How Cars Can Help Solve the Energy Crisis

Imagine if the torpid design studios in Detroit suddenly came abuzz with exciting futuristic designs that treated the world's precious hydrocarbons like newspapers or beer cans.

Published: 15-Dec-2008

IMAGINE IF it were possible to recycle energy, just as we do bottles and newspapers. Well, it is, and hybrid cars are the proof. They are the key to making significant reductions in our fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas production, and are therefore the future of American transportation.

We have worked for many years building a worldwide infrastructure to recycle bottles, cans, newspapers, cars - almost anything - except energy. If the very existence of our society rests on energy, why do we make no effort to recycle it? Hybrids are, in fact, the only drive system that allows the kinetic energy of motion to be recycled for future reuse.

How does this work, and why is it so important? As basic physics tells us, energy is required to get a vehicle moving. In conventional vehicles, that energy comes from petroleum, which is converted into kinetic energy by a combustion engine. However, in order for the vehicle to stop, it must then dump this kinetic energy as waste heat generated by the brakes - an extravagant process that repeats itself over and over countless times, day in, day out. And this waste of energy is acceptable?

With a hybrid, the car's motion is instead slowed by the braking action of its electric motor as it converts the kinetic energy into electrical energy, which is stored in the battery. When the car starts back up, this stored energy is converted by the electric motor back to kinetic energy. This process repeats itself over and over, subject only to the efficiency of the recycling process. Aggressively applied, this means we could reduce our transportation energy consumption by 75 percent just by recycling.

All vehicles should therefore be required to have the capability to recycle energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency should institute a rating system that measures each vehicle's effectiveness in doing it. This would be similar to the current mileage rating system, but much more useful.

This recycling rating system could also be used to direct government research grants to automakers. Instead of giving loans for research that may have no significant benefit, we should instead use a research and development tax credit system based on recycling efficiency: cars that recycle, say, 20 percent of their kinetic energy would receive tax credits of $10 million; cars that recycle 40 percent would receive double the credits, or $20 million, and so on.

Notice that I have mentioned neither miles-per-gallon standards nor vehicle weight. These two metrics will resolve themselves if energy recycling alone is the mandate.

How might this play out? Initially, car companies will rush to add hybrid drives to their existing fleet of cars - partly to preserve profitable lines, partly to claim "green" status, and partly to get free research money. They'll try to produce large hybrid SUVs, but the engineers won't be able to achieve recycling percentages much over 10-15 percent because slowing a behemoth SUV creates too high recharge currents for a battery to absorb. They would then scramble to find ways to reduce weight, so as to increase the energy recycled: how simple the problem would be if the car weighed 1,000 pounds instead of 6,000! They could achieve recycling percentages of 50-75 percent with much less effort and expense. They'd also see that strong, lightweight cars can be very safe indeed - more so than current designs. And the cars would get 80-100 miles per gallon routinely - some much more. In addition, lighter cars require much less energy to produce.

This is not fantasy: My hybrid uses 10-year-old technology and averages 70 miles per gallon. In 1999, the Rocky Mountain Institute designed a practical, ultrastrong, ultralight car. Students in Dartmouth's Thayer School Formula Hybrid program are having a great time building hybrid race cars. Imagine if the torpid design studios in Detroit suddenly came abuzz with exciting futuristic designs that treated the world's precious hydrocarbons like newspapers or beer cans. They would create exciting new jobs in a field that has worldwide appeal. And maybe, just maybe, we could save the planet while we're at it.

Chris Yule is president of Yule Development Co. in Newton Center

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