Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Our Automotive Future: Clever Tech Meets Clever Manufacturing

In a decade where green has become the new buzzword for almost every industry, automakers are facing two big problems: economy and emissions. The simplest way to achieve this is to reduce weight and reduce the size of the engine. With all the government mandated safety equipment and luxury features that today’s customers demand - power everything, air conditioning and the like - achieving the former is very difficult. And fitting a small engine into a heavy body is only going to stunt performance and make fuel economy all the more worse.

Fortunately, there are a few potential solutions. Carbon fibre is one. It’s said to be ten times stronger than steel and five times lighter. Unfortunately, it’s also four times as expensive, making it impractical for use in non-luxury vehicles. Now, engineers are looking to green energy and new manufacturing methods to make carbon fibre cheaper. Still, the results are yet to be seen.

There’s also the burgeoning belief that ultracapacitors are set to replace lithium ion batteries in hybrid and electric vehicles, though this is far from certain. Like carbon fibre, ultracapacitors are very expensive and unlike today’s lithium ion batteries are quite bulky and heavy. Think of the first generation of phone batteries for a worthy comparison. Fortunately, costs are coming down. According to Mike Sund, VP of investor relations at Maxwell Technologies, “[Ultracapacitor] costs have been reduced by two-thirds over the past three years.”

Even in this post-GFC world, the price of oil is also becoming an increasing concern for consumers and big business alike. Products, like Ethanol E10 and E85, are decent stopgap measures though aren’t solving the bigger problem. Now, companies are looking to manufacture synthetic gasoline from biomass such as woodchips and other waste materials.

The technology still isn’t at the stage where it can compete with the major oil refineries, meeting only 1/8th of their capacity. Another hurdle is the raw biomass itself, which is too heavy to transport long distances. Still, new advances and investment in the industry are sure to produce some interesting results in the near future.

Lastly, the Scuderi Group has developed an experimental split-cycle engine that causes combustion to occur after the piston reaches the top of the cylinder, which it claims is 50% more fuel efficient than contemporary petrol engines. How about a 1L engine that offers the same performance as a 1.8, with better fuel economy than a contemporary 1L? By using some clever trickery that allows the spark to come later, along with a turbocharger and small air-tank, the Scuderi engine could reinvigorate faith in the internal combustion engine – if it ever reaches production.
So, the future of the automobile is looking bright. Now all that’s left is the wait to see if these technologies will reach production status.
By Tristan Hankins
Source: WSJ , Video: Scuderi Group



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