Junior Ganymede
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Electric Cars

August 25th, 2009 by Adam G.

An interesting article in the New Yorker about Tesla motors and the new wave of hybrids and electric cars coming down the product development pike. As the writer points out, some bugs still need to be worked out.

Electricity comes from somewhere, and so does the nasty stuff used to make the batteries, so I’ve always been sceptical of the benefits of electric cars, though certainly you can make a good case for the public interest in research into better, smaller, cheaper batteries.

However, when it comes to weaning us off our dependence on oil, this has always struck me as a far sounder bet.

Comments (16)
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August 25th, 2009 08:44:48
16 comments

Jacob Greenwood
August 27, 2009

I disagree. Ethanol is certainly cheaper than electric cars right now, but I don’t think ethanol can scale up volumwise to take the place of oil the way electric can. I remember all kinds of articles last summer about how ethanol was driving the price of corn up and demonstrations in Mexico and elsewhere. As for his suggestion that the third world can increase their agricultural output – that would require a new colonialism IMO. Consider South Africa whose once highly profitable agricultural sector has been gutted by demagogue politics. The third world is often poor, not because of trade restrictions by the first but because of political instability and klepticism. United Alcohols anybody? Finally ethanol is not as easy to transport as petro. We would have to replace our pipelines to handle ethanol. The grass->alcohol talked about seems a long shot to me – there are several technical hurdles that have yet to be solved. Worth investing in but we shouldn’t base our plans on it being cost-effective.
Electric can be scaled up as N. America has large reserves of coal and natural gas not to mention sunshine. Our electric grid will need to be beefed up greatly – but not completely replaced.
I think a better strategy is to think of ethanol as a fuel that will gain some market share (near agricultural regions, coastal cities) and electric elsewhere.
Here in NM, far from Iowa or supertankers but close to natural gas and with lots of sun, electric cars seem to be the future.
In any case, in a world without cheap oil, we are going to be a lot poorer.


Adam Greenwood
August 27, 2009

The killer app of flex-fuel vehicles is actually their ability to take methanol, which has lots of production advantages that ethanol doesn’t (it can VERY easily be made from natural gas, e.g.).

And, actually, methanol can be made from air and/or coal if you have cheap enough electricity.

I guess my point is that the problem we have is the internal combustion engine and liquid fuels are a much more efficient and matureway to use energy for transport than batteries are. Plus much of the infrastructure is already in place. Battery research should continue, but at this time I think direct subsidies and social pressures are out of place.


Jacob Greenwood
August 27, 2009

Also, agriculture in the US is heavily dependent on aquifers. Heavy ethanol production will hasten the day when they run dry. Still decades away but…
If I am wrong, look for brazil to become a world power and the US to decline to a world power.
Finally, I predict electic cars will be built, not to wear out in 10-15 years but to last 30-50 years. Perhaps just the chassis and motor though, with the structure and cabin being replaced on a regular basis. Once this is established practice the high cost of electric cars will go down. They will still probably need batteries replaced on a regular basis.


Vader
August 27, 2009

I agree with Adam. Electricity has its advantages, but for mobile technology liquid fuel has serious advantages as well.

I think it makes sense to increase our nuclear power generation capacity to beyond baseline, and use the excess capacity away from peak to generate hydrogen with which to produce synthetic petroleum from coal.


Jacob Greenwood
August 27, 2009

Ah, methanol. Not ethanol. I forget, does methanol also have the same problems with corrosion that ethanol does?
As I recall his minimum recommendation – mandate all new cars be flex fuel seemed to be prudent as it was not expensive.
Also, is there methanol so being produced and used currently? If not why not? Are there any start ups trying to do that? Finally, I am under the impression that the corn lobby has a disproprotionate influence over this, how do they factor into a methanol economy?


Jacob Greenwood
August 27, 2009

Electric is not at all viable for distances longer than 50 miles. I have seen electric enthusiasts than have a commuter car that runs off of battery and is recharged nightly. For longer distances they tow a generator behind them which recharges the battery as is is depleted. The genetor is more efficient than direct combustion engine – drivetrain because it can run at constant RPM/horsepower and doesn’t need to vary for speeds/grade. Thus it gets higher MPG on a long trip than a regular car.
Still, the question is wether or not replacing batteries is cost effective in comparison.
As for the argument that we have a lot of experience with combustion engines – we also have a lot of experience with electric motors – just not in electric cars.
The infrastructure argument depends on wether methanol is more corrosive than gas or not. Ethanol, mixes easily with water so our infrastructure would need to be made resistant to water corrosion or made so that water does not ever get into it.


