Issue: Jan 2011

Outlook for new fuels and engines

by Bob Brooks

2011 is shaping up as a critical year for gaining clarity on the outlook for algae bio fuel and new IC (internal combustion) and EV (electric or semi-electric) powertrains.
Algal-based fuel is widely considered one of the best opportunities for volume domestic carbon neutral drop-in fuel source that can be refined and distributed by the existing infrastructure and used in existing land, sea and air vehicles. Algae fuel would retain foreign exchange and US jobs.
The current position of the US DOE (Department of Energy) is that “no commercial entity today can produce algae biofuel at a cost competitive with petroleum fuels”. The DOE has issued a Request For Information (De-FOA-00004666) to gather all
available information on algae production. In addition, the US National Research Council has called for the formation of a national committee to review the algal fuel production outlook. What the studies are expected to determine is the real cost of
oil, which includes refining, distribution, marketing and taxes, as well as credits, depletion allowances, tax advantages and effective subsidies amounting to billions of dollars granted to the oil industry. There is another large cost – US military operations to protect long oil supply lines stretching into foreign countries.
Another aspect to consider is that efforts to produce biofuels for aircraft and military uses are already moving forward quickly, driven by the need for fuel security and carbon emissions reductions. Oil prices have also started climbing again.
Investors have seen the potential. Algae pioneer, Martek Biosciences was recently bought for US$1-billion by the giant Dutch firm, Royal DSM. Technological advances include the discovery and demonstration by Montana State University of a way to double algae oil production in half the time using low-cost sodium bicarbonate in ponds or bioreactors. Even without sodium bicarbonate, private venture developers of algae oil processes estimate the overall cost could be as low as $50/ barrel. The question is time. Virtually all major oil companies have announced plans to develop algal oil systems, but collectively say up to 10 more years of research may be needed. This is seen by some as oil industry reluctance to change, and may explain government’s decision to get algae facts on the table.
Also worth mentioning are recent new natural gas discoveries. CNG (compressed natural gas) is an excellent cost-effective fuel. However, the cost of very high pressure fuel tanks (up to 10,000 lb pressure) and the need for specialized fueling systems limit CNG to use by fleets able to refuel at expensive facilities. The same is true for liquid natural gas, which requires insulated tanks.

Two examples of new powertrain technology are the remarkable Mazda Skytech G (gasoline) and D (diesel) engines. The gasoline version’s compression ratio is 14:1 - made possible by unique exhaust extraction, cooled EGR and other advances the firm
believes will have fuel efficiency, making it competitive with some of the popular  hybrid systems - but at lower cost. First uses are expected in 2011.
Equally advanced is the Mazda D version, with a low compression ratio (for diesels) of 14:1 . Mazda says the D engine will have better fuel efficiency than current diesels and meet stringent emission standards without need for NOx exhaust after-treatment, and with a permanent particulate (PM) catalyst that requires no servicing. Another new engine is Fiat’s Multiair, an intake valve system with fully variable timing and lift.
Transonic Combustion of Camarillo, CA, is introducing a critical fuel injection (i.e., fuel heated to 700F and injected at 200bar) engine which can run on gasoline, diesel or mixtures with greater efficiency and lower emissions. Another dynamic system is the Eco Motors two cycle diesel engine with two pistons per cylinder. Half of the engine is totally shut down during light load operation. Other IC engine enhancements include direct injection, turbocharged downsizing, energy saving electrical vs. belt driven components, stop-start, and new transmissions.
As for hybrid and full EV passenger cars, there is a boatload of questions, including:
• What is the underlying strategy of the US Government’s
investment in EVs?
• Will motorists like them?
• What are total carbon emissions from EVs and their power
plant electric sources, and how do these compare with new
technologies and fuels?
• When will subsidies, loans and grants for EVs be on an even
basis with other vehicles?
• When will fuel taxes be applied to EVs on an equal vehicle
weight basis, and what will the tax rate be?
• What is the realistic outlook for cost and supply of special
materials needed for EV battery and electric systems?
• What will it cost to upgrade the electric grid to meet EV
• How many car makers plan to enter the EV market with the
expectation of continued high levels of public subsidy?
The studies by DOE and a committee of the National Academies
will be welcomed by everyone concerned

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