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Coming Down the Road

Soaring energy prices force manufacturers to reinvent

By John Edwards

As anyone who has recently used—or even looked at—a gas pump knows, fuel prices are skyrocketing. Soaring fuel costs are, in turn, changing car and truck buyers' shopping preferences. The demand for SUVs and pickups has collapsed, and smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles are now in high demand, forcing vehicle manufacturers to step up the development and production of a new generation of energy-thrifty cars and trucks.

The energy cost run-up is also affecting the plans of grads working toward automotive industry engineering careers. As manufacturers increasingly focus on fuel-thrifty vehicles, they're looking for potential new hires with enthusiasm and skill in a variety of emerging technologies, including alternate fuels and "green" power sources. "With the gas prices we see today, there are lots of jobs available now in the engineering field—mechanical engineering is a great major to be in right now," says Matthew Doude, a graduate mechanical engineering student at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.

Cindy Svestka, a business process manager with General Motors in Detroit, also sees a bright future for engineering grads entering the automotive industry. "I absolutely think that students who are passionate and interested in alternate and hybrid vehicles will find a place and be very technically challenged for their careers," she says.

In the Fast Lane

Seemingly overnight, the world's car and truck makers have unveiled plans to reconfigure their fleets to include a wide array of alternative fuel vehicles. Hybrid vehicles, which automatically switch between gasoline engines and electric motors to run at top efficiency under changing driving conditions, are now speeding into dealers' showrooms. Hybrid cars and SUVs are currently available, or soon will be, from General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Ford, Volkswagen, Porsche and several other companies. Both the variety of hybrid models available, as well as the number sold, are expected to increase dramatically over the next few years.

The electric car market has also gotten a fresh jolt from soaring gas prices. Although hybrid vehicles have stolen much of the thunder from fully and primarily electric cars, a variety of manufacturers are continuing to develop vehicles that drivers will be able to "fuel up" by simply plugging a cable into an electric socket.

Automotive Technology

General Motors, for example, has high hopes for its Chevrolet Volt, which is scheduled to roll into showrooms sometime in 2010. The Volt, with its revolutionary E-Flex Propulsion System, will be different than any previous electric vehicle. The subcompact will use a lithium-ion battery—the same kind of power technology used by most notebook computers. The Volt will also offer drivers a variety of range-extending onboard power sources, including gas and, in some vehicles, ethanol to recharge the battery while driving.

When it comes to plugging in, the Volt will be designed to use a common 110-volt household socket. For someone who drives less than 40 miles a day, GM promises that the Volt will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions. For longer trips, Chevy Volt's range-extending power source will kick in to recharge the lithium-ion battery pack as required. "We at GM see a lot of technology in the mix in our near term future and, hopefully, we can really push forward with alternate fuels and make those a mainstream concept," Svestka says.

General Motors isn't the only carmaker planning an next-generation electric vehicle. Japan's Nissan is working on its own concept of what an electric car should be. The company says it will offer electric cars globally in 2012, with the first models arriving in Japan and the U.S. in 2010. Chrysler, meanwhile, debuted an electric car prototype in January. Called the Dodge Zeo, the four-passenger sport-wagon is powered by lithium-ion battery power source. The rear-powered concept vehicle can do 0 to 60 miles per hour in 5.7 seconds, according to Chrysler, which notes that the car can travel up to 250 miles between charges. The company hasn't yet announced if or when it will offer a production version.

Several small companies are also working on electric car models. San Carlos, Calif.-based Tesla, for example, offers a high-end, $109,000 roadster. With a 0 to 60 mph acceleration of 3.9 seconds, a 13,000 rpm redline, the fastest top gear acceleration of any production car tested by Car & Driver magazine in 2007 and an EPA rating of 135 MPG equivalent, the Tesla Roadster is unique in providing super car performance at twice the energy efficiency of the best hybrids. A sedan version is expected to hit the road in 2010.

Career opportunities for grads with knowledge and experience in electric and hybrid vehicles should expand greatly over the next few years, Svestka says. "It is, to a large extent, where the innovation is and where the market is headed," she notes.

