Since Toyota has bequeathed the Prius on us, all eyes are on hybrid cars. And it’s hard not to admire the technology that has gone in. It’s also hard not to have a heart attack at the sight of the price tag that comes with a Prius – or indeed other hybrid cars. This technology comes at a hefty premium but it still falls far short of what a real hybrid – as according to me and some other crazies just like me – would look like.
Before we look at what I think a hybrid must really be – let’s take a look at the advantages and pitfalls of some of the modus operandi out there (or coming up soon).
Electrical cars are all the rage. They are emissions free, silent and since the Tesla we know that they can be fast, fun and cool.
But they have a hitch. They are not easy to fuel (if you consider hanging for at least 30 minutes multiple times a day onto the grid is easy, then you are better organized and more patient than I am) and second, their operative range even with a full load (that will take more than 30 minutes loading) still sucks. It makes electricity the realm of city zippers in small cars and some exotics for showing off in the public transport sector.
Oh besides, you are never sure where the pizzazz you are loading into your battery comes from. Might have been a good old nuclear power plant which probably does not chime well with your green credentials.
Hydrogen would be as clean as electricity is but its dangerous (high pressures), materials in contact with it become brittle and toxic and range is still in the “I am biting the steering wheel” category. Besides, technology is still in its infancy and infrastructure is nonexistent.
Diesel and gasoline are neat, give long range and are easy to use but they kill us (this is not different for the so called super clean vehicles as the remnantes of the combustion process cannot be filtered in a way to make their afterwhif really clean).
Last on the list, the methane vehicle. Either as CNG (for the smaller ones) or LNG (for the mastodons and the Marathonists of mobility). This is reasonably clean – in fact just a little conventional technology and feed-gas from bio matter or a syngas process will make this virtually emissions free. Range is great (with LNG at least) and fuelling no problem. It’s safe, technologically mature, there is plenty of existing infrastructure we can build on and … Hey. This is not the first time I write this so if this comes as a surprise to you, you better clean your plate for the rest of the day as there is an awful lot of reading on this blog to catch up with.
Electric propulsion has some more advantages than meet the eye of the occasional onlooker. A combustion engine somehow always uses up energy, also when the car stops at the traffic light or when the vehicle is rolling downhill. Electric vehicles are much better than this. They use energy only to propel the car forwards and for the amenities inside the car. If the car just rolls or stops, no or very little energy has to be used. It’s even better. The electric motor is a propulsion engine when used as such but turned on its head it’s also a generator transforming the kinetic energy of the vehicle into new electricity it feeds back into the battery. Nothing new here for the Prius fans.
The LNG engine on the other side is just like the diesel hummingbird a long distance runner. If electric and LNG engines are combined, they could unite their respective strengths and cancel out their respective weaknesses.
Imagine a vehicle with a small natural gas engine. The engine in fact is a power generator producing power exactly when it’s needed. There is no direct connection with the propulsion shaft of the vehicle. It’s an all-electric device. Instead of coming from a plug, the power comes from the small generator.
This generator could be much smaller than a natural gas engine that would normally propel such a vehicle as it runs on optimum conditions with perfect fuel economy. As a fully electric vehicle it would feature all the gimmicks such as recuperating kinetic energy or plug in electricity feed for moments when such is easy to get. The battery would become nothing but a buffer where baseload produced electricity is stored for splitsecond use. Fuel economy would be incredible.
Batteries could be rather limited reducing weight of the vehicle as there is a power source constantly watching and producing new juice on demand. Just like a Fuel Cell vehicle only that the job of the fuel cell is done by a combustion engine instead. And smart computing would watch that the battery is always at some optimum level allowing the vehicle driver to relax and not care about the intricacies of his vehicles technology.
Let’s imagine a heavy vehicle such as a truck or a bus on electricity. Or even a construction machines such as a digger or a hauler. Their main drawbacks have always been the huge batteries and the forbidding loading times. With the Natural Gas engine producing power now, this drawback is gone. And electric motors produce the torque necessary for even the biggest construction machines. Plus, LNG provides an energy dense liquid that allows going Marathon.
It’s going to be cleaner than anything we know outside a laboratory and it’s going to be real quiet plus in times of high energy prices such as now you will love the money saving effect.
And it also provides the opportunity to make electric drives real big. The battery problem has prevented the industry to jump on the electricity bandwagon for big things – now, that could change.
One of the main problems of direct transmission natural gas engines compared to diesel engines is the missing torque. Natural gas engines need to be bigger in order to do the same thing. This can be handled easily but just imagine electric engines in every wheel of a 18 wheeler. It would act as a very powerful brake in case things go wrong. And it would be an all-wheel drive that can adjust its power needs for more accurately than any other engine could.
Methane power generation in an all-electric heavy vehicle might just be the thing we were all waiting for.
So – engineers, tinkerers and inventors out there. Will you please step forward?