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Rounding the Curve

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles examining emerging technologies and the jobs they're creating.

By Lisa Hochgraf

The alternatives are coming! The alternatives are coming!

The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius are causing quite a commotion. Both cars are gasoline-electric hybrids, each having both an electric motor and an ultra-low-emission gasoline engine. The goal is to achieve a very high level of fuel efficiency with almost zero pollution.

The Prius was the first gasoline-electric hybrid production vehicle, having been released to Japanese consumers a bit more than a year ago. It is a roomy, four-door, five-passenger vehicle slated to join Toyota's U.S lineup in a few months. The Insight, however, is the first hybrid to reach U.S consumers—it's scheduled to be in showrooms now.

Both vehicles will be equipped with a high level of equipment and priced in the $20,000 range. However, Honda's entry into the alternative market, unlike the family-oriented Toyota, is a sleek and sporty two-seater, reminiscent of its CRX car from a few years back. Expect to be hearing a lot about both of these hybrid gasoline-electric automobiles in the coming months.

And they're not the only alternatives to traditional gasoline-powered cars now coming online for U.S. consumers. Next time you rent a car in California, an electric car—such as GM's EV1—may well be among your model options. Or, if you're buying a car these days, you could choose a flexible-fuel vehicle that will run on either gasoline or ethanol, such as a Chrysler minivan or a Ford Taurus.

"It's very evident that hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles are coming to the market," says Michael Svestka, team leader of the University of Illinois at Chicago 1999 Ethanol Vehicle Challenge team, which won first prize in the national competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. "If you think back five years, that wasn't the case. [Now,] the option is there."

Indeed, a great deal of investment is currently going into research, development and demonstration of cars that run on something other than gasoline alone. The investment is being driven (pun intended) by a variety of factors: environmental regulation, demand and competition from overseas, and a desire to use less imported petroleum. Big automakers and smaller supplier companies alike are striving to overcome the challenges of creating alternative-fuel vehicles that Americans will like as much—and buy as enthusiastically—as their beloved gasoline-powered cars.

All of this is good news for mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers. To sweeten things even more, several Department of Energy-sponsored programs are supporting students in their efforts to learn about alternative-fuel vehicles. In all, opportunities in this area look bright.

"I think we're just seeing the tip of the proverbial iceberg," says Alex Gibson, Ph.D., a research engineer one year into his systems work at the vehicle electronic systems department of Ford Research Lab in Dearborn, Mich.

DRIVING DEMAND

Michael Seal, founder and director of the Vehicle Research Institute of the Department of Engineering Technology at Western Washington University, Bellingham, says U.S. environmental regulations—which the Japanese have embraced wholeheartedly—have helped push competitive development of alternative-fuel technologies.

"Regulations are passed (in the United States) and the Japanese parliament adopts them, too, and refuses to back down," Seal says. "They've consistently done that with emissions [laws] in California. If you've sampled the air in Tokyo, you know they have a very serious problem."

Gibson says he sees regulation-generated demand from Europe pulling along alternative-fuel research here in the United States.

"Initially to help grow the market, we're working on smaller systems for smaller cars that are very common in the European market," Gibson says, noting that his manager had just returned from a Beijing meeting addressing the topic of electric vehicles. "This is truly a global effort."

Lessening Americans' dependence on oil from overseas is a major reason the U.S. DOE has been a supporter of student alternative-fuel vehicle competitions, according to Shelley Launey, director of the Clean Cities Program for the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., and the coordinator of DOE-sponsored alternative-fuel car competitions.

"If our mission is to build more efficient vehicles that use less petroleum products, especially less imported petroleum products, what better way to get things rolling than by getting students involved?" she asks.

With so many good reasons for building alternative-fuel vehicles, it's not surprising that the big automakers and a plethora of supplier companies are taking up the charge, hiring team members and helping to build what could be a major industry in the future. (To get a feel for the number of players in this market, see the list of electric vehicle-related companies at www.radix.net or the list of methanol vehicle-related companies at www.energy.ca.gov/afvs/m85/methanolcontacts.html.)

Seal says he's familiar with several smaller companies working on batteries and related technologies, as well as motors for hybrid electric vehicles and the producers of the alternative fuels themselves. In addition to the large automakers, these groups can prove viable places for graduating engineers to find work.

"A lot of groups are growing by leaps and bounds," says Ted Bohn, a consulting engineer at the Advanced Powertrain Test Facility at Argonne National Labs, Argonne, Ill., who's also affiliated with Power Designers, a Madison, Wis., manufacturer of fast charge systems for electric vehicle batteries.

AVAILABLE OPTIONS

Many great minds are working on alternative-fuel vehicles. And that's a good thing, considering how difficult the pros and cons of the various fuels can be to weigh. As an illustration of the kinds of issues that arise in alternative fuel research, consider some of the pros and cons of ethanol and natural gas, hybrid cars and fuel cells.

Svestka says one of the things he likes about ethanol is that the fuel is derived from corn, which makes it a renewable resource. He quotes a statistic that 78% of the carbon dioxide produced by burning ethanol goes back into producing the next crop of corn from which the next tank of ethanol would be made.

