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Toronto Star: Plug in to new hybrid concepts
Aug 2, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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Aug. 1, 2005. 01:00 AM
Plug in to new hybrid concepts
TYLER HAMILTON

CAPTION: Some experts say hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, above, could be made even more fuel efficient if they were retrofitted to allow owners to plug their battery into a wall socket overnight for recharging.

There's a vibrant debate going on south of the border that's hardly being heard in our neck of the woods.

It has to do with hybrid vehicles, and whether we can achieve the full benefits of "hybrid vigour" by resting on the laurels of existing technologies.

Hybrid cars such as the popular Toyota Prius are great for fuel economy. They get on average 25 kilometres per litre of gasoline by relying on a 280-volt battery to assist with acceleration. The battery is routinely recharged through a small generator and by capturing energy from braking.

The question is whether today's hybrid cars can be substantially improved over a relatively short period through further crossbreeding, to the point where the massive investments we're seeing in fuel-cell vehicle development and commercialization, as well as the associated infrastructure changes needed to support it, begin to make little sense.

What if the battery in a hybrid car was more powerful and had greater range? What if owners had the option of charging that battery by plugging the car into a wall socket at night? What if, instead of using gasoline to fuel the internal combustion engine component of a hybrid, domestically produced biodiesel or ethanol-blended fuels became the dominant and cleaner-burning option?

Unexpectedly, some U.S. Democrats and Republicans have become united in the view that building such a superior hybrid is an issue of national security and deserves the highest of priority. Plug-in hybrids would be able to tap domestically produced electricity from the grid, they argue, meaning less dependence on foreign oil and the unstable regimes pumping it out.

The transportation industry accounts for more than half of all oil consumed in the U.S. and Canada. Dramatically cut down on that consumption and North America has more control over its economic destiny, the idea goes.

Publicly, most automakers are ducking the issue and emphasizing potential pitfalls of building hybrid cars with plugs, but pressure is mounting behind the scenes to give the idea some life.

"Such development should have the highest research and development priority because it promises to revolutionize transportation economics and to have a dramatic effect on the problems caused by oil dependence," write George Shultz, former U.S. secretary of state, and James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a June position paper on oil and U.S. national security.

They argue that battery development for plug-in hybrids "should for the time being replace the current research and development emphasis on automotive hydrogen fuel cells."

(Note: Dennis Campbell, president of fuel-cell developer Ballard Power, calls plug-in hybrids an interesting idea but maintains it's only a stopgap toward the inevitable. "Fundamentally you still must rely on the combustion of fossil fuel. That's the soft underbelly of the hybrid or plug-in hybrid strategy," he told the Star last week.)

Shultz and Woolsey co-chair the Committee on the Present Danger, a bi-partisan group of politicians, academics, and thought leaders who are working to "contain and defeat" threats against the United States. Senators Jon Kyl, a Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, are honorary co-chairs of the committee.

And they're not alone. You've got the Federation of American Scientists also cheerleading for plug-in hybrids. Then there's the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, whose "Set America Free" campaign is being led by former senior defence official Frank Gaffney.

Thomas Friedman, the influential New York Times columnist, wrote last month that this unlikely alliance a group he calls the "geo-greens" present a compelling case. "We don't need to reinvent the wheel or wait for sci-fi hydrogen fuel cells," wrote Friedman. "The technologies we need for a stronger, more energy-independent America are already here."

He blamed government namely the Bush administration for failing to move the country on to the geo-green path.

Despite this political inertia, a feisty group of rogue Prius owners has taken the technology into their own hands, by essentially "hacking" into their vehicle systems and modifying the cars into plug-in models. In some cases, they're installing more powerful battery packs.

It comes at a considerable cost, but for them the message is important: It can be done, and with mass production it can also be affordable.

"Toyota's engineering of the system means it's not impossible to get to this second stage," says Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, whose sole mandate at the moment is to raise awareness of plug-in hybrids and to spur Toyota and other automakers into supporting it.

Estimates vary, but one U.S. security think tank says a plug-in hybrid optimized with existing technologies could be driven 100 kilometres using half a litre of gasoline.

Talking to Kramer, plug-in hybrids seem like a no-brainer. He envisions a vehicle that is plugged in at night during off-peak hours when electricity is cheapest. The battery would be powerful enough to cover at least the first 20 to 30 kilometres of driving, which most of us don't exceed in the average workday. If someone needed to drive longer, then the gas-engine automatically kicks in to provide relief for the battery.

Unlike a pure electric vehicle, there's no risk of losing charge and being stranded halfway through a long trip. With gasoline as a backup, you'd have the range that all-electric vehicles have never been able to achieve, but using a fraction of the fuel you'd normally use each year with a conventional car.

At the same time, charging the battery overnight would, in terms of electricity prices, cost a fraction of the price of gasoline at the pumps. Occasional drivers who take short trips would hardly need to fill up with gas.

"It creates redundancy in the system," says Thomas Homer-Dixon, director the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, where he studies the complex challenges of creating sustainable societies.

