The carbon conundrum: Hybrids and other short circuits

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By Eli S. Chesen Carbon, carbon, carbon: What’s a person to do? Society’s worry du jour goes something like this: We have an insatiable carbonaceous appetite for oil, coal, ethanol and natural gas, and we have, already, in a single century, picked and burned the low-lying fruit from the derrick. In the meantime, there smolders an ongoing debate over the whys and wherefores of ethanol, wind, synfuels, nuclear, photovoltaic and other alternative sources of energy. While most agree that the world needs to go on a carbon diet, I am disturbed by the widely shared, wishful illusion that prayers to the gods of technology will surely guide us as we wend our way through this mess, allowing us to have our energy and use it, too. This fantasy yearns for a kind of perpetual motion machine, but I would suggest that playing fast and loose with the laws of physics will always fail. Believing in the savior of science is dangerous in the long run, as it lulls us into optimistic delusions which delay and trump actual solutions. While we pine for a solution to the energy conundrum, our signing off on various solutions is typically limited by our concern that only others’ oxen will be gored in the process. Paraphrasing Al Gore, we want solutions, but we do not want to be inconvenienced by the vicissitudes of those solutions. I recall reading (circa 1952 or so) a “Weekly Reader,” which featured an article predicting that the world, at that time, had only a 75-year supply of oil reserves. While this appears in retrospect to have been a little pessimistic, I have long counted myself amongst those who share the belief that the energy apocalypse is just around the next curve, and I think we have already entered that curve. In terms of the age of our planet, about four billion years or so, even a 300-year supply of oil and an 800-year supply of coal would last for a mere eyeblink in time. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, we have been suffering in the throes of the energy-consuming equivalent of bulimia. A recent “Time Magazine” cover story discussed the dark side of grain-derived ethanol and concerned itself with the ongoing loss of the rain forest, which is being subjugated—agriculturalized, if you will—in favor of grown fuel production. “Time” contends that pieces of the rain forest the size of Rhode Island are being lost every six months in deference to the sustaining of Brazil’s intoxication with ethanol. While the article does an admirable job of exploring the emptying of the world’s collective gas tank, I was struck that there was no mention of Paul Ehrlich’s early warnings about all this in his 1968 “Population Bomb.” Some saw this coming at least a half century ago. It is as though the pundits and even the scientists must relegate the calculus of less energy consumerism to a whisper, notwithstanding the fact that the world’s human population has more or less doubled in our own lifetime. In the meantime, citizens have been rioting in Mexico City over the price of tortillas, which has skyrocketed with the diversion of corn from the tortilla to the tank. My family of four moved to Lincoln shortly before the Carter experiment. Then, our nation was using grain as a weapon. My nerdish ruminations about energy shortages led me, at that time, to crudely modify my air-conditioning compressor so that it would divert heat from our home into a small swimming pool: A refrigerant-mediated-pool-heater. For this bold experiment, I received a $100 award from “Popular Science” magazine’s Adventures in Alternative Energy contest (1978). Keep in mind that back then a hundred dollars was a hundred dollars! I suspect that all amateur inventors are, in their hearts, martyrs, feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, neglected and embarrassed. While I eventually received a significant grant from the Department of Energy for the purpose of simplifying and keeping data on my device, and while I have used the device now for 30 years, I have nevertheless suffered the fate of feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, neglected and embarrassed. I have failed to talk anyone else into installing the little pool heater “that could.” My regret here (to say nothing about the loss of millions of dollars of would-be royalties) is that, while the pool heater works and reflects very simple, old technology, it has failed as a product, as it remains more convenient for home owners to install gluttonous, energy-wasting, off-the-shelf heaters for their pools and hot tubs. Meanwhile, back in techno-land, computer-controlled hybrids and other flawed technologies are offering mostly symbolic palliation for the world’s energy-wasting eating disorder. The prevailing rationale here is that the same engineers who helped us into this crisis will find a way out of it. In fact, many of those technologies are flawed and might ultimately do little more than feed the risky rationalization that we are actually doing something about a problem that in only three human generations of consumption has reached the status of crisis. The “flaw” here takes the form of psychological baggage attached to hybrids and other stopgap, would-be energy solutions. The hybrid is really an antiquated reinvention: Diesel-electric locomotives, which have been around for 50 years, are essentially hybrids and represent a very old and very inefficient technology that is long overdue for an upgrade. Simply speaking, hybrid vehicles have gasoline or diesel engines which power generators, which in turn charge batteries and power electric motors, which ultimately turn wheels. Automotive hybrids are high-school-science-projects-in-motion, incorporating computer-managed gimmicks that micromanage fuel use. Hybrids save more fuel for the inefficient driver, who accelerates and brakes more than necessary. The skilled driver should not expect much in savings with one of these contraptions. The hybrid design continues to make some sense for the behemoth locomotive, which requires the astronomical starting torque made most readily available with the use of electric motors. While plug-in automotive hybrids also make more sense than standard hybrids, the technology of these cars is actually very Rube Goldberg: Picture a cartoon with a gas engine connected to a battery connected to a motor, which downhill becomes a generator, which then connects through a computer back again to the battery. The incorporation of hybrid technology in cars has mostly to do with allowing the driver of such a vehicle to feel as though “I’m doing my part.” Driving a hybrid does little more in actuality, however, than to create the illusion of conservation. For those who like their energy-conservation vehicle “Grande,” there is now the GMC Yukon Hybrid. The psychology behind hybrids, especially this particular one, is not unlike ordering your low-fat, sugar-free yogurt with a large dollop of hot fudge, Spanish peanuts and whipped cream. The illusion with hybrids is that they are conservational with a commitment to “economy.” Thanks to the hybrid, one can, with a clear conscience, trade up in size and luxury. While the original notion of a truly economical hybrid inferred a small engine, mostly for battery charging and generator backup, we now have the advent of oxymoronic performance hybrids, equipped with large V-8 engines that suck fuel with the best of them… I myself am awaiting the Hummer Hybrid, the vehicle which will be at the same time patriotic and parsimonious. Newton’s Second Law of Motion says F = m x a (force = mass times acceleration); “m” is mass, whether a car weighs 1,200 pounds, or 6,300 pounds in the case of the Yukon. Likewise, “a” is acceleration and, so to speak, acceleration is acceleration, whether coming from an electric motor, gasoline engine or a steam engine, for that matter. The psychological sleight of hand here is the illusion that one need not sacrifice anything… You can do your part for global ecology while hurtling down the Interstate on a guilt-free road trip in three tons of iron. And let’s not forget the multi-ton, rain-forest-ravaging “Flex Fuel” SUVs, which use an 85 percent ethanol blend. Unfortunately, all of these variations in car design still must obey Newton’s Laws of Motion.

