JAN 19

A series of other thoughts about NAIAS 2018

Written by on January 19, 2018

Let’s start out with my in-the-moment string of notes during the Press Preview at this year’s NAIAS (Detroit Auto Show). This covers the main ideas about this year’s program at the time. I’ll add a few more comments and expanded thoughts at the end.

Not sure if it’s an actual color trend, but there’s a lot of orange at this year’s #NAIAS #NAIAS2018

Attendance seems down and space more open at #NAIAS2018. Things just seem off this year. First thought it was decline of auto industry.

There’s been gap-filling of various kinds over the last few years, suppliers and related fields, but not the vacant corridors this year.

The concept of automotive ownership may be starting to decline, but it’s not to that level yet.

More media info is being released directly from the companies’ media sites directly – cheaper and easier than preparing press kits.

The political environment can’t help. I don’t have #NAIAS info, but my personal impression is that foreign journalist turnout seems low.

Even the “rides” are empty. Maybe journalists are all jaded, and these will fill during the public show. But lotsa folks standing around.

There’s a hominess to a number of the displays. Wood flooring, even on the turntables. And a giant cozy shadowbox wall display.

Maybe fewer booth babes (of the stand next to the car on the turntable variety) at #NAIAS2018 Don’t know about public show in comparison.

Pretty sure this display was also at #naias2017 so there’s some recycling going on, even if -green- is no longer part of the program.

Again, I don’t have specific numbers, but there seem to be fewer cars per display. There’s a subduedness, even in all the flash &bombast

Outrageous seems to be the antithesis of #NAIAS2018 There’s too much of it in the world already, and adding to it won’t go far. They get it.

Not sure if #NAIAS is relevant to @ecogeek anymore. Transport is an important element in a greener world, but carmakers have moved on.

It wasn’t the first thing that occurred to me, but gradually, I had the growing sense that this was not nearly as full of a show as previous years.  There are several things that could be causing that, and it’s likely some combination of all of those factors.  (And I could be completely wrong, the numbers might be different, but it’s my sense of what I observed this year.)  I’m fairly certain that foreign coverage was down from previous years.  The increased travel difficulties (getting a visa at all, let alone a working visa) mean fewer reporters.  A few years ago, I recall the big, welcoming banner in the giant media room with flags of many nationalities.  In 2011, I wrote elsewhere: “The polyglot nature of the show is reinforced both by the numbers of national flags hanging from the ceiling overhead as well as the languages one overhears walking through the room.”  There was none of that in 2018.

The cost of travel could be another factor.  With the big automakers increasingly running their own media, the handouts and press kits are in decline.  Now, all a writer needs to do to get lots of press releases and images is go to the media website of the company (media.carcompany.com or some such) and download all the information they need.  No travel and dealing with Michigan winter required.

Could it be that ownership of automobiles is beginning to decline, and with it a waning interest in cars in general?  I’m not sure that we are quite at that point yet, but there could be an overall fading of interest in cars, and a matching reduction in the amount of coverage that media outlets are willing to provide for it.  Even the local TV and radio stations, that have had a notable presence at recent years’ shows were less present this year.

There were cars to be seen, of course, but very much a less compelling show, especially for an EcoGeek.  Sure, there are still electric vehicles as part of the mix, and some ongoing forward steps from a couple of the companies that seem to be doing some things toward being greener.  But, at the end of the day, not a strong show, and not one with much in the way of green news at all.

JAN 10

The Surprising Green Lining at 2017 NAIAS

Written by on January 10, 2017


For an EcoGeek, there were many surprises at the 2017 edition of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). We’ve been watching the emphasis on green cars decline for a number of years. Some of that is in the mainstreaming of more efficient vehicles, with increased fuel efficiency standards, greater numbers of hybrid vehicles, and alternative fuels. But nothing brought home how far things have come quite so much as this year’s show.

Last year, we thought, “the days of green cars being featured at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) seem to be over.” Where the “green” cars were once a niche item that were typically highlighted with special displays. This year, green is so mainstream that the 2017 Green Car of the Year is also the North American Car of the Year for 2017. Those awards, along with Motor Trend Car of the Year, all went to the Chevrolet Bolt.

