by Frank Markus
What might have been the biggest tech headline of the year "Technology Investment Saves Auto Industry" didn't quite happen. The Senate shot down the House's $15 billion compromise plan to loan the money that Congress originally appropriated in Section 136 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 for fuel-efficiency technology development to be used as a bridge loan to see GM and Chrysler through the liquidity crisis. But there was plenty of other news being made in the tech arena. Here were my favorite stories of 2008:
1. Cellulosic Ethanol's For Real! Early in the year we reported on Coskata's plans to produce ethanol by superheating any carbon-rich feedstock (corn stalks, wood chips, plastic bottles, tires, etc.) to turn it into carbon-monoxide and hydrogen, then feeding this "syngas" to special microbes that breathe it in and sweat out pure ethanol at an estimated production cost of under $1/gallon. Plans were announced for a demonstration plant to be located at the Westinghouse Plasma Center near Pittsburg, opening in early 2009, followed by a full-scale operation in 2011, but economic woes have appear to have pushed back the timing of the demo plant.
Technologue: Booze Clues
2. Cellulosic Ethanol's REALLY for Real! Then we reported on Mascoma's totally different Consolidated Bioprocessing (CBP) method of breaking down the lignin in various non-food plant materials and fermenting it into ethanol using designer microbes that mimic what happens in a cow's digestive system in breaking down. Production cost is estimated at $1-1.50/gallon, demonstration plants are in the works in Rome, NY and Kinross, MI, with full-scale production targeted at 2011.
GM Partners with Mascoma on Cellulosic Ethanol
3. Cellulose is For Real! The third piece of the puzzle -- economically viable plant materials to feed these ethanol facilities -- came from Ceres. The first bio-engineered high-yield switchgrass and sorghum varietals tailored to suit different climates and ethanol production methods went on sale in December. They boast high-yield density, require little fertilizer and less water than most crops, and they can grow in marginal soil. Keep your fingers crossed that the processing plants get built in time to turn these plants into fuel.
Technologue: Whiter Lightning
4. If not Ethanol, Maybe Methanol? Lotus trotted out a methanol-powered Exige concept car at the Geneva show that encouraged the world to have another look at the world's simplest alcohol. With only one carbon, CH3-OH can be produced more easily than ethanol, so the scientists say. Its high-octane rating would allow engines running on pure methanol to run diesel compression ratios for better output and efficiency. Cold-starting is a problem, but hydrogen generated by using exhaust heat to crack the Hs of the methanol molecule could solve that problem and boost efficiency too. There are even some fuel cells that run directly on methanol.
5. Greenhouse-Gasses-to-Methanol. Imagine turning that CO2 everyone's always moaning about into fuel and driving a mile in someone else's carbon footprint! There are several technologies in the works: big louvered scrubbers coated with sodium hydroxide that absorb CO2 are said to be capable of offsetting coal-generated power equivalent to twice as much as the windmill could generate. Exotic catalysts are in the works that might one use solar energy to mimic the way chlorophyll breaks down CO2, which could then combined with hydrogen split from water, perhaps using sunlight and titanium catalysts. It's tech worth watching.
Technologue: Reusing CO2
6. If Not Alcohol, Maybe Ammonia? Pure NH3 boasts a 110 octane rating and burning it in a combustion engine releases pure nitrogen and water -- no CO2, 'cuz there's no carbon. Ammonia is the second most widely produced chemical, it stores and transports like propane (liquid under light pressure at room temperature) and is already distributed nationwide for use as fertilizer. A slow flame front means you need multiple spark plugs and the engine won't rev all that high, but it could be the perfect way to remove agriculture from the Global Warming debate.
7. What About Electric Power? If vehicle electrification manages to take off like Congress and the environmentalists hope, we're headed for a potential neodymium-supply shortage. This rare-earth metal is used to make permanent-magnet motors. But the Chorus Meshcon electric motor is an AC-induction type motor that manages to deliver the efficient low-end torque of a permanent magnet motor with the light weight, lower cost, and better high-speed performance of an AC induction motor, thanks to a mesh-connected winding that can change the number of magnetic poles and the alternating-current frequency. Look for it next year on the nose-gear of Delta's new Boeing 737s, and on cars in the near future.
Technologue: Flying Hybrids!
8. Race-Ready Hybrids? Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) will be permitted in Formula 1 in 2009, so most teams are reportedly working on "hybridizing" their cars. My favorite was a small flywheel that connected to the transmission's output shaft via an infinitely variable toroidal friction-drive transmission. Gear reductions along the way allow the flywheel to reach 64,500 rpm (it operates in a vacuum, using special high-speed bearings that reportedly seal tight). Storing the FIA-mandated maximum of 400 KJ of energy keeps the flywheel small and light enough to be safely contained (unlike the one in the still-born Chrysler Patriot prototype). As of press time we're unaware of any team using this system by Flybrid Systems LLP, of Silverstone, England at the start of the season, but watch for it.
Technologue: Blessing & KERS
9. VVT For Smarties. Ford has come up with a better (more elegant) way of achieving variable valve timing by capitalizing on waste energy. Most cam phasers rotate the camshaft using oil pressure delivered by the engine-oil pump, but this can be problematic at low engine speeds and at low temperatures during vehicle startup. Ford engineers noticed that the oil pressure in the chambers that rotate the cam fluctuated just before and after the nose of each cam rotated past its valve tappet, and decided to harness these little pressure spikes. Voila. Less oil pressure is needed and more cam rotation is possible as low as 1500 rpm, all of which helps boost economy and performance.
Ford Gets Phased -- Using Free Energy
10. Lights, Cameras, Action. Digital CMOS cameras are becoming so cheap that we'll be seeing a lot of them on cars in the very near future, starting off with high-end luxmobiles like the next Mercedes E- and S-class sedans. Cameras keep an eye out for traffic ahead of the vehicle and tailor the lighting pattern to reach as far as possible without blinding oncoming cars; an infrared camera provides an enhanced night-view image in the dash that also identifies and highlights pedestrians; and the various cameras will also inform the lane-keeping assist and Pre-Safe systems to warn a distracted driver of impending doom.
Dark's Knight: Mercedes-Benz Showcases a Brace of New Safety Technologies