Fuels From Pond Scum

Usually the term “pond scum” is derogatory, implying that the person characterized by it is one of the lowest forms of life. But now pond scum might win new respect because a wide variety of prestigious scientists, entrepreneurs and institutions believe that it could be the answer to the spiraling costs of fossil-based fuels.

The obvious exemplar of that attitude is the Algal Biomass Organization (ABO), recently formed to help accelerate the development and commercial application of algae biomass. Though very low on the evolutionary scale, algae have shown significant potential to address some of the world’s most pressing issues, including climate and pollution concerns, alternative fuels and global economic development, according to the founders of the new organization.

As any of you who have watched algae take over your garden pond or swimming pool know, the various types of algae are among the fastest-growing and most productive plants in the world. The unique characteristics of algae enable them to be developed for a number of uses; this fact has spawned the discipline of algaculture, a form of aquaculture involving the farming of species of algae. While seaweed is included among the types of algae referred to as “macroalgae,” most of the algal-farming development work has concentrated on microalgae, otherwise known as phytoplankton, microphytes and planktonic algae. Seaweed is harvested wild from the oceans of the world, but microalgae can be successfully cultivated much more easily. In fact, it’s hard to stop them from growing.

According to the ABO, algae are an ideal low-cost, renewable and environmentally progressive raw material that can be converted into biofuels such as biodiesel, which can be used in conventional diesel engines with little or no modifications. The strains of algae can grow rapidly (sometimes doubling in biomass in as little as a few hours), require limited nutrients and can annually deliver up to 2,000 to 5,000 gallons of fuel per acre of nonarable land.

There is a wealth of good news on the environmental front as well. Algae do not require freshwater to thrive (witness their successful growth in the world’s oceans), so cultivation of algae will not compete for limited supplies of freshwater. In addition, algae can also be used to clean wastewater and recycle greenhouse gases such as CO2, NOx and SOx, literally sucking pollutants and potentially harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in their growth cycle while providing the feedstocks to create fuels. The ABO suggests that algal cultivation can allow many nations of the world to become self-sufficient when it comes to energy, without infringing upon arable land.

 “Given the social, economic and environmental possibilities for algae and the growing number of companies, technologies and products being developed to address them, it is becoming increasingly important to harness their potential for use across multiple industries now,” said Billy Glover, managing director of Environmental Strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and also co-chair of the ABO steering committee. “Boeing recognizes that algae biomass holds tremendous potential for use as jet fuel, and it fits into our plan to guide aviation toward commercially viable and sustainable fuel sources -- fuels with substantially smaller greenhouse gas footprints that do not compete with food or require unacceptable quantities of land and freshwater resources.”

The group will gather for the second Annual Algae Biomass Summit in Seattle on October 23 and 24, 2008.

Fuel Cell Vehicles Are Nearly Here

Over the past year or so, we have had the chance to drive a number of fuel cell-powered vehicles. Each has been a remarkable motorcar, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is how unremarkable they are to drive. In our experience, their behavior is almost uncannily like conventional cars, which means two things: one, that fuel cell vehicles are not inherently quirky, and two, that the engineers did a good job developing systems so the electric drive systems mimic conventional gasoline-powered drivetrain operation. We can’t imagine that is an easy task since, unlike the typical gasoline or diesel automobile engine, the fuel cell doesn't use combustion to create power. Instead, it uses a simple chemical reaction to make electricity, which can then be either used to power an electric motor (or motors) and electronic features or stored in batteries for future use.

What powers a fuel cell? As we said, two of the most abundant elements on the globe: hydrogen and oxygen. It is stuff that, at first glance at least, seems pretty easy to come by, and the bonus is that when the chemical reaction takes place, the only byproduct is a little H2O. All the residue created by current internal combustion engines -- you know, the particulates, nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide that give environmentalists nightmares -- just vanish with the use of fuel cells. 

As exciting as all this sounds, fuel cell-powered vehicles do have some hurdles to jump before they end up in your garage. As a study by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants noted, if fuel cell vehicles are to have significant long-term impact in the auto industry, automakers and suppliers must successfully address 12 commercialization challenges that loom over the auto fuel cell industry.

