UpFront: Here We Go Again
By Brian J. Hogan
The run-up in oil prices has the general press rocking and rolling, the US Congress has passed new CAFE standards, and there's a new push for alternative fuels and alternative energy. How exciting.
Forgive me, but I've seen this sort of thing before, and I've seen it come and go, and I find it hard to believe the present fuss will have a happy ending.
Back in the '70s, before I had any grey in my mustache, something called the Oil Embargo triggered a lot of work on alternative technologies. One of the innovations I saw back then was a hydrostatic automotive transmission that had the potential to improve fuel efficiency by 50% or more. In the same time period, I remember talking to some engineers who had designed flywheel hybrid drivetrains. Both approaches maximized fuel efficiency by using intermittent engine operation, and employed an energy storing element (flywheel or accumulator) as the energy source during engine shutdown.
I knew another engineer who started a company that designed and built small (8-m) wind turbines, and two others who developed single-passenger commuter vehicles. I remember visiting an engineering company (specialists in designing rotating machinery), that had built a solar-powered air-conditioning system, as well as powergeneration systems that were driven by geothermal sources. And once, long ago, I knew a geophysicist employed by a major oil company who was sent into the deserts of eastern California to explore for geothermal energy sources.
The work done on these alternative technologies encountered technical challenges; although some were severe, the challenges weren't fatal. And the outcome of all these efforts was—essentially—zilch, nada, nichts, squat.
When the price of oil fell, the geothermal exploration project sputtered on for a time, and then was dropped.The air-conditioning system, funded by NASA, was installed at a high school in Arizona. It worked, and so did the geothermally driven generators, but these systems were expensive (as prototypes are), and went into the memory hole. One of the commuter cars went into production. The builder couldn't even sell them to environmental activists, and went broke.The designer of the second commuter vehicle never took it to production, because he received only a handful of orders. Wind turbines have become a niche technology, one that would die without subsidy.The automotive innovations went the way of GM's Wankel.
I've seen the technical talent needed to reduce energy consumption in action, and it's real. But if the current agitation is to have positive results, we also need a market for energy-conserving inventions.
Maybe I'm just getting old and sour, but in my opinion the market for such energy-saving technology doesn't exist, and it can't be forced into existence by politicians.
This article was first published in the March 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.