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Hydrogen Cars Research Picks Up Speed

Friday, June 24, 2011

Rice University Mechanical Engineering Professor Boris Yakobson

As gas prices are finally stabilizing, alternative fuel ideas may return to the back burner. But at least one professor is making strides in one of the more elusive energy sources, hydrogen. The key is trapping enough of the gas to meet Department of Energy standards, and storing the energy at temperatures that make every day use viable.

When hydrogen burns in an engine with oxygen the output is pure, clean water. This makes it one of the most carbon neutral fuels to be found, however trapping the hydrogen, as it's quite a dense gas has been the problem. Several prototypes and early model hydrogen cars have been on the roads for a couple decades now, and many automakers are slowly experimenting with the prospect of zero emissions cars, but a method for harnessing hydrogen safely and efficiently enough for mass production has still eludes automakers.

Rice University Mechanical Engineering Professor Boris Yakobson has a fuel cell model that is in the concept phase now, but it exceeds the Department of Energy's specifications. The DOE says at least 6 percent of hydrogen needs to be stored to power a car. Yakobson believes he can harness at least 8 percent using a relatively simple 'grapevine'-like structure. He proposes using a fuel cell based on "a particular form of carbon as a building element. Then in addition to this we can also introduce another element calcium," he says. "Calcium has the special property of attracting hydrogen molecules."

The most important element of this structure is its stability, allowing hydrogen to be stored at higher temperatures. Right now the only way to store hydrogen so it's usable is at sub-zero temperatures. With Yakobson's latest model, temperature would not matter, making it a longer-term viable solution for future hydrogen car manufacturers.

This is just a concept idea from Yakobson and his team but some initial tests show it's a promising option and takes us a step closer to getting longer-lasting hydrogen cars on the road.

For the full story and more on the 'grapevine' structure, listen to the radio version at KUHF.

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Transportation Nation

News Analysis: As Political Climate Shifts, Obama Energy Policy Holds

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

((Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)   At the almost-end of the 2008 presidential primary season -- May, 2008 -- gasoline prices went through the roof , up to $5 a gallon in some areas of the country.  The price hike prompted near-panic, along with car-pooling, more mass transit rides, more careful grocery lists (just one trip to the supermarket) -- and a very big policy debate.

As it happened,  Hillary Clinton, fighting the last days of the primary, got behind a gas tax cut.  Most economists dismissed the idea -- not only would the gas tax cut simply disappear in the rising price of gasoline, they argued, but it would also bankrupt the already broke highway trust fund.

Barack Obama did not get behind the gas tax cut, even though, as I trailed the two candidates through the rolling hills of Indiana, cutting the gas tax got some of the biggest whoops of any proposals during Hillary Clinton's speeches.  Obama called it a gimmick.

He still thinks so, today.

"We’ve been down this road before," he told an enthusiastic audience of Georgetown University students at a speech (video here) on energy security today. "Remember, it was just three years ago that gas prices topped $4 a gallon. Working folks haven’t forgotten that. It hit a lot of people pretty hard. But it was also the height of political season, so you had a lot of slogans and gimmicks and outraged politicians waving three-point-plans for two-dollar gas – when none of it would really do anything to solve the problem. Imagine that in Washington.

"The truth is, of course, was that all these gimmicks didn’t make a bit of difference. When gas prices finally fell, it was mostly because the global recession led to less demand for oil. Now that the economy is recovering, demand is back up. Add the turmoil in the Middle East, and it’s not surprising oil prices are higher. And every time the price of a barrel of oil on the world market rises by $10, a gallon of gas goes up by about 25 cents."

Indeed, President Barack Obama has had a remarkably consistent position on energy through his campaign and his presidency, even as the political climate has dramatically shifted.

In September of 2008, I was watching Rudy Giuliani give his address to the Republican National Convention with Congressman Peter King.  "Drill, Baby Drill," Giuliani said, as King cringed "we're not supposed to use the 'D-word,' we're supposed to say 'explore.'"  Still - the genie was out of the bottle. The crowd roared when Giuliani said that, and when Sarah Palin picked up the refrain during her acceptance of the Vice Presidential nomination later during the Minneapolis convention.

But despite the popularity of that slogan, talking about developing solutions to climate change and oil dependency was, in those days, a much more bi-partisan issue than it has since become.   Just two years later, In the elections of 2010, several Republicans won by practically spitting when mentioning Democratic support for what they called "cap and trade" legislation.

But Barack Obama?  In 2008, he supported a combination of nuclear power, alternative energy, and mass transit use.  Today?  He supports a combination of nuclear power, alternative energy, domestic oil drilling (the "Drill,Baby, Drill) part of his policy, and mass transit use.

"Seventy percent of our petroleum use goes to transportation," he said today."Seventy percent."

His speech today (full text here) made a careful argument.  We must, he posited, reduce oil consumption by a third in a decade.  To get there, he proposed, first, the US must exploit its own supplies -- "as long as it's safe and responsible."

"When it comes to drilling onshore,"  he added, in a line of argument that might surprise some of his 2008 primary voters -- "my Administration approved more than two permits last year for every new well that the industry started to drill.  So any claim that my Administration is responsible for gas prices because we’ve “shut down” oil production might make for a useful political sound bite – but it doesn’t track with reality.

And, then, in an adroit Obama-esque intellectual maneuver, he added "But let’s be honest – it’s not the long-term solution to our energy challenge.  America holds only about two percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.  And even if we drilled every drop of oil out of every one of those reserves, it still wouldn’t be enough to meet our long-term needs."

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Transportation Nation

Obama: Cut Oil Imports by a Third in the Next Decade

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

(File Photo: Getty Images)

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) President Obama is vowing the U.S. will cut oil consumption by a third in the next decade.  Speaking before a group at Georgetown University, Obama said:  "So today, I’m setting a new goal: one that is reasonable, achievable, and necessary. When I was elected to this office, America imported 11 million barrels of oil a day. By a little more than a decade from now, we will have cut that by one-third."

To achieve this, Obama said, he would take several measures:  continue to expand domestic drilling, pursuing increased natural gas drilling while ensuring it didn't endanger oil supplies, and, as he put it, keeping nuclear power "on the table," because he said, nuclear power doesn't produce carbon.  But he said that must be done safely.

His biggest proposals, however, were on the consumption side. By 2015, he said, all federal cars purchased will be hybrid or electric.

"The fleet of cars and trucks we use in the federal government is one of the largest in the country.  That’s why we’ve already doubled the number of alternative vehicles in the federal fleet, and that’s why, today, I am directing agencies to purchase 100% alternative fuel, hybrid, or electric vehicles by 2015.  And going forward, we’ll partner with private companies that want to upgrade their large fleets."

Obama noted that even if the US were to drill "every drop" of U.S. oil, US oil only accounts for 2 percent of the world supply, while the US consumes 25 percent of the oil.  He also pointed out that 70 percent of US petroleum consumption comes from the transportation sector.

Most of the oil consumption part of the speech focused on alternative-fueled personal and commercial vehicles, but he did make reference to increasing mass transit options: " We’ve also made historic investments in high-speed rail and mass transit, because part of making our transportation sector cleaner and more efficient involves offering Americans – urban, suburban, and rural – the choice to be mobile without having to get in a car and pay for gas."

The administration has invested about $11 billion in high speed rail, and wants to spend more than $50 billion more.

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