Fuels Paradise

Researchers toiling in corporate, government and university laboratories around the world are working at full speed to develop green, price-competitive alternative fuels, as well as systems that can turn new energy sources into automotive power. Hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe, is a prime candidate for cheap, clean power. The gas can be produced as simply as by running electricity through water. Vehicles running on a hydrogen fuel cell will be pollution free, with water as the only exhaust vapor. "This is going to be one of the renewable energy sources of the future, "says Mark Bawtree, marketing manager for Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, a hydrogen fuel cell manufacturer based in Singapore. "The industry as a whole is estimated to become a trillion dollar industry by 2025," he predicts.

One of hydrogen's biggest proponents is German automaker BMW, which has already developed a hydrogen-powered luxury sedan. Earlier this year, BMW lent several of its "Hydrogen 7" prototypes—emblazoned with "Clean Energy Powered by Hydrogen" in huge block letters—to actors Edward Norton and Cameron Diaz, opera star Placido Domingo and celebrity icons Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Since the infrastructure for refueling a hydrogen internal combustion engine is not yet complete, the BMW Hydrogen 7's V-12 engine also runs in a gasoline mode—spewing conventional tailpipe emissions—at the push of a button.

Hydrogen has other significant drawbacks beyond the problem of limited fueling sources. Perhaps the biggest challenge to widespread adoption is the fact that hydrogen must be produced with the help of a primary energy source, such as electricity, which usually means the need for a coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear power plant. Hydrogen is also difficult to store and relatively energy inefficient—it requires more energy to produce than it provides once it's placed into a vehicle car's fuel tank. Moreover, the hydrogen production process can create greenhouse gases. Hydrogen fuel cells are also expensive to make, since they require the use of precious metals like platinum and palladium.

Hythane is seen by some energy market experts as a possible stepping stone to the widespread use of hydrogen in vehicles, particularly in buses and trucks that can take advantage of its high energy punch and low pollution output. A patented mixture of hydrogen and natural gas, the mixture is currently being used in the standard internal combustion engines of many fleet vehicles, such as shuttle buses, in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere. India has selected Hythane to help transition to a hydrogen vehicle infrastructure.

Hythane is a mixture of natural gas and hydrogen, usually 5 to 7 percent hydrogen by energy. Natural gas is approximately 90 percent methane, along with small amounts of ethane, propane, higher hydrocarbons and "inerts" like carbon dioxide or nitrogen. According to Justin Fulton, engineering manager for the Hythane Co., a Littleton, Colo.-based firm that produces the mixture, hydrogen and methane are complimentary vehicle fuels. "Hythane is a patented, premium blend of 80 percent natural gas and 20 percent hydrogen that decreases emissions of nitrous oxides by 56 percent, non-methane hydrocarbons by 30 percent and carbon dioxide by 40 percent over gasoline and diesel powered vehicles," he states.

Hythane, Fulton notes, can outperform natural gas by emitting 30 percent less hydrocarbons and 20 percent less carbon dioxide. Fulton claims that the mixture is suitable for all forms of larger vehicles, including commuter buses, school buses, refuse trucks, delivery trucks and even locomotives. "Hythane is great," he states, "as governments seek to slash carbon emissions in the most cost effective manner possible."

But Fulton notes that the U.S. probably won't be the first country to benefit from hythane and other emerging fuels. "I think there's a lot of interest in alternative fuels in general right now, but it seems like a lot of the alternative fuels growth is being led by developing countries," he says. Fulton notes that the U.S., like other industrialized nations, has a massive conventional fuels infrastructure that will be hard to displace. "But in the developing countries, they often don't have any infrastructure," he says. "So that's where the growth in alternative fuels will first take hold." Beyond hydrogen and hydrogen blends, biofuels provide yet another approach toward reducing the nation's reliance on fossil fuels while helping the environment. Although current gasoline-ethanol blends have produced mixed results in vehicle performance, compatibility, emissions and energy savings, other biofuels may prove to be more worthwhile. LS9, a firm that describes itself as "the renewable petroleum company," says its patent-pending biofuels are made with synthetic biology. "LS9 DesignerBiofuels are customized to closely resemble petroleum fuels, engineered to be clean, renewable, domestically produced and cost competitive with crude oil," says Gregory Pal, senior director of corporate development for LS9, located in South San Francisco, Calif.

