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IMI Magazine

IMI Magazine

Alternative energy - Return of the ‘has-beans’

On and on it goes. Melting icecaps, rising sea levels and turbulent weather patterns as the world gets hotter, while fundamentalist regimes threaten to put us over a barrel with oil supplies.

We have heard it all before, we will hear it all again, and we face the awful prospect of becoming bored  because regular repetition – even of the most terrible of truths – dulls our perception and removes any sense of urgency.But if that is “our” problem, what are “they” doing about it? Again, we have heard it all before – improved conventional fuels and engines to cut emissions, gas in various guises, hybrids, hydrogen, battery electric and biofuels to reduce or remove them. And we know the minuses too – the investment perils of which technology choice, the chicken-and-egg infra-structure dilemma, the storage and logistical headaches, and cost, cost, cost.  

So, for its part, is the motor industry any closer to seeing the way through to salvation? Short of the fuel cell revolution, biofuels seem to offer the best ecological sense. Grow plants, render down their stored energy and turn it into a combustible liquid, the next batch of plants meanwhile helping to soak up any CO2 produced in the combustion process. Neat as nature could plan it for the planet.

And if President George W. Bush, a pragmatist with close links to the US oil industry, has taken to criticise his country for its “addiction to oil” and is moved to suggest that growing fuel might be better than sucking it from under the soil, sand and sea, then it may even be so.

Biofuel currently accounts for less than 0.5 per cent of road fuel in Britain, but there are plans to increase this to five per cent by 2010. British Sugar is building a biofuel plant which will use all the UK’s previously exported sugar beet.

Of course, this is not the first time that biofuel has been the ‘in thing’. When European carmakers were consolidating their activities in Brazil in the 1980s (in terms of commercial opportunity, Brazil then was what China is now), ethanol from sugar cane was the hot fuel topic. Fiat was especially keen and there were more Brazilian cars running on a petrol-cane alcohol mix than on petrol alone.

In truth, the country’s biofuel programme had been launched in response to high 1970’s oil prices, not by environmental concern. Then things changed. Sugar prices rose, oil prices fell, and the state oil company Petrobras discovered new offshore oilfields. Ethanol was economically out, and with it the ecological advantages. In 1997 fewer than 1,100 vehicles – just 0.06 per cent of Brazil’s output – were alcoholics, the very year that the US first woke up to biofuels.

Since