And there are many companies with multiple electric drive vehicles. Toyota, Ford, GM, and BMW each have a variety of options available. Some are all electric drive. Some are gas/electric hybrids. Some are smaller, shorter range commuter cars, while others are readily capable of long range trips. It is no longer the case that, if you want an electric drive vehicle, your selection is limited to the one model that a company offers. There are choices, and not just between this manufacturer or that one, but a variety within a company. Even Fiat Chrysler, which has in past years seemingly paid no attention whatsoever to eco-mindedness, has a hybrid Pacifica minivan, which offers an 83 MPGe rating.

At this point, it seems that the automotive manufacturers don’t feel a strong need to keep pushing the market to accept electric vehicles or to get them to understand the benefits. That has been established with consumers, and it is now a matter of finding the right vehicles to meet the demand that they have fostered.

What is exciting for us as EcoGeeks is that the pursuit of transformative technology continues. The lower level of the show has been an unpredictable sideline to the main floor show. In some years it has been almost like a ghost town. In others, it has offered a driving track with sometimes many different vehicles available to test drive. This year, the lower level was packed with dozens of different booths ranging from second-tier manufacturers (who make components and systems for the automakers), autonomous vehicle technologies, two different folding electric scooters, university racing and design programs, and a row full of developers of automotive- and transportation-related apps and services.

As has been the case in previous years, hydrogen-fueled vehicles caught our eye as the next wave to watch in the transformation of the market. The joke about hydrogen fueled vehicles has long been that “Hydrogen powered vehicles are always 20 years in the future.” But now, after several years, that 20 years is starting to feel like it might be inching a bit closer. Where electric vehicles were a decade ago, hydrogen vehicles are today. They are something that some companies are dedicating some of their floor space to displaying. Toyota and Honda both have available hydrogen vehicles on display, and are selling hydrogen vehicles to consumers. In addition, GM, in conjunction with the US Army, has a fuel cell powered Colorado variant on display on the lower level as an investigational next-generation HMMV replacement which is slated for field trials later this year. Completely unrelated to attending the auto show, but perhaps a telling sign, while driving home on the highway on Sunday night, I passed a tanker truck carrying a load of liquid hydrogen. Perhaps it’s the shape of things to come.

MAR 31

Flow Batteries for Household Power Storage

Written by on March 31, 2016


Residential power storage options are starting to get more competitive with a flow battery being introduced to the market in Australia. Flow batteries have been something we’ve looked at for grid-scale storage, and the research into the technology has been making advances. But it has been primarily a utility-scale technology.

However, the technology has been developed to suit a smaller scale, and a commercial version of a household-scale flow battery is coming to market in Australia with a 10kWh flow battery called ZCell. The ZCell uses a zinc bromide flow battery developed by the parent company Redflow. The Redflow battery offers several advantages over lithium-ion battery packs, including high temperature tolerance without a need for active cooling; full cycle depth available and no cycle depth limitations; no concern about thermal runaway; and an electrolyte that is also naturally fire retardant.

The system has been announced with an installed price of “between $A17,500 and $A19,500 a system” (around 14,000 US dollars or 12,500 Euro). The annual average household energy demand for Australia (in 2010) of 7,227 kWh translates to about 19.8kWh per day, so the ZCell would only account for half of that if it was fully charged and then discharged on a daily basis. However, it is likely that many of the homes and businesses with the greatest interest in the ZCell would be more efficient than average.

Local power storage such as the ZCell or the Tesla Powerwall allows direct storage of energy produced by solar panels or other on-site generation when that production exceeds demand, and then allows that stored energy to be used later, when needed. Local power storage can also be used for load-shifting in areas with tiered electricity rates, where higher prices charged for power during peak periods and off-peak periods have lower rates. In cases like that, the battery is charged during less expensive, off-peak times, and then the battery is used instead of the higher-priced grid power for things that need power during the peak periods of the day.


Hybrid Airship Being Readied for Flight

Written by on March 8, 2016


The “world’s largest aircraft,” the Airlander 10, is being readied for flights to begin later this year. The Airlander 10 is a massive hybrid aircraft that combines helium lift, aerodynamic lift, and direct thrust for flight. As we’ve noted before, we are big fans of airships (and even if there are tradeoffs in time and energy costs, we think that there is definitely a place for them in certain niches of air transport), so this is exciting news.

