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Monday, May 29, 2006

Plug-in Hybrids Ready for Mass Production in 18 months? 'Yes!' says Lead Transportation Researcher

In an article in today's Chicago Sun Times, Don Hillebrand, the director of Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Transportation Research said that with a concerted effort to solve the "battery problems" plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) could be ready for mass production in 18 months.

Additionally, of all the alternative transportation fuels and vehicles Hillebrand and the CTL has explored, he says he's "most excited about its potential to play a lead role among the national labs in developing plug-in hybrids."

Argonne National Labs is located in the suburbs of Chicago (in Argonne, IL) and is home to the Center for Transportation Research, one of the nation's most productive national labs focusing on alternative transportation research. [The CTL developed the GREET model which I utilized for my thesis research and has published a number of excellent documents comparing the full fuel and vehicle cycles of dozens of alternative transportation fuels and vehicles).

The text of the article (by Tara Burghart of the Associated Press) is below:

It's like a giant rolling Erector Set -- for engineers who really like to play around with automotive components.

Formally called the Mobile Automotive Technology Testbed, the bare-bones chassis plays a vital role in Argonne National Laboratory's research into new ways to power vehicles.

One day, the engineers can test how an electric motor performs with a gasoline-powered engine and a manual transmission. The next day they can substitute an engine fueled by hydrogen. Soon, they intend to place giant batteries on the testbed's rear platform to research a plug-in hybrid vehicle that could increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions.

Argonne -- located in the far west suburbs and one of the U.S. Energy Department's largest research centers -- is just one of the dozens of national labs, private companies, universities and automaker research facilities around the country working on such projects.

Previous home to nuke research

The building where the testbed is housed illustrates the nation's changing priorities. The structure previously was used for research into magnets necessary for use in nuclear reactors. When that work ended in the 1970s, the building sat empty for years.

Now, it's devoted to the lab's Center for Transportation Research, where -- among other projects -- the staff is working to develop, test or perfect vehicles that can run on everything from ethanol to hydrogen, methanol to wood chips.

"You can almost see the transition in the country's needs," said Don Hillebrand, the center's director.

'A lot of alternatives' to oil

Hillebrand says he's confident the nation can move away from its dependence on foreign oil, but thinks the solution lies in a combination of new options, not one single answer.

"We are the Saudi Arabia of coal, because we've got all the coal we want. We're the Saudi Arabia of shale oil, tar sands, biofuels . . . solar, wind," Hillebrand said. "The U.S. has got substantial carriers of fuel and energy supplies. The problem the U.S. has is they're not oil; they're in different forms.

"So what our research is really focusing on is giving the U.S. alternatives to just using oil, and there are a lot of alternatives."

Hydrogen fuel cells are often mentioned as one of the most promising. The fuel cell would use hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water as the byproduct.

Although Argonne has done work on fuel cells and similar futuristic technologies, Hillebrand says he is most excited about its potential to play a lead role among the national labs in developing plug-in hybrids.

A standard hybrid such as the Toyota Prius uses an electric motor, a small battery and a gasoline motor. With a plug-in hybrid, the small battery is replaced by much bigger battery packs that can be recharged through a standard 120-volt outlet.

With such a car, a driver could travel the first 10, 20 or even 40 miles of a trip on battery power before the vehicle would switch to the gasoline engine, Hillebrand says.

"You've now just, for most people, eliminated . . . half of all the oil they use," he said.

Mass production in 18 months?

Drawbacks remain. Owning a plug-in hybrid would be a challenge for anyone who does not live in a single-family home with a garage or carport and a readily available outlet.

Before the plug-in hybrid could hit the road in mass numbers, the batteries would likely have to become lighter, less expensive and longer lasting. And there is concern about the capability of the electrical grid to support a nationwide fleet of such vehicles -- although supporters say most would be charged overnight, during off-peak hours for utilities.

With a concerted effort to solve the battery problems, Hillebrand says, plug-in hybrids could be feasible for mass production in 18 months.

Hillebrad and the CTL are about as much of an expert on alternative transportation options as you can get. If they say PHEVs could be ready to go in 18 months, then I'm pretty inclined to believe them ... so when are automakers going to figure it out?