Jacob Greenwood
August 27, 2009

Sorry the last link should have been:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol_fuel

It seems to be corrosive as well, although the article thinks that additives may solve that problem with minimal effort.
It seems methanol is currently recieving goverment support in Brazil, the last american program having been terminated in 2005. The main article also says methanol is used as a transportation fuel in china but does not elaborate.


bookslinger
August 27, 2009

Two things coming up:
1) ethanol does not have to come from corn. “cellulosic ethanol” can come from what’s left over after you squeeze the juice out of sugar-cane. Brazil, and any wet tropical land, can produce mucho cellulosic alcohol, and at much cheaper rates than corn-sourced ethanol. Even factoring in transportation costs, it’s cheaper to import cellulosic ethanol from Brazil than it is to make it out of corn in the US.

2) Brazil discovered huge oil reserves off their coast, bigger than the Saudi Arabian peninsula’s oil reserves. Only trouble is, it’s in very deep water, and new drilling technology needs to be made to get to it. Over a hundred years’ worth of oil for the whole planet are there.


John Mansfield
August 27, 2009

If ethanol consumption as fuel ever takes off, I expect most of it will be produced by oil. From Industrial Organic Chemicals by Wttcoff, Reuben, and Plotkin, page 136:

“Until about 1950, ethylene was expensive and was obtained from frementation ethanol by dehydration—the reverse of the above processes [catalyzed ethylene hydration to produce ethanol]. With the advent of cheap ethylene from steam cracking, the petrochemical route to ethanol became more economical than fermentation. By the early 1970s, scarcely any industrial ethanol was made by fermentation in the United States, although there was a legal requirement in most countries that potable ethanol be made in the traditional way.

“In the United States in the 1980s, this trend was reversed when government subsidies were introduced to facilitate the production of ethanol by fermentation of corn starch.”


Vader
August 27, 2009

Ethanol can be made potable?


John Mansfield
August 27, 2009

Just to emphasis my last point, corn isn’t just more expensive than oil for producing car fuel. It’s more expensive than oil simply as a source of ethanol.


Adam Greenwood
August 28, 2009

True. Much of the economic problems with ethanol are really problems with corn-based ethanol.

Jacob,
I guess my point is that electric motors for transportation is a technology that has yet to be developed, whereas flex-fuel combustion engines that can take ethanol, gasoline, or methanol already exists and only cost a few hundred dollars more to manufacture than gasoline engines, though if you add in their replacement cycle the real cost might be greater, I don’t know.


Bookslinger
August 28, 2009

John, your use of the word “just” is confusing, because your second sentence contradicts the first.

Literally, your first sentence implies “corn _is_ more expensive than oil for producing car fuel, but there are _additional_ reasons corn is more expensive than oil.”

Did you mean to say:
“Just to emphasis my last point, corn isn’t more expensive than oil when producing car fuel. It’s only more expensive than oil when used as a source of ethanol.”
IE: oil-ethanol is cheaper than corn-ethanol which is cheaper than gasoline.

Or did you mean to say:
“Just to emphasis my last point, corn is not only more expensive than oil for producing car fuel. It’s also more expensive than oil when used as a source of ethanol” ? IE, corn ethanol is more expensive than _both_ gasoline and oil-produced ethanol.)


Bookslinger
August 28, 2009

And what about cellulosic-ethanol (comes from sugar cane after juice is removed)? That is much cheaper than corn-ethanol, but what’s the relationship to gasoline?


Jacob Greenwood
August 28, 2009

Mandating all new cars be flex fuel certainly seems reasonable step to take right now.
I would even support a pilot project that has a methanol plant in gas region and a methanol pipeline to a nearby urban center to see how pipelines would handle methanol and how they would need to be upgraded.
However, between global warming fears and the corn lobby, I don’t see how such a project would happen in the United States.

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