According to the study, the most difficult among the dozen challenges are low-cost infrastructure, vehicle range and power density of the fuel. The infrastructure question is especially vexing. The current gasoline fuel-supply infrastructure is both efficient and convenient, though consumers have grumbled about sky-high gasoline prices. Conceiving and then building a new fuel-delivery infrastructure that could transport, store and dispense highly volatile hydrogen, which is a gas in normal ambient temperatures, is a huge hurdle. Another big hurdle is that, while abundant, hydrogen rarely occurs in nature in its pristine state. Instead, it is usually part of a compound like water or hydrocarbon. Separating hydrogen for use as fuel takes effort and energy that must be factored into the overall equation.

Despite the hurdles, the study predicted a bright future for fuel cells. In the automotive realm, the think tank says vehicle-makers' commitment is strong and predicts that automakers and others will invest billions to develop and try to commercialize workable, low-cost fuel cell technology. Despite uncertainties concerning government regulations, technology implementation and customer acceptance, automakers remain steadfast in their pursuit of commercially viable fuel cell vehicles.

Red (Light) Alert

Forewarned is forearmed. That truism has a new meaning when it comes to Global Positioning Systems, because motorists with these devices can now get an early warning about red-light cameras and speed traps, helping them conform to the letter of the law. PhantomAlert Inc., a leading provider of passive, anti-radar and red-light camera products, has announced a limited, free distribution of a GPS-based database that locates and warns drivers about stationary red-light and speed cameras, as well as traditional speed trap locations.

Designed to work with the new PhantomAlert device of PhantomPlate Inc., the proprietary database “…is the biggest breakthrough motorists have seen since radar detectors,” said Joe Scott, PhantomPlate’s director of marketing. The company’s new red-light, speed-camera detector works by using GPS to map out the locations of all known traffic enforcement locations. The location database is then loaded on a GPS product similar to a radar detector.

PhantomAlert can store 150,000 positions in its database, and the company says all cameras and speed traps in North America are covered. The proprietary database was developed with input from motorists themselves. It is a dynamic source of up-to-date information that is verified by thousands of drivers with intimate knowledge of the enforcement locations. Speed-camera locations are divided into different data sets to distinguish between fixed speed cameras, mobile camera positions, red-light cameras, schools, and high-collision areas. The PhantomAlert GPS speed-camera detector can also subdivide some of these groups by speed limit and allocate a voice alert.

The tiny PhantomAlert unit has an LED display. When a warning is triggered, a chime is heard followed by an announcement. The speed limit at the camera site will flash before going back to displaying the vehicle’s speed. This will typically happen at approximately 600 yards from the camera position. A second chime is heard at 200 yards from the camera site, and if the vehicle is still over the speed limit, a continuous warning is heard until the vehicle speed drops to the speed limit, or the camera site is passed, at which time an “all clear” chime is heard.

PhantomAlert detects Gatso, Truvelo, SPECS, Speedmaster, DS2, traffic-light cameras, high-traffic collision areas and all other permanent safety cameras. The detector will give an over-speed warning in close proximity to the camera if exceeding the speed limit but will automatically mute when within the speed limit. Drivers are warned of only cameras on their immediate routes, thereby negating false alerts. Drivers are also advised as they approach high-collision areas.

The unit announces close proximity to schools from Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., helping assure that these important low-speed zones are honored. The unit displays the vehicle’s current location as latitude and longitude, which can be relayed to emergency services or breakdown authorities if needed. Priced at $219, the half-pound unit is ready to ship now.

Staying in Control

Those of you who follow the auto industry closely have heard a great deal about blind-spot and lane-departure systems. In fact, we have covered both several times here at Driving Today. But now a new study from Harris Interactive throws a whole new light on the technologies. The major takeaway from the study is that while a sizable number of consumers seem interested in buying the technologies, they might not completely trust them.

The AutoTECHCAST study found that half of the respondents expressed an interest in purchasing blind-spot detection technology for their next new vehicle, and that placed it 10th among 66 unique technologies measured in the 2008 study. The groundswell of support was not nearly as strong for lane-departure warning technology, but three in 10 (29 percent) adults that evaluated the technology showed interest in purchasing it.

While there is an interest in the new technologies, though, the survey found that drivers are not ready to give up control of their cars to a machine, no matter how smart it is. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of those who say they would consider buying a blind-spot warning system indicate they are happy to get an auditory or vibration warning of an impending hazard, but they would prefer to take the necessary action to avoid the collision themselves. The same holds true with lane departures. The majority (62 percent) indicate that they prefer a system that warns them their vehicle is drifting out of lane but they would prefer to make the necessary maneuver to correct the situation, rather than relying on the system to do it.

