The concept of zero-carbon transportation may sound like the lunatic ravings of a bearded Vermonter in a Rabbit diesel trailing French-fry fumes, but it’s a long-term planetary imperative that wise and wealthy visionary venture capitalists are investing heavily in right now.
Battery-electric drive will handle the lightest-duty ground-vehicle and short-distance air-taxi service. Engineering advances underway will greatly increase the volumetric and gravimetric energy density and the inherent safety of the batteries themselves, while reducing the time required to recharge them until users find them as convenient to live with as today’s combustion powertrains. IBM has very recently announced the discovery of a battery that uses a nickle- and cobalt-free cathode and a high-flash-point liquid electrolyte that helps resist formation of the lithium dendrites (spikes) that can form on the cathode during fast charging and cause a short circuit. The three promising new undisclosed materials it uses can reportedly be extracted from seawater. Research is also ongoing into solid-state batteries, and companies like GBatteries are developing ways to reduce charging times for all batteries, like pulse-charging.
Larger Ground Transit/Hauling
Carrying heavy loads over long distances presents significant challenges to battery power, so fuel cells will take on these tasks. We’ve covered Nikola’s ambitious plans to sell fuel-cell-powered semis and to build a network of 700 nationwide refueling stations by 2028. The Toyota Project Portal and Hyundai HDC-6 Neptune are both fuel-cell semis, and all are counting on economies of scale to bring down the cost of manufacturing the fuel-cells and building out of the infrastructure, but for now Nikola is planning to ask $375,000 for its tractor—roughly triple the cost of a comparable diesel rig. All such plans rely on implementation of the H70HF (70 MPa/10,000-psi high-flow) refueling standard due for release this year. Such pumps will dispense fuel at a rate of 100km range/minute (roughly 300 miles in 5 minutes).
Ships and Planes
Electric power just doesn’t make sense for long-distance shipping and air travel, so biofueled combustion will be the best carbon-neutral option, and that means biodiesel and derivatives like bio jet-A. Currently the U.S. leads the world in biodiesel production, at 1.8 billion gallons, most of which comes from chemically reacting a lipid (vegetable oil or animal fat) with an alcohol. Its well-to-wheels (or wings) carbon content does not currently net to zero, however, and even devoting 100 percent of our arable land to its production wouldn’t replace our current petro-demand. But using algal biodiesel cultivated in tubes might reduce the required land use to the size of Maryland, according to estimates by the Department of Energy. Sadly, the energy required to separate the fatty lipids from these algal cells today can be greater than the energy they contain. But researchers at the University of Utah recently demonstrated a “mixing extractor” that shoots a jet of reusable solvent at a jet of algae sludge causing the lipids to attach to the solvent, from which they can be easily and quickly be separated. Much algae research is ongoing, so these hurdles will surely prove surmountable.
For those fretting about where the carbon-free energy will come from to make any of this possible (in a post-Fukushima nuclear-averse world), hydrogen boosters advocate utilizing surplus wind and solar power to electrically hydrolyze water into oxygen and hydrogen (after vastly ramping up the capacity of each). Meanwhile, the Bill Gates-backed Heliogen startup has just set up a solar mirror farm in California’s Mojave desert featuring computer-aligned movable mirrors it says can concentrate enough solar energy to generate temperatures of up to 2,700 degrees (water dissociates into hydrogen and oxygen without electricity at 2,500 degrees). That’s well above the 1,000-degree temperatures generated by typical solar mirror farms and it’s hot enough to produce steel and Portland cement for concrete.
Where there’s a will there’s a way. Let’s hope the first half of that proves as achievable as the second.
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