If our president was serious about ending America's 'addiction to oil' than he'd be in serious negotiations with the American auto industry to provide adequate incentives and private-public partnerships to help Ford and GM get the first plug-ins to market by the end of this decade if not sooner (plug-ins in 2009 model year anyone?!).

Helping Detroit leapfrog the competition and bring PHEVs to market could help breath new life back into the dying U.S. auto industry. Additionally, with gas prices above $3.00 a gallon coupled with what could easily be a strong marketing campaing to cast purchasing and driving a PHEV as part of our patriotic duty to strengthen the U.S., build our economy and end our reliance on foreign oil, I think adequate consumer demand would be ready to support a growing and sustained market for PHEVs.

PHEVs are by far our best hope in the near-term (and 18 months is certainly near-term) to dramatically reduce our oil consumption. PHEVs fueled with cellulosic ethanol could provide the mid-term (~15-35 years away) solution, while development and commercialization of PHEVs would help spur the development of and build the production system for all-electric vehicles at around that point as well. The electric-biofuels path could look something like this then:

  • Before 2010: Several PHEV models hit the market and begin to increase market share with strong support from the government (as they represent a way to shift our transport energy demand to domestically available sources of electricity).

  • By 2025: PHEVs have gained a large market share (>80%?) as between 2010 and 2025, the composition of the light duty transport fleet will have almost entirely rolled over. Many of these PHEVs are flex-fuel capable and are fueled with E85 from cellulosic biomass. The remainder all use an E10 blend that is standard for all gasoline. All-electric vehicles with ranges over 100 miles are also on the market and have a small (~10%) market share. Imported oil demand has been slashed and total oil consumption has fallen below peak levels. If we were smart, the increased electricity demand has been met largely with renewables (with some clean coal and perhaps nuclear plants making up the rest). Even if the electricity mix simply grows with the same composition it has now, PHEVs will reduce petroleum and fossil energy use and emissions of greenhouse gases and nearly all criteria pollutants (exceptions being SOx and PM10).

  • After 2025: PHEVs with larger and larger electric ranges are being built as battery technology advances and gets cheaper and lighter. More EVs are sold and their ranges increase as well. Carbon-based nanoengineered ultracapacitors begin to replace lithium-ion batteries as the standard PHEV and EV energy storage system as they offer enormous power densities and now have energy densities equivalent to Li ion. Using carbon-based ultracaps eliminates the last concern about material availability for batteries (i.e. Li for Li ion batteries). Eventually, EVs have suitable range and quick enough charge times that you can 'top off' the charge on the road if you need to and the need for liquid fuels can nearly dissapear.

  • Of course, this is all pretty vague and hypothetical, but I don't think its too unlikely. Compare this to the comperable hydrogen fuel cell vehicle timeline:

  • By 2010: Honda has one very high priced FCV on the market (the FCX). Sales are in the double digits per month and make no noticable impact on national oil consumption

  • By 2025: A few automakers offer FCVs but sales are slow because the infrastructure to fuel them still needs to be developed. Fuel better not come from electrolysis of water using the US electricity mix because that ends up being far worse in terms of fossil energy use and GHGs (and several criteria pollutants) than using gasoline or diesel. Hybrids continue to have stronger sales than FCVs and hybrids and diesels make a larger impact on oil consumption than FCVs.

  • After 2025: Time's up ... we're out of oil and screwed ...

  • OK, that's of course a bit pessimistic, but I also don't think its too unlikely. The main point of the comparison is that PHEVs are ready now (or in 18 months which is basically now) while FCVs won't be ready for at least another decade and then will suffer 'chicken-and-the-egg' issues regarding infrastructure that PHEVs won't have to worry about (at least on the same magnitude - at some point the grid will need to be reinforced, but this is nowhere near as large an undertaking as building an entirely new transmission infrastructure for hydrogen).

    Its time to start the chant: "I want my ... I want my ... I want my PHEV" (Think Dire Straits, "Money for Nothing")

    [A hat tip to After Gutenberg for the article]

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