A Frivolous Novelty

20 07 2010

For this week’s publication, I was trying to think of an expensive, short-lived, duplicative, inconvenient, limited use, frivolous novelty.  Did I mention expensive?  After a half-hour of wonderment, the best I could do is a Homer Simpson bottle opener.   But really the Homer Simpson bottle opener will last longer and at least be useful (note, I didn’t say serve it’s purpose, which is to make people laugh) probably for a far longer period than the electric car.

Twenty years ago “they” were talking about developing electric cars, I guess to save us from carbon dioxide, but I don’t recall the CO2 debate being as intense then as it is now.  I recall arguing with my roommate, who was a perfect match for me (we shared best men duties at each other’s weddings), that the electric car is a stupid idea because once again our friend Pesky Reality will not allow this bad idea to ever go mainstream.  You know, Pesky is going to be our imaginary friend from now on.  I’ve never had one actually so we will see how this goes.

I already have a 20 year winning streak, but “they” are making another futile run at this doomed idea.  Of course this is being served up by the connoisseurs of bad ideas.  The factory of remedies that are worse than the disease: Washington DC.

GW Bush’s dopey idea for the next miracle of personal transportation was the fuel cell.  The only emission would be water vapor – egads! The number one greenhouse gas.  Maybe the next time this stupid idea comes back to life Pesky can start a campaign advertising the greenhouse gas thing and it will crash and burn faster the Hindenburg.   Hmmm.  Hindenburg.  Hydrogen.  Bad idea.  Crashing.  Seventy years later here we are again!  I would call that an overt, as opposed to a subliminal message from Hephaestus, the god of fire.

I’ll just mention a few of Pesky’s problems with the fuel cell.  First consider the fuel, hydrogen.  Where does it come from? Where can I buy it?  How do I store it?  How is transported?  What is the driving range on a full tank?  Answers: splitting the water molecule with electricity (?), ?, ?, ?, and 36 feet.  So there it is.  You can’t mine or drill for hydrogen.  Well, I guess you can, but just not successfully.  As I recall, from what was it, 9th grade chemistry, it is the first element on the periodic table and a mole of any gas takes the space of roughly 1 cubic foot.  In other words, this is an extremely sparse gas and fuel source.  Liquid hydrogen?  Sure, at about minus 270C.  I just pulled that number out of the air but trust me, you won’t be able to make -270C with some standard plumbing pieces parts and household chemicals from Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

Back to the electric car.  I am aware of the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, and Tesla something or other.  The first two have a driving range of 100 miles.  The Tesla has a more conventional driving range of 300-400 miles.  Price tag: about $100,000.  The Leaf and Volt can be had for a song: $40,000.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  As soon as someone is able to push Pesky aside and develop a long range battery that weighs less than the sculpture of Abe Lincoln in his monument on the national mall, we’ll be home free.  I don’t think so.

The fuel source for electric cars is widely distributed and you can get it pretty much anywhere.  However, Pesky requires a rectifier and transformer to turn AC current delivered over the power lines to DC and then step the voltage down or something like that to “fill” the battery.  Price tag: $2,000.   Ok. Maybe you can buy one of these things and use it until the next ice age.  But it takes 8 HOURS to charge the batteries.  It takes 3 minutes to fill the tank with gasoline.  One hundred miles in 8 hours: 12.5 miles per hour of filling.  Gasoline: 340 miles in 0.05 hour: 6,800 miles per hour.  If I remember correctly, that is roughly Mach 10.  This is like making 30-year aged, single-malt scotch compared to thawing, or as my wife calls it “de-thawing”, a bagel in the microwave.  What happens if you forget to plug in when you get home at night?  Call in to work dead? As in dead battery?

