Beyond Batteries: New Technologies Power the Car of the Future
Motavalli, Jim, E Magazine
Every year, 30,000 people die in the U.S. from airborne toxins released by automobiles. Also largely because of the car, 100 million Americans live in areas with dangerous ground-level ozone concentrations. It's plain that, with a million cars a month adding to the 200 million already here, the fossil-fueled automobile is choking us to death. Is there an alternative?
Although battery-powered electric cars seem to be finally about to find their place on the world's roads (see Consumer News this issue), they may prove to be an interim technology in the race to replace the internal-combustion engine with something cleaner. Though it's the battery cars that are road-ready now, fuel cells, hybrids and flywheels offer a tantalizing vision of a more practical, low-emission transportation future. Each of these alternatives has distinct advantages and drawbacks.
* FLYWHEELS. Since flywheels were used by potters millennia ago, their application in automobiles today could seem quaint. They're nothing more than perfectly balanced and rapidly turning discs, which store energy and then release it as they turn. In fact, as proposed by California-based U.S. Flywheel Systems, this spinning disc is a high-tech, carbon-fiber marvel capable of turning (in a vacuum) at an incredible 100,000 revolutions per minute (rpm). When harnessed to a generator, flywheels (also known as "electromechanical batteries") provide steady and reliable power, along with delivering big surges for quick acceleration. Unlike electric car batteries, flywheels contain no corrosive or toxic materials.
There are hurdles to be overcome before flywheels can be practical in automobiles. Because they turn so fast, a flywheel freed from its housing is a dangerous projectile. Rosen Motors, a California-based company whose principals include Benjamin Rosen, chairman of Compaq Computers, is probably the closest to a public demonstration of a safe, drivable hybrid flywheel car. Based on a Mercedes E320 sedan, the Rosen hybrid generates electricity through a low-emission gas turbine engine (running on unleaded fuel), and stores one kilowatt-hour of energy in its flywheel. Deborah Castleman, Rosen vice president, predicts that the company will have its system ready by February 1998, and that it expects to deliver gas mileage about double that of its host vehicle (about 60 miles per gallon in the case of the Mercedes E320). "We think battery-powered electrics will serve at best a niche market," Castleman says. "We're concentrating on a real replacement for the current generation of automobiles."
* HYBRID CARS. Although Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is an environmental visionary, he's decidedly bearish on electric cars, calling them "a future technology whose time has passed. …