Reverse technology

Ironically, what I see as at least a partial solution to this mess is a return to low technology. Common mechanical sense suggests that we should regress to more basic, simpler, even primitive technologies—what I would term “Reverse Technologies,” if you will. Here we have, waiting to be rediscovered, genuine solutions requiring nothing in the way of research, the ramping up of manufacturing or tips from NASA scientists. These ideas are born of common sense and a glance into the technological rear-view mirror. I can recall, decades before NASCAR, the Mobil Gas Economy Run, when drivers actually competed in a race for gas mileage. For example, one of the 1962 winners attained 27.3 mpg in a Pontiac Tempest. There were all kinds of tricks to that trade, and those driving stick shifts always had the advantage. In fact, some vehicle categories barred stick shifts to level the playing field. Drivers would shift at low rpm’s, shift into neutral and seldom use their brakes, instead strategically controlling their speed vis-à-vis stoplights and traffic flow. They avoided rapid accelerations and decelerations at all costs. Eschewing lazy, energy-wasting automatic transmissions alone, on a large scale, would bring about a global bonanza in fuel savings. Sound ridiculous? What did an automatic transmission ever do for you? Manual transmissions do several useful things especially well when compared to even the best and most efficiently engineered of automatics. (The existence of some kind of transmission is made necessary because internal combustion engines have almost no torque with which to propel a car from a standing start. Transmissions convert engine rpm’s into the torque needed for initial acceleration.) Since the early 1950s, automatic transmissions have become more and more popular, especially in our country where we have embraced labor-saving, weight-gaining diabetogenic devices. So what do I have against automatic transmissions? Actually, six things: 1. Most automatics incorporate devices called torque converters, which, on the positive side, eliminate the need for a clutch and clutch pedal. On the negative side, however, torque converters convert engine motion into large amounts of heat. The heat produced by automatic transmissions ultimately comes from gasoline, and automatics waste more than their share of this vital fluid. There is so much costly heat produced by an automatic transmission that most cars equipped with automatics must incorporate a small, separate radiator, a heat-exchanging device, which dissipates unwanted, wasted energy. 2. While I cannot quantify this with scientific evidence, I contend that people who drive stick shifts are intuitively more aware of the physics and mechanics of driving and therefore shift more efficiently than that which would ever be attainable with an automatic. For example, even the most high-tech of automatic transmissions are unaware as to whether the car is about to go uphill or downhill. The mechanical device does not know whether more or less torque is going to be required until after the fact, when the car is actually in the process of going downhill or uphill. With a manual transmission, the human brain trumps the actuating pressure sensor, which tells the automatic when to shift. The human shifter can preempt wasted shifting and wasted fuel by making quicker and earlier decisions, even skipping gears at times, when going downhill, for example. 3. Automatics contain a large volume of fluid, a filter to clean that fluid, and numerous other parts all made unnecessary with the use of a manual gearbox. 4. Automatic transmissions add considerably to the weight of cars, another gas-mileage killer. 5. Automatics cost more and break down more frequently. 6. And, finally, a sociocultural reason: Automatics are so geriatric. My guess is that Buick spokesman Tiger Woods does not actually drive an automatically shifting Buick Century, but more likely a Ferrari with a six-speed manual gearbox. Shifting my way through traffic brings to mind hot rods, phonograph needles, Bakelite phones, manual garage doors, tube radios, round screen TVs and lower blood sugars. I realize that I might be milking a dull subject to death here, but consider the windfall if all 150,000,000 or so cars in the US of A were stick shifts with a reasonably estimated savings of 3 percent to 5 percent in fuel costs. Paraphrasing my all-time favorite senator, the late Everett Dirksen from Illinois, a hundred dollars here and a hundred dollars there; after a while, you are talking about real money. My plan: A. Mandate that all rental cars be phased over to stick shifts. B. Drivers’ training courses must be taught using manual-transmission cars, and the course must incorporate a curriculum on economical driving habits. C. Ban hybrids on the basis that they are, in fact, silly. D. Tax cars by weight, not price. E. Bring back the Mobil Economy Run.

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