Monday, August 04, 2008

Real-world Fuel Economy

Yesterday, with my fuel gauge reading empty, I filled up my car (a 1996 Honda Civic CX hatchback 5-speed). Regular petrol has gone up over 100% since I bought my car new 12 years ago, so its fuel economy is even more important now. At every fillup, I reset the trip odometer and take careful note of total fuel consumed. For the most recent period I had gone 648.1 km, the fillup was 37.562 litres, so the car used 5.8 litres of fuel per 100 km traveled. This matches the highway fuel economy specified in the 1996 Civic brochure, which is impressive because I mostly drive in the city. By avoiding traffic and shifting into the highest gear as soon as possible, I often exceed the city fuel economy rating of a SmartCar! My next car will be... you guessed it, another Honda. Like this one.

Friday, August 01, 2008

MIT Energy Storage Breakthrough — About Damn Time, Too

Folks, this just might be it — the Holy Grail of energy storage for off-peak use. Researchers at MIT have apparently found a way to greatly increase the efficiency of electrolysis. If their discovery can be made commercially feasible, our current dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) for power generation and transport fuel may become a quaint relic of the past:
Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera's lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun's energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

The key component in Nocera and Kanan's new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity -- whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source -- runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.

Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.

The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it's easy to set up, Nocera said. "That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," he said.
James Barber, a leader in the study of photosynthesis who was not involved in this research, called the discovery by Nocera and Kanan a "giant leap" toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale.

"This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind," said Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London. "The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem."
Given the projected demand growth vs. production decline of oil, this discovery comes not a moment too soon. It brings us closer to a hydrogen-fueled future.