LS9 claims it has developed a way of efficiently creating petroleum replacement products via a new class of enzymes and associated genes that convert fatty acids into hydrocarbons. LS9 believes its pathway is the most cost-, resource- and energy-efficient way to produce hydrocarbon biofuels and petroleum-replacement products. Besides creating a useful alternative energy source, the company states that its fuel will enable efficient land and feedstock use and directly addresses tensions between food versus fuel production. "We think the potential is just about endless," Pal says.

Career Paths

The search for better alternative fuels, as well as creating vehicle fuel systems and drive trains that are compatible with emerging energy sources, should provide ample career opportunities for chemical and automotive engineering professionals for the foreseeable future, says Lars Angenent, an associate professor in Cornell University's biological and environmental engineering department In Ithaca, N.Y. "There are downsides and problems that need to be considered," he notes. "That is why people become engineers and why there is going to be a lot of work in this area."

"I think [emerging fuels] really touches on just about every engineering discipline out there," Pal says. He notes that the alternative fuels market is moving rapidly and that grads have the opportunity to play a major role in what may turn out to be one of the 21st century's pivotal technologies. "I think that what the market looks like five years from now is going be very different from what it looks like now," he says. "[Grads] have the ability to influence where this whole industry goes and deal with some of the uncertainty," Pal notes. "They can navigate a [career] path while, at the same time, do work that has a broader social benefit as well."

Automotive Technology

Grad student Doude feels that anyone planning an automotive industry career, needs to get hands-on experience with new vehicle and fuel technologies. Doude was co-team leader of Mississippi State's winning Challenge X entry. Challenge X, a four-year-long automotive engineering competition sponsored by General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy, pitted 17 collegiate teams against each other in a effort to re-engineer a Chevrolet Equinox, a crossover sport utility vehicle, to minimize energy consumption, emissions, and greenhouse gases while maintaining or exceeding the vehicle's utility and performance.

Doude feels that the Challenge X gave its participants invaluable experience in working with cutting edge automotive technologies. He notes that the project also gave participants an important credential to place on their resumes. "Students who graduate and are able to say that they worked on this program have their choice of jobs in the automotive industry," he says. But participating in a national project like Challenge X isn't a prerequisite for an automotive industry career, Doude notes. Working on school- and class-level projects with real world goals, or obtaining an internship with an automaker, alternative fuel developer or aftermarket automotive company, can also supply career-enhancing knowledge, experience and qualifications. "It really prepares you for a job," Doude notes. "It helps you learn business skills outside of the classroom."

Over the Horizon

Further on down the highway, beyond hybrids, electric cars and alternative fuels, are emerging vehicle technologies that border on science fiction. Like a car that runs on water. Last June, a Japanese company called Genepax presented the prototype of a vehicle that purportedly runs on plain tap water, using the energy stored in the atomic bonds between hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The company stated that its Water Energy System (WES) uses "no fossil fuel or non-fossil energy in the process of producing electricity and heat from water." Although hazy on the technology's details, Genepax noted that since WES is an independent power source that needs no outside energy, it does not require the establishment of a fueling infrastructure. Although these claims haven't yet been verified, and many outside observers are suspicious, Genepax say it's "committed to putting WES into widespread use."

As if a water-powered vehicle wasn't exotic enough, Air Car Factories, based in Barcelona, plans to create a car that will run on what is perhaps the planet's most inexhaustible resource: air. Air Car says its goal is to develop and manufacture a vehicle driven by a compressed air engine with "a level of performance that will respond to the actual needs of today's market."

No Air Car currently exists. Like hundreds of other innovative automotive concepts, it's only an idea on a drawing board that's looking for investors. On the other hand, the Air Car project, like WES, hydrogen, biofuels, fuel blends, hybrid and electic vehicles, can all be viewed as evidence of the automotive industry's ongoing revolution, a reinvention of cars and trucks that's fueling a growing need for smart and creative automotive engineers.

In a world facing rising energy prices and growing environmental concerns, engineers will be on the front lines of the fight to keep personal transportation viable and affordable. "People will want to keep driving their cars," Angenent observes. "Engineering will help make this possible."

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

automotive engineeringmanufacturing engineeringchemical engineeringmechanical engineering



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