Company information from Hybrid Air Vehicles cites a number of reasons for finding this airship so appealing to EcoGeeks:

“The revolutionary Airlander 10 combines lighter-than-air technology with the best of aeroplanes and helicopters to bring brand new capabilities to aircraft. We produce less noise, less pollution, have a lower carbon footprint, longer endurance (remains airborne for up to three weeks) and better cargo-carrying capacity than virtually any other flying vehicle, with the ability to land and take-off from any surface, including ice, desert and even water.”

At over 300 feet (92 m) long, the Airlander 10 [pdf] is roughly the length of an American football field, and its total envelope is 1.34 million cubic feet (38,000 cubic meters). But the aircraft itself weighs only about 20 tons (20,000 kg). It is the latest in a series of hybrid airship concepts that have been in development over the past several years, and the Airlander itself is the continuation of the now-cancelled US Army LEMV airship.

We are certainly glad to see that the civilian uses of this technology continue to be pursued. It’s also good to see the apparent improvements in the technical performance of the craft. When we covered this in 2012, it had a cargo capacity of 7 tons, while the current payload is up to 10 tons. The Airlander 10 has an endurance of 5 days for manned flights and a cruise speed of 80 knots (148 km/hr).

via: @hottopicnz

JAN 22

Using Metals as Carbon Free Fuel Alternatives

Written by on January 22, 2016

metal powder fuel

Researchers are exploring the novel idea of using metals as fuels. This is not some new, exotic science-fiction material, but rather plentiful, ordinary metals such as iron that could be used in a novel way for storing and transporting renewable energy. According to a McGill University article, the research being led by Professor Jeffrey Bergthorson is proposing “a novel concept for using tiny metal particles – similar in size to fine flour or icing sugar – to power external-combustion engines.” Instead of using the chemical bonds with carbon, which are currently the basis of most fuels we presently use, metal powders could be used in a similar fashion and make use of energetic reactions to release energy when and where it is needed.

The article describes the process: “Unlike the internal-combustion engines used in gasoline-powered cars, external-combustion engines use heat from an outside source to drive an engine. External-combustion engines, modern versions of the coal-fired steam locomotives that drove the industrial era, are widely used to generate power from nuclear, coal or biomass fuels in power stations.”

We already speak of the “embodied energy” in a material as par of its overall sustainability profile. Materials that are energy intensive to produce, such as concrete and steel, are less preferable from a lifecycle perspective compared to a material like wood, which needs much less energy to gather and prepare. So the idea of using iron powder (or some other metal) as a fuel is not as impractical as it might seem at first.

While we think of metal as non-combustible, fine metal can be burned (as anyone who has ever lit a piece of steel wool on fire can tell you). But transporting a load of iron dust is much less hazardous than loads of oil or liquified natural gas.

Using metals as a fuel would require capturing the spent fuel in order to re-process it. Having clouds of rust floating in the air sounds like a dystopian future. But, in theory, processing the oxidized metal back into its pure state could be carried out repeatedly, re-using the same metal over and over.

While the researchers are looking at all levels of energy use with this technology, from automotive uses on up, the idea of storing grid-scale energy or even transporting it from one location to another (refining metal near locations producing lots of energy, much the way aluminum processing presently takes place close to cheap electricity sources), and then transporting the metal to power plants for it to be burned to produce electricity.

One potential drawback that probably requires further investigation is that metal is a much heavier substrate than carbon-based fuels are. If metal dust is to be used for transportation, how heavy is the fuel that needs to be carried for ordinary travel?

But if existing combustion power plants could be adapted to use metal powder instead of coal or other fossil fuels, then much of the existing power generating infrastructure could be used, and power generation could continue to be in the same places it is now, using the same grid as is currently supplying electricity. Large scale power plants are also likely much easier to set up with the equipment necessary to do the capture of exhaust.

via: Quirks and Quarks

JAN 13

Still Plugging Electric Cars at NAIAS 2016

Written by on January 13, 2016


Nobody is trying to save the planet with green cars anymore.

The days of green cars being featured at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) seem to be over.  Gone are the days of rainforest themes and bamboo floors and ostentatiously placed recycling bins.  But we’ve been reporting that for the past few years. We’ve continued to note the decrease in emphasis on the importance of fuel economy, resource conservation, emissions reduction, and similar features that make a car “green.”  Green is now passe.  Or green has become mainstream.  It’s probably a bit of both.