Svestka also thinks ethanol would be fairly easy for consumers to adopt because, as a liquid at normal outside temperatures, it is dispensed just like gasoline—with a hose and a pump—and many stations already offer the option.

"Many consumers would like to continue to do what they're already doing—just push the nozzle in," he says.

However, refueling also offers one of the drawbacks of ethanol—the infrastructure isn't quite ready yet. There are many stations across the United States and many around Chicago that can accommodate ethanol distribution, Svestka says, but not so many as to take a carefree driving tour of the country. "You have to plan for it still, on the map. I don't know if you want to drive to the middle of Montana."

Seal says his pick of the alternative fuels is natural gas, especially in terms of a fuel to complement electricity in a hybrid vehicle.

"We do our home heating with it," he says. "It's familiar and it's everywhere. The distribution network is almost there. And only hydrogen is cleaner."

While a natural gas pipeline is a part of our current infrastructure in the United States, compressor pumps for putting the vapor into vehicle fuel tanks are not yet commonplace, Seal notes. "Canada decided to do it. They're ready."

Ethanol and natural gas are but two of many possibilities for stand-alone fuels and for a fuel complementing electricity in hybrids. Other fuels covered by the Alternative Fuels Data Center (www.afdc.nrel.gov) include biodiesel (mono alkyl esters), electricity, hydrogen, methanol, P-series (blends of ethanol, methyltetrahydrofuran, pentanes with butane—the most recently approved), and solar fuel.

The concept of hybrid electric vehicles is currently very popular. Electricity provides the only zero-emission option (which makes it the only fuel that meets some emissions standards), but it can give low performance and is unlikely to be a favorite with consumers. Adding a second fuel means the same car can have better range and power.

"With hybrids you can have good performance all the time," Seal says.

Fuel cells are often referenced as the currently unattainable ideal. A fuel cell breaks hydrogen into protons and electrons. The electrons flow out of the cell to be used as electricity, while the protons are combined with oxygen to form water.

The big advantage of fuel cells over batteries is that fuel cells can continue to produce electricity as long as hydrogen is supplied—they don't have to be replaced as often as batteries (when the chemicals in batteries start losing life). In addition, "recharging" fuel cells could be considerably easier than recharging batteries.

"A lot of people feel the fuel cell is the ultimate thing," Gibson says, noting even the so-called "ideal" has challenges ahead. "There are a lot of hurdles with fuel cells," including generating power rapidly enough. "There's some hard work to get it to the performance you like along with all the cost and packaging issues."

PREPPED FOR JOBS

Tough challenges are just what engineers like. To prepare a new generation of engineers to tackle the challenges of alternative-fuel vehicles, the DOE is supporting several university programs aimed at helping universities turn out students with the appropriate skills.

For example, the Graduate Automotive Technology Education program (GATE) focuses on several technologies critical to the development and production of future automobiles. Ten universities (see www.ipd.anl.gov/gate/schools.html) have been chosen as Centers of Automotive Research in one of five technology areas: fuel cells, hybrid drive trains and control systems, direct-injection engines, lightweight materials, and energy storage. In addition to helping fund the creation of the centers, the program also provides fellowship money for graduate students earning advanced degrees in these areas.

The program was formed "to educate and train future scientists and engineers who can accelerate the development and commercialization of clean and efficient transportation technologies," says JoAnn Milliken. Milliken is the program manager of GATE and a program manager for the Transportation Fuel Cell Program, which supports industry and national labs working on fuel cell technology for transportation applications.

DOE-sponsored national car competitions, such as the Ethanol Challenge in which Svestka and his teammates had so much success, are also helping prepare students for careers in the alternative-fuel vehicle industry. The programs began in the late '80s with the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Challenge, Launey says. "They've become increasingly more sophisticated. They've changed from the single fuel" to hybrids, to next year's competition: FutureTruck (www.futuretruck.org).

"Sometimes [in the competitions] we get to look at truly cutting-edge technology," she says. "This year we had a school with a fuel-cell car."

The hands-on experience students get from these competitions can go a long way toward helping them find a job in a related area upon graduation, Launey says, noting that 65% of the students in the 1998 Ethanol Vehicle Challenge took jobs in the automotive industry.

"I don't know how an auto company could ask for any more from an entry-level engineer" than to have the kinds of design, test and experience they get from a car competition, Launey says. "They really are prize recruits."

Svestka, who will graduate and look for a job in May 2000, says his personal experience bears out the idea that students with competition experience are ready for the alternative-fuel vehicle job market.

"They've got a very broad background in the fuel already. The learning curve for someone like that is much less," he says. "I interned this past summer at GM as a result of the challenge, working on an ethanol vehicle that is expected to come to market in 2002. I foresee the industry moving to alternative fuels in the new millennium. I'd be happiest working for an alternative fuel section of an automaker."

Lisa Hochgraf makes words work for people through Top-Notch Text, a national writing and editing company.

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