Inventing a lean green machine
Seattle Times business reporter
Eric Leonhardt knows how many cows there are in Whatcom County (66,000). But it's not the cows that interest him; it's the manure.
Leonhardt, director of the Vehicle Research Institute at Western Washington University in Bellingham, looks at cow pies and sees miles of pollution-free driving.
He wants to transform manure into "biogas," methane that fuels a hybrid vehicle running on compressed natural gas.
Throughout the region, steady progress is being made toward using alternatives like natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells and biodiesel to power the next generation of vehicles. The alternatives provide potentially low-cost, environmentally friendly domestic sources of energy to reduce dependence on oil.
Hydrogen fuel-cell technology is being led by companies including Ballard Power Systems of British Columbia. Ballard is conducting field trials of 110 buses and cars around the world powered with fuel-cell engines, including two passenger cars leased to the mayors of Los Angeles and Tokyo.
"We absolutely believe that fuel cells will replace the internal-combustion engine in transportation," said Michael Rosenberg, Ballard Power Systems' treasurer. He estimated that fuel-cell powered cars are about a decade behind gas-electric hybrid cars in entering in the mass market.
To boost the effort, Canada and California are building a network of hydrogen fuel stations called Hydrogen Highways, and are considering ways to link their systems by including Washington and Oregon. Canada's network would run between Vancouver and Whistler in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Another alternative fuel, biodiesel, is made from waste vegetable oil, soybean oil and even animal fats. Unlike hydrogen or natural gas, biodiesel doesn't require specially designed vehicles; it can work in almost any car or truck with a diesel engine, and it produces much less air pollution than diesel.
To increase the supply of biodiesel available here in Washington, farmers are being encouraged to plant mustard seed and rapeseed for the fuel market, said Linda Graham, director of the Puget Sound Clean Cities Coalition.
Natural gas as an alternative fuel has already gained considerable acceptance in the region. The Port of Seattle operates natural-gas trucks and cars and opened a natural-gas fuel station two years ago at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Pierce and King counties, Puget Sound Energy, airport shuttles and taxis and the cities of Seattle and Kirkland all operate fleets running on natural gas.
But with only one public fuel station, their range is limited. Vancouver, B.C., by contrast, has dozens of fuel stations selling compressed natural gas.
For consumers, the cost of a natural-gas vehicle from a manufacturer runs about 25 percent higher than that of a standard gasoline car. Manufacturers selling compressed natural-gas vehicles here include Ford, General Motors and Honda.
Converting a standard car to operate on natural gas can cost between $3,000 and $5,000. The advantages are mainly environmental, with savings on fuel over the long term.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of this, the Vehicle Research Institute's Leonhardt is concentrating on improving the natural-gas engine and its ability to run on biogas.
The institute has been a pioneer of innovative automobile technologies for more than 30 years. Under its former director, Michael Seal, it produced 37 cars and won competitions around the world using solar power and other environmentally friendly technologies, including biodiesel, ethanol, methanol and natural gas.
One engine built by the institute served as the prototype for the Subaru Legacy until 1998.
"By running on a fuel that is otherwise a waste product, it's much better than any other alternative we can see," Seal said. "What comes in the intake is dirtier than what goes out the tailpipe."
By Seal and Leonhardt's calculations, two dairy cows would produce enough manure to drive a car 10,000 miles a year.
By the looks of the institute's Viking 32 experimental car, you wouldn't want manure anywhere near it. The slick blue machine looks and performs like a snazzy sports car.
But inside, it has an electric motor in front and a natural-gas engine in back, which helps it achieve 50 miles per gallon with virtually zero carbon-dioxide emissions.
The four-wheel-drive car can also be raised for ground clearance and visibility or lowered for better safety and aerodynamics.
For the next international competition, Leonhardt hopes to run it on biogas.
Waste such as manure can be captured and fermented in an oxygen-free container to produce a biogas that is mostly methane, the principal component of natural gas. A second step is needed to refine the gas to remove contaminants.
Such systems are already in place at farms throughout the country, with the methane burned to drive generators that supply electricity.
In the Northwest, electricity is relatively inexpensive, while gas prices are not. "It's more valuable if we can put it into cars," Leonhardt says.
Right now, he's seeking funding for a demonstrator unit that converts manure to fuel. He then wants to test it on one of the institute's custom-built cars.
Biogas can also be derived from food, rotten produce, even human waste. An added benefit of collecting the manure is reducing the amount of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Methane is clean when burned.
The process is being perfected in Göteborg, Sweden, where biogas is sold at fuel stations. Volvo produces "Bi-Fuel" versions of most of its models, which run on methane but have petroleum backup tanks.
Ultimately, natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells and biodiesel will all play a role.
"None of them work in every type of vehicle for every purpose," says Graham of the Puget Sound Clean Cities Coalition. "We need that full variety to meet all our needs and displace as much petroleum as we can with something that is cleaner and domestic."
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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