Where are you going to charge once you leave the home-base 30 mile radius?  Who is going to install all $2,000 charging stations for you?  It will be like the Amish when they all get together for their Sunday services.  All the buggies are parked in the yard while the dozens of horses that pulled them there are packed in a shed munching hay, drinking water and lying about for 8 hours.  They are recharging their batteries, man.  That’s beautiful but is the modern American going to put up with 12.5 miles per hour of charging time?  Does anyone root for both the Vikings AND the Packers?  (If so, he/she should be locked up)

Assume engineers are able to speed up the process.  Charge time will still be constrained by the electric “pipes” coming to your home.  An electric water heater or clothes dryer probably pull the greatest demand in a typical house.  The water heater input is limited to 4.5 kW, equivalent of about 6 horsepower.  My lawnmower has at least 3x as much power.  See why it takes such a long time to charge, and it’s not ever going to change without a bazillion dollar modification to the electric grid?

And then there is this little problem:  You probably haven’t thought of it this way but your gasoline-powered automobile is a little and very efficient combined heat and power plant.  That’s right.  I’m going to guess a car is about 20% efficient with maybe 10% burned up in friction and the other 70% dumping heat out the radiator, just like a power plant.  Everyone north of the Florida panhandle needs heat and even if you don’t mind wearing a snow suit and big furry hood, you won’t be able to see where you are going with out lots of heat to keep the windows defrosted or defogged.

Well how much heat does it take?  When I first drove my little (2002) Honda Civic to work in -20F weather, as I coasted down the “big hill” (at least a mile long, maybe 500 feet vertical), the water temperature gage went from “50%” to about “20%”.  I thought crap, the thermostat is probably stuck.  No.  The heater just sucked all waste heat out of the engine while it wasn’t “working” in about 70 seconds.  Where is that kind of heat in an electric car coming from? – from the battery.  But the gas car has 70% of its energy consumption available for space heat.  Once the same heat is extracted from the Abe Lincoln battery, you’re hundred mile range is now down to about 30 miles.  Well guess what the average commute distance is in the U.S., Pesky.  Its 16 miles, 32 round trip.  I guess that car is good for a drive to the convenience store for milk and bread, but just make sure it’s fully charged so you can make it back up the hill.

Recently, Obama has been doing photo ops at an electric delivery truck factory in MO and a battery factory for electric cars in MI, neither of which would be a shadow of themselves without hundreds of millions of free money from the “stimulus”.  I don’t give investment advice but if I were an investment advisor, I would put a strong sell on these stocks.  Then I would short them.  I would buy put options.  If I worked at these places, I would be looking for another job.  The government gave these guys a big push to get going but there is no engine under the hood.

I never like to just thrash things and leave it be without offering alternatives.  Sooner or later we will have no choice but to use alternate fuel sources.  There is no infinite source of oil, although there is probably a 200 year supply if we decided to remove restrictions and technologies allow us to extract oil in more extreme places.  Remember, in the late 1970s we were on the verge of running out of natural gas.  Forty years (40) hence we have a bigger glut of natural gas than ever.

Like efficiency in buildings, in the short term we can make huge gains with existing “technologies” – have heat, have a driving range limited by the driver, and refuel in three minutes every four hours.  In the long term, the alternate fuel source will be in liquid form.  Sources may be algae, wood, (not corn ethanol), garbage or other waste material like dog hair.  I have a bottomless and continuous supply of free dog hair.

Unless something riles me up more in the next week, I will discuss the interim.  Pesky will have the week off because he will have no say in these matters.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

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8 responses

21 07 2010
Nick B

Jeff –

I hate to get technical on this, but K is an absolute temperature, so no negatives. But good guess. Hydrogen goes liquid at atmospheric pressure at about 20K (-253C). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_hydrogen)

Apart from that, I generally agree that liquid fuels make more sense in general than gaseous fuels for transportation, although I wouldn’t rule out electrics. Probably no fuel cells though – and you forgot the cost barrier on those. Much worse than electric cars, and precious metal catalysts to boot.

That said – keep it coming. It’s good reading.

22 07 2010
Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Baaaah! Thanks, Nick. Fixed.

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[…] an update on A Frivolous Novelty, the all-electric Nissan Leafs are flying off lots at the brisk pace of about 70 per month.  No […]

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