“This reaction shows that drivers see the benefit of blind-spot warning. Our research also demonstrates strong preference on consumers’ behalf to stay safe yet in control at the same time,” said Steve Lovett, director of Harris Interactive automotive and transportation research practice. “This is an important insight that marketers and brand managers need to understand to position this technology effectively.”

Another thing they might need to understand to position the technology effectively is how to get the price down. When it comes to blind-spot detection and warning, half of those who evaluated the technology by reading a short description of its functionality and benefits indicate they are likely to include it in their next vehicle. But when those same consumers were made aware of the system’s estimated market price of $600, interest in obtaining the technology decreased to 29 percent.

While initial consideration for lane-departure warning is much lower than for blind-spot detection and warning (29 percent versus 50 percent respectively), drivers who evaluated lane-departure warning didn’t seem to have as much difficulty with the system’s expected retail price. Once respondents were made aware of the estimated market price of $400, consideration for lane departure was 21 percent -- not too far off that of blind-spot warning.

These new innovative technologies beg the question: Are drivers ready to give up control of their vehicles to allow them to take corrective action? At this time, the answer is no.

Your Car & You: The Romance Evolves

Imagine, if you will, your car calling you on your mobile phone and telling you it needs its oil changed. Imagine your car sending you an email warning you that if you don't replace its battery it might not start tomorrow morning. And imagine your car letting you track online where your spouse was last night when she said she was going to a friend's house to work on the Girl Scout cookie drive.

Does all this sound too fantastical to contemplate? Does it seem like the mad ravings of an automotive futurist? Well, actually those functions and many more will be available to you in just a few months from a start-up company called CarShield. And, amazing as it all sounds, you don't even have to buy a new ultra-luxury car to enjoy all this. Instead, virtually any car built after 1995 can be equipped with this technology. Leveraging proprietary vehicle analytic tools and wireless Internet connectivity, the fully self-contained CarShield device plugs easily into a vehicle's standard diagnostic port to provide real-time information to keep the vehicle owner truly in tune with the status of their vehicle and the safety of her or his family.

"Our vision and goal is to empower the individual automobile owner with an easy to use and affordable solution that provides valuable, real-time diagnostic information about their vehicle's operating condition, location and many other convenience services," said David Lepejian, CarShield's CEO. "Unlike OnStar, CarShield works with all car makes and models and provides more services."

CarShield's device harnesses five technologies: GPS, wireless communication, predictive diagnostics, computing intelligence and Internet access to enable the owner to monitor, analyze and disseminate a variety of onboard information previously unavailable or only available to mechanics and dealerships. The unit can be plugged in a few seconds without requiring professional installation.

Unlike others service currently available to consumers -- the two most prominent being OnStar and LoJack -- the new system enables a two-way communication between owner and vehicle by relaying information in real time through the Internet, PDA or mobile phone. Using the vehicle's own engine control module data, CarShield monitors essential engine functions and sends alerts via email, text or phone regarding any irregularity in the vehicle's electrical and fuel systems, battery health or tire pressure. This means you can respond to potential problems long before they create an inconvenience, safety hazard or a need to call for roadside assistance.

"CarShield can be configured in a number of ways, including sending out a text message when an equipped car goes over a certain speed or wanders out of a specific geographical area," said James Jefferies, CarShield's vice president of sales. "Any parent can appreciate the peace of mind that comes with knowing where your children have traveled to with the family automobile and how fast they got there."

Among its functions the new system offers Web and mobile phone interface allowing you to receive service and safety warnings via text, email or phone, and its remote smog check function could eliminate the need of visiting a smog check station. In addition, its satellite-assisted positioning function helps provide emergency support, including summoning roadside assistance, and it provides email/text notification when vehicle leaves a designated area or exceeds pre-defined speed limits. The system can also detect unauthorized movement of your car -- by your family or by a thief -- and can assist in tracking the vehicle to discover its current location. A Web interface can display where your vehicle has been and when it arrived and departed specific locations (aiding you in building your divorce case) and if you lock yourself out of you car, it can unlock it for you, too.

CarShield will be available to new-car dealerships in March and to the public in June. The annual service subscription of $140 includes all its services, including roadside assistance and remote smog check.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about automobiles and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.