This is not to say that everything has gone back to the way it was.  Regulations for fuel economy have pushed things to where a small, chunky SUV had the kind of unheralded fuel efficiency that would’ve been one of the selling points for a small sedan a few years earlier.  So, in that sense, the entire industry has gotten greener.  But it’s gotten rolled into the ordinary business of selling cars.

The one thing which is a green car element that was repeated across many manufacturers’ displays this year was the electric vehicle charging station.  Rather than being surrounded by a special display drawing attention to the “green” car, in most instances, the rechargeable vehicles were identified primarily by having that company’s power unit standing beside it (often with the unit plugged in to show the connection).  Audi, BMW, Nissan, and Porsche are among those with this kind of display.  Having a matching branded charging station in one’s own garage is one thing, but the interoperability of different chargers needs to be assured for the uptake of electric vehicles to continue to grow.

Instead of everyone trying to establish their green credibility, this year the feature that most manufacturers seem to want you to covet is having the ability to connect your phone and your car.  Rather than embedding complicated systems into the vehicle itself, they are instead taking advantage of the nimbler technology of the smartphone, and making it easier to pair that with your new vehicle.

The other thing that was striking to a long-time auto show attendee was the number of shifts in space between different manufacturers.  While some companies’ presence was in the same part of Cobo Hall where they have been in previous years, there were moves among several companies major companies with their displays in very different places from where they had been for the last few years.  Does being in a different place mean anything significant?  Maybe not.  But at the same time, it seems emblematic of a shift in the landscape.

Tesla, which had been the brash upstart at the show a few years ago and maintained a presence for several years, was not a part of this year’s show at all.  More surprisingly, Toyota’s presence was reduced to a small counter with just two people standing behind it, although sub-brands Scion and Lexus had a presence, and they evidently had a bit more to reveal during the continuation of the show on Tuesday.

Luxury brands seemed to be a bigger presence than in the past.  Both Cadillac and Lincoln displays were disconnected from the rest of their respective parent companies, and were across from one another in about the space around where Tesla had been in past years.  A “luxury lifestyle” magazine (with a handful of high-end cars in their display) had a space easily as large as some of the less mainstream exhibits from previous years, such as VIA, or BYD, or last year’s car printing 3D printer.  There seemed to be a new emphasis on exclusivity, while also an overall reduction in the size of the footprint than in previous shows.  While last year there were many technological displays on the lower level, this year it was just the US Army (also present on the lower level last year) and the automotive design program of Lawrence Technological University.

But the number of companies with more than one electric or hybrid vehicle seems like this year’s notable trend.  BMW, for one example, has three different vehicles (i8, i3, and 330e), all for different market segments, with plug-in capability.  That, as much as anything, seems to be the green trend to watch for the next couple of years.


Osmosis Power Is Off the Table Now

Written by on January 5, 2016


Not every energy technology that is explored is going to lead to a successful new power industry. Osmosis power was one of the more unusual technologies we’ve come across. But now, after a few years of investigation, it appears that this technology is not a viable option for larger scale power generation.

Statkraft, the Norwegian company which had opened a pioneering research facility to explore the potential of osmotic power generation, has closed its operations.  Moreover, a recent research publication looking at the technology finds that biofouling, the accumulation of algae, bacteria, and other organic material on surfaces where they adversely affect the performance of the system, makes the technology unfit for power generation at the present time.

It is not inconceivable that further technological developments might be developed that could make osmotic power generation a viable system. However, with so many other ways of producing power cleanly and inexpensively, and with the other challenges presented in using osmosis, it is likely that this option will remain shelved.

JUL 16

Pioneering Waste-Reusing Plastic Roads

Written by on July 16, 2015


A new way of building roads with recycled plastic is being developed by Dutch company KWS Infra. As a resident of Michigan, where the combination of hard northern winters and a legislature that refuses to do its job have led to a statewide condition with many roads in embarrassingly bad shape, this hits close to home. The plastic roads are claimed to offer a number of advantages that make this a potentially revolutionary technology.

The proposed system is going to use “100% recycled materials” according to the company. If plastic-based roads can serve to make a use for more plastic waste and keep it from entering waste streams, that could be a huge benefit all by itself. The premanufactured road sections are modular, and would be built in a factory and then shipped to the work site where they could be installed faster than conventionally-built roads can be completed. The plastic road modules are also better able to be installed over sand or poor soil (which is a frequent issue in the Netherlands). The modular units can also contain chases for electrical wireways or other infrastructure to be incorporated. As with other premanufactured systems and components, there can be better quality control of manufacturing as opposed to work done in the field. The modular road sections are also lighter in weight, meaning less impact on roads and less transportation energy to deliver materials.

