its appropriate, but that hybrids are going to be here to stay for a while, and high-power hybrids are the things that make Americans in their thirst for America dream, vision of what car is in their lifestyle, are going to want. I don't think hydrogen can supply the power or the convenience the foreseeable next ten or fifteen years".
Looking beyond the L3 and the Freedom Drive, Burns has plans high-powered hybrids with even more 'Wow' factor including a 400 hp biodiesel version and a 500 hp E-85 ethanol version, what will grab the attention of young buyers and get them to respect and... yes, covet ... hybrid technology.
But Will Americans Get It?
Burns told me that he was ready to do the Freedom Drive last summer, but the funds and support never materialized. And while he's determined to make it happen, he's also prepared to do it only when the necessary resources are in hand. Since last year, he's widened his network of contacts to include the national biodiesel board president, biodiesel companies in California, actress and alternative fuel advocate Daryl Hannah, and he hoping to talk with Willie Nelson, another high-profile biodiesel supporter.
He believes that he can provide the biodiesel fuel movement with the "sexy" image the fuel by itself simply doesn't have. He can offer a high-performance, high-efficiency, low-pollution sports car that can make records and break records. "Face it, fuels in of of themselves, they're not really interesting or sexy to the public. They sit in a bucket and don't do much. But vehicles that can bring out the best attributes of these fuels, that's something new. We feel we have the platform that can help that".
Assuming he gets all the support and funding he needs to make the kind of high profile splash he thinks is needed, his biggest fear is that even then, "people won't get it".
"They still won't understand that the technology has been around for a long time; the will to do it is now there and we demonstrate it...[but] it won't be accepted or adopted by the American public. That's what I most fear."
If you wish to contribute or can suggest potential sponsors for the Freedom Drive, you can contact Dr. Burns directly. His cellphone number is:[ 619] 933 6058. Dan Wolfson contributed to this article.