Yesterday I attended the 2006 SAE World Congress in Detroit. SAE is the Society of Automotive Engineers of which I have been a member for 17 years. The congress is basically the annual convention of the organization. The gathering includes dozens of technical sessions on all kinds of automotive engineering related topics. There is also an expo for car makers, suppliers, tool providers and other vendors. The big theme this year definitely seemed to be hybrids. There were hybrid vehicles and power-trains on display at many of the car-maker booths and hybrid components and systems on display at various supplier booths. GM had their hybrid power-train that is coming next year on their full size SUVs. Honda had their new Civic hybrid. Ford had the Escape hybrid. Toyota of course had the Prius and the new GS450H hybrid. Aisin showed a new automatic transmission with 2 motors built in that is designed for rear wheel drive applications.
Probably the most interesting thing I saw was from a company called Ovonic. Ovonic started in the early 90s developing advanced batteries for all-electric cars. They made the batteries for the GM EV1 electric car. Unfortunately for GM and Ovonic they didn’t really make much real progress in improving the energy storage capacity of batteries. Chemical batteries in general continue to be a very poor means of storing energy. In terms of energy storage capacity per volume and and weight batteries remain at the bottom of the list by a long distance. Just try picking up the battery in your car and see how heavy that is and all it can do start your engine. Compare that to a gallon of gas which depending on your vehicle can move it anywhere from 10-50 miles.
Ovonic has a new subsidiary that has been developing hydrogen storage systems. Hydrogen is great for use as a fuel because the only combustion byproduct is water vapor. One of the problems with hydrogen besides producing it is storage. Hydrogen gas needs to be stored at extremely high pressures. Ovonic and other companies have been working on methods of storing hydrogen in solid form, which is much safer. They showed a Prius that had been modified to run on hydrogen and used their metal hydride storage system. The hydrogen powered Prius gets the same mileage as the gas powered version and has a range of about 200 miles. Thats more than 3 times the range of the EV1 ( which went about 60 miles under ideal conditions). The fueling system they have developed can fill up the car in about 8 minutes right now. So Ovonic has pretty reasonable hydrogen powered car that unlike the EV1 is actually a practical mid-sized car that can carry four people in comfort and get decent range and doesn’t need to be plugged in when it’s not being used.
Now we just need a hydrogen fuel infrastructure. Hydrogen cars aren’t much use if you have nowhere it fuel it up. We need to develop a cost effective means of producing hydrogen and distributing it. In the coming days and weeks I plan to write some more stuff on hybrids. Hybrid vehicles as we know them now have some very good points but they really are not all they could be.