Future Fuels for Automobiles

July 2, 2007

Switchgrass: Image Credit: USDA

I’m not that much of an automobile enthusiast. Despite my proximity to the Motor City, I don’t pay constant attention to the latest twitches in the auto industry. I take the bus to work, and drive a car only occasionally, usually for errands or to shuttle the kids someplace. But I attended the GM ChallengeX event on behalf of EcoGeek.org and Green Options, and I learned a number of things about where automotive technology is trying to go, and came away excited about new things coming along in the automotive industry.

In addition to the work being done in the ChallengeX competition, GM itself is forging ahead in a number of areas with plans for a wide range of fuel options. Dr. Gary Smyth, one of the GM engineers I had the opportunity to meet over dinner, spoke at length about the fuel mix for automobiles in the future. With increasing demand for vehicles, the issue is not whether, say, switchgrass ethanol or bio-diesel is going to be the magic bullet that addresses the future demand for fuel. Rather, it is going to be a mix of a number of different fuels, all of which are being widely used, that is going to be necessary to keep up with demand, both domestically and internationally. “Displacing petroleum” was the phrase that I heard a number of times throughout the day. GM has evidently seen the writing on the wall and is taking steps to address it.

The configuration of some of GM’s cars coming out in the next few years is such that the fuel source does not have to drive the development of the vehicle. With the proposed Chevy Volt, for example, the vehicle is driven by its electric motors and its batteries. Whatever internal combustion engine or fuel cell or something else is under the hood is just to run an electrical generator. The vehicle can get its fuel from whatever source the consumers prefer, and in some cases, as with the current Flex-Fuel vehicles in GM’s fleet, it may be possible to use more than one kind of fuel.

GM has set itself on course to use lithium-ion batteries for its forthcoming electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt. One of the issues with lithium-ion batteries is that they can overheat. There have already been multiple incidents and recalls of laptop computer batteries due to fire hazards from these batteries. The increased energy density means that they are able to provide more useful charge with less weight. But that same energy density also means that the batteries can be more prone to damage from overheating.

One thing that was suggested was for the Volt (and other cars with these batteries) is to have a small solar panel on the car that would provide enough power to operate a circulating fan that could help keep the battery array cooler. This is just one of the many issues that needs to be dealt with and overcome in order to bring the Volt to market. And it is small details such as this that will be the success or failure of the Volt.

I’m much more of an automotive enthusiast than I was a couple of months ago. And I will probably be paying a bit more attention to some of the things going on in the auto industry.

For some other perspectives on the meetings that GM personnel had with several bloggers at the event, see these articles, as well:

Autoblog Green
GM-volt.com (and also here)
Groovy Green