'Israel should focus on engine efficiency, new fuels now'

Focusing on engine efficiency and fuel composition, rather than completely concentrating on ‘step out’ technologies could make immediate change, Dr. Albert Hochhauser tells ‘Post.’

November 9, 2010 06:28
Energy expert, Dr. Albert Hochhauser

311_ Dr. Hochhauser. (photo credit: Courtesy)

There are steps Israel can take now to significantly reduce its dependence on oil for transportation, and not just 10 years from now, US alternative fuels and fuel efficiency expert Dr. Albert Hochhauser told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

Hochhauser was on a family visit to Israel. An independent consultant, he is a technical expert on fuels and automotive hardware and their relationships to emissions and performance, and has worked with industry research groups and government agencies to help develop science-based regulations.

While the government has put together a pretty impressive plan of long-term solutions to reduce the country’s dependence on oil for transportation, it should also encourage short-term solutions, Hochhauser said.

“The efficiency of automotive engines has been getting better by 1 percent every year for the past 20 years – that adds up,” he said. Moreover, according to US Department of Energy forecasts, the fuel efficiency of gasoline-powered engines could be doubled in the next 15 years.

Lapsing into baseball analogies, Hochhauser noted, “You can win games and score runs by hitting home runs or you can win games by hitting lots of singles.”

That means a focus on engine efficiency and fuel composition now, rather than completely concentrating on “step out” technologies like fuel cells, a new plant for bio fuels or converting cellulose into fuel.

Hochhauser was referring to a proposed government plan to reduce Israel’s dependence on foreign oil drastically within 10 years.

Prof. Eugene Kandel, head of the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office, has prepared a draft government decision to focus on funding research and development, knowledge sharing internationally, and demonstration sites. The cabinet has yet to vote on the proposal because of a disagreement between Kandel and the National Infrastructures Ministry on whether the project should be under the ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office. In addition, the Tax Authority has objected to the tax breaks section of the proposal.

Nevertheless, according to Hochhauser, a 10-year plan is a good goal.

“Ten years is long enough to let fundamental research projects run and to get a sufficient number of them into the pipeline to become commercially viable, since only a few will make it. After 10 years, you can reevaluate and see where you’ve gotten to and where you need to go.

“If you set a two-year goal, that would be too short and you’d end up micro-managing the process,” he told the Post.

Planning for success is very important, he said. It’s not enough to launch all sorts of fundamental research projects into lots of different areas like battery cars, fuel cells or bio-fuels. Each solution has an effect on other factors like infrastructure.

“For instance, if your winner for battery cars are lithium- ion batteries, where do you get the lithium? Bolivia is currently the largest source in the world for lithium.

You could just be trading a petroleum shortage and dependency for a lithium one,” he said. Moreover, what about battery disposal? Recycling? Where do you get more electricity from? If from coal, then maybe you need to think about “carbon capture” (mitigating the contribution of fossil fuel emissions to global warming by capturing carbon dioxide and storing it in such a way that it does not enter the atmosphere), he listed to illustrate his point.

At the same time, by bringing in alternatives to gasoline, you can prevent price spikes and make the price of oil more stable. If the price of oil stays reasonable, then the political price of oil also stays reasonable, Hochhauser said.

Gasoline powered cars will in no way be a thing of the past in 10 years, he said.

“It’s not enough time to physically replace entire fleets,” he said. Moreover, there are no commercially viable alternatives right now.

While battery cars are up and coming, they’re still not commercially viable anywhere, according to Hochhauser.

“China and India, where the rate of auto purchases is skyrocketing, are not going to adopt expensive solutions,” he said. Nevertheless, research into batteries is progressing around the world.

While hydrogen fuel cells have also been tossed around as the fuel of the future, “the consensus right now is that they are probably further away from commercialization than battery cars. There are still a lot of infrastructure issues such as: How do you make the hydrogen for the fuel cell? How do you transport it? Store it? It’s hard to store hydrogen on a car because you need high pressure tanks. It’s not as straightforward as natural gas.”

However, there are a couple of alternative fuels that are technologically feasible now, Hochhauser said. Natural gas is a cleaner fuel for heavy vehicles such as buses or even cars too, although it does require a conversion process on the car. Natural gas can also be turned into diesel fuel, although the process is expensive. However, the advantage would be to have a fuel to put in today’s engines without any modifications, he said. There is also a transport issue to get natural gas into gas stations.

Natural gas has become a big issue in Israel since exploration companies announced good prospects for massive gas fields off the coast.

Bio-fuels like ethanol are also technologically feasible today. While Israel does not have the land to grow crops for ethanol, in the United States most gasoline is already a blend of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline.

In Brazil, ethanol comprises 25% of gasoline, Hochhauser said.

However, Israel is very strong in plant science and could conceivably come up with something else, he said.

In addition to alternative fuels and fuel efficiency, there’s another area that is becoming a focus in the US: intelligent transportation systems.

“If you can be smart, you can achieve reductions in energy use. It’s utilizing mass transport, particularly rail for shipment purposes. But it’s also about designing highways to reduce congestion which reduces fuel efficiency,” he explained.

Automatic highways have also been the focus of a lot of research in the US.

“The driving would be taken over by the highway itself. That way you could fit more cars in, operate more efficiently and probably safer as well,” he said.

While very science fictionesque, Hochhauser conceded that people had been working on this for a long time “and it was still pretty far in the future.”

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