Homer-Dixon says plug-in hybrids may just be one piece of a much larger puzzle, but he likes the idea of building resilience into energy and transportation infrastructures as a way of spreading risk. Building plug-in hybrid cars or adding renewable energy systems such as wind farms into the grid not only help ease the burden on the environment, it makes us less vulnerable by eliminating central points of failure.

Our sickening dependency on oil is a central fault. An oil crisis simulation conducted last month in Washington, D.C., found that a sudden 5 per cent drop of global oil supply would cause crude oil prices to rise to $161 (U.S.) a barrel. As a result, gas at the pumps shot up to nearly $6 a gallon and U.S. consumer confidence plunged 30 per cent, according to the simulation.

So why don't the major car manufacturers want to save America? Honda and Ford, which both have hybrid vehicles on the market, did not return calls for comment. DaimlerChrysler is reportedly tinkering with the idea of plug-in hybrids. Toyota, quite understandably, is hostile to the idea of consumers modifying their Prius hybrids, citing potential safety risks, high costs, and warning that such actions will void the manufacturer's warranty.

"Toyota is very concerned from both the safety and emissions viewpoint by those pursuing this path and does not support these modifications," said Canadian spokesperson Wes Pratt.

Fact is, Toyota put a lot of money and many years into designing the Prius to be exactly the way it is, so it's in no rush to abandon that strategy. It has also gone out of its way through aggressive marketing to assure people they don't have to plug in their cars at the end of the day.

But Toyota's concerns about safety and emissions are legitimate, as are others. The nickel-metal hydride battery systems in today's Prius aren't powerful enough to make a plug-in hybrid practical. But moving to more advanced and powerful batteries, such as lithium-ion systems, creates some problems.

The most significant issue is heating. Lithium-ion batteries are vulnerable to "thermal runaway" meaning they can heat up to 800 degrees Celsius in event of a circuit failure or manufacturing defect. The result is that the batteries catch fire or blow up.

"If there's an error there could be big damage done," says Chris Winiewicz, director of marketing at lithium-ion battery maker Valence Technology Inc., which itself is experimenting with plug-in hybrids.

Valence says it has overcome this safety issue by altering the chemistry of lithium-ion systems. It uses batteries based on phosphate rather than cobalt, reducing temperatures in the case of a thermal runaway to less than 200 degrees Celsius.

"So it's a significantly safer chemistry," says Winiewicz.

As lithium-ion technology gets better, lighter, more efficient and cheaper, companies such as Valence, Toshiba Corp. of Japan and Mississauga-based Electrovaya Inc. have set their sites on the plug-in hybrid market. Valence has already modified a Prius with its Saphion technology, giving it 18 times more usable energy and tripling its fuel economy for trips of 100 kilometres or less. But Toyota and other critics of the plug-in hybrid have other dire warnings. They say batteries that are constantly charged, fully drained and charged again will have a short life, requiring a pricey replacement only a few years into owning the vehicle. Consumers won't tolerate that cost.

Winiewicz says Toyota designed the Prius so the battery is never drained below 85 or 90 per cent, and there's no reason why the same limits couldn't be applied to lithium-ion batteries to preserve battery life while still achieving 30 or more kilometres in all-electric mode.

Finally, Toyota plays the environmental card. It points to the shift of pollution from tailpipes to the grid, which in Ontario and throughout the U.S. is still heavily dependent on burning coal.

"Almost 60 per cent of U.S. electricity is generated by burning coal so (we're) not sure plugging in cars in the end offers very much environmental benefit," the company says, adding that it may be "trading one form of emissions for another."

There's also the fact that some jurisdictions, such as Ontario, are already maxing out their grid. Would plug-in cars cause the infrastructure to crash?

In the short-term, charging cars during off-peak hours could easily be handled by the grid and might even create more stability, experts say, pointing out that over time more power infrastructure would be needed. And that infrastructure will increasingly come from renewable energy systems, such as wind power, or from cleaner-burning natural gas and emission-free nuclear.

"There's a general misconception about the grid. They think it's as dirty as gasoline, but in fact it isn't," says Kramer. "Besides, in the future, it's much easier to clean a few central power plants than millions of cars."

Homer-Dixon says a wells-to-wheels comparison of using gas in cars versus charging them on the grid shows that the latter is more efficient. Provided the jurisdiction can support the load, plug-ins hybrids have merit.

"There may be places where plug-in hybrids may be better than others," he says.

Marc Kohler, business development manager for Valence's vehicle systems program, says the major automakers appear to be acting disinterested, but it's not the full picture.

"Publicly they have to say one thing, but R&D guys are actively researching it," says Kohler, pointing out that high oil prices, national security issues, the fact that the technology is available, and the slow progress of fuel-cell cars has created an ideal environment for pursuing plug-in hybrids.

"Everything is coming in line making this the next logical step," he says. "Being the market has already accepted hybrids and more and more are coming out, I don't think this is a flash in the pan."


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