Kissing frogs while seeking petrol alternatives

  • 24-Apr-2012 02:27 EDT
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Floyd Allen, Powertrain Systems Executive, FEV Inc., moderated Tuesday morning's panel. 

Floyd Allen, Powertrain Systems Executive, FEV Inc. set the tone for a Tuesday morning panel session at the SAE 2012 World Congress in Detroit by saying there is universal agreement that the United States needs to reduce its consumption of petroleum and develop some alternative energy sources capable of powering “at least a meaningful portion of our mobility needs.”

Coming up with a consensus on that matter is one thing; coming up with the solution(s) is the tricky part, said Allen, moderator of the FEV Innovation Forum panel titled "Heir Apparent or a Bunch of Hot Air? What Technologies Have the Best Potential for Weaning America off of Foreign Sources of Petroleum?"

“The hard part is sorting through the personal opinions, vested interests, hidden political agendas, legitimately conflicting objectives, and the like to lay out a national roadmap for reducing our reliance on foreign petroleum.”

Before allowing the panelists to discuss the advantages, disadvantages, and trade-offs involved with different alternatives being pursued, Allen dutifully noted that there “probably isn’t a silver bullet” that will bring about an overnight transformation.

“Any transformation will come slowly and painfully, he said, “and, most likely, we will all kiss a few frogs along the way.”

Without any hints of the hidden political agendas, the panelists went on to dispassionately discuss various alternative energy and powertrain options. To a man, the panelists either repeated in the same or similar words Allen’s observation that there is no silver bullet.

Coleman Jones, Biofuel Implementation Manager for General Motors in North America, noted that the U.S. is projected to import over 9 million barrels of foreign petroleum and petroleum products per day in the near future. It’s an amount that surpasses that used by Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.

Multiple pathways are needed to reduce that figure, he said, and biofuels is one of them (though GM is working on several). Even in the biofuels arena there are multiple pathways, and “what gets deployed first depends on infrastructure requirements.” Thus a full analysis is needed to determine the true cost of any fuel, Jones said.

Rolf Stromberger, Vice President Business Environment & Public Affairs Strategy, BMW of America, LLC, made the point at the outset of his presentation that the internal-combustion engine will be the primary propulsion technology for the “next decades.” Biofuels have certain advantages, especially with regard to environmental impact, he said. It would be of great benefit to their continued development and adoption that biofuel blends into petroleum products be done in something other than small incremental steps—as in the U.S. going from 10% to 15% biofuel/gasoline blend.

“There is a risk of too much confusion of the customer,” he said, noting that misfueling is a large problem among them because vehicles of certain model years should not use E-15.

Stromberger said electric vehicles are the “most sustainable solution,” although they have challenges in terms of cost and infrastructure.

Justin Ward, Advanced Powertrain Program Manager, Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, said his company foresees electric vehicles being a popular choice for commuter-type vehicles; hybrids and plug-in hybrids midsize markets; and fuel cell vehicles for markets ranging from small and midsize markets to heavy-duty.

Internal Toyota studies show that electric vehicles, gasoline hybrid electric vehicles, and fuel-cell vehicles “really stand out as having a significant benefit when looking at future transportation and improving well-to-wheel efficiency.”

As the other speakers did, Ford’s Tom McCarthy, Chief Engineer, Engine Research & Advanced Engineering, discussed pluses and minuses of various alternative technologies. About compressed natural gas, he noted that it is “extremely competitively priced” and has high octane content. On the downside, it brings with it disadvantages in fueling infrastructure, tank packaging, tank weight. In addition, energy must be expended to compress the gas for use. For the latter reasons, “the retail market has been fairly inhibited.”

Just to make sure no audience members left the panel discussion under any illusions, McCarthy summarized with the familiar but important refrain, “There is no silver bullet.”

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