The plastic road could be more durable and longer lasting than conventional paving, and is resistant to a wide range of temperatures (although it might not be suitable for use in far northerly regions). “Plastic Road is also virtually maintenance free. It is resistant to corrosion and weathering. So it can easily to temperatures from -40 to +80 degrees Celsius and it is much more resistant to chemical attack. We estimate that the life span of roads can be tripled.” (article translated via Google Translate) Having a material that won’t develop potholes could be a huge advantage if the plastic road is able to deliver that.  Presumably the modular panels have some structural strength which gives them the ability to span over poor soils, and that might also help in resisting damage from frost heave.  Having panels that can be more quickly replaced could also lead to less road blockage and delay during construction (and less idling vehicles is yet another environmental side benefit that could come from these roads).

Other interesting technologies, like solar roadways, might dovetail with the modular construction of plastic roads, enabling both systems to be adopted more readily by combining the benefits of both in a single system.  The open chases of the plastic roads could also make it fairly easy for the solar panels to be prewired in the factory, and only need to make connections between modules in order to connect the system.

The list of potential features the plastic roads offer is impressive. The company is now looking for a partner and a location for a demonstration pilot program to test these roads and see how well they perform in real-world conditions.

via: Construction Data Building Blocks Blog


Superhydrophobic Coating Makes Better Solar Panels

Written by on June 2, 2015


Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a coating for glass that is superhydrophobic, making it so that it will literally bounce water off the surface. This coating also decreases the amount of light that reflects away from the glass. The benefits for solar collectors are immediately evident.

The ability to be self-cleaning would be an enormous benefit for solar panels, even without the additional conversion efficiency benefits. Although many of the best locations for solar panel farms are in dusty desert climates with very little rainfall, even there, the ability to clean the solar panels with just a small amount of water and the self-cleaning ability of the panels would be a benefit, and a savings in labor and in water use.

The coating can be applied to glass in a number of different categories, including architectural purposes, and military applications, but the use of superhydrophobic coating for solar panels could be particularly beneficial:

“Where solar panels are concerned, the suppression of reflected light translates into a 3-6 percent relative increase in light-to-electricity conversion efficiency and power output of the cells. Coupled with the superhydrophobic self-cleaning ability, this could also substantially reduce maintenance and operating costs of solar panels. In addition, the coating is highly effective at blocking ultraviolet light.”

According to the ORNL press release, the coating is also highly durable, unlike other hydrophobic and self-cleaning technologies. The process to make this coating is also cost-effective, and it “can be fabricated through industry standard techniques mak[ing] it easy and inexpensive to scale up and apply to a wide variety of glass platforms.”

via: Oak Ridge National Laboratory press release

image via: ORNL

MAR 11

Solar Impulse Begins Round-the-World Journey

Written by on March 11, 2015

Earlier this week, the Solar Impulse aircraft took off from Abu Dhabi on the first leg of it’s atempt to fly around the globe entirely on solar power.  We’ve been especially interested in this project from its beginnings as it has moved along setting new records, and we will now be watching as they make this trip around the world.

Pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg will not fly non-stop (which Picard did in 1999 in the Breitling Orbiter 3, completing the first non-stop trip around the world by balloon), but will fly a number of legs over several months.

The adventure is expected to last until July or August of this year, with the flight making a number of stops along the way.  The Solar Impulse site lists the proposed route with “stops in Muscat, Oman; Ahmedabad and Varanasi, India; Mandalay, Myanmar; and Chongqing and Nanjing, China. After crossing the Pacific Ocean via Hawaii, Si2 will fly across the Continental U.S.A. stopping in three locations – Phoenix, and New York City at JFK. A location in the Midwest will be decided dependent on weather conditions. After crossing the Atlantic, the final legs include a stop-over in Southern Europe or North Africa before arriving back in Abu Dhabi.”

The idea of solar powered flight seemed like a distant possibility when the Solar Impulse team announced their concept in 2007.  But work has proceeded methodically, with improvements and new records set along the way in the development of an entirely solar powered aircraft that can even fly through the dark of night solely from its stored power.  Circumnavigating the globe entirely on solar power will mark another milestone in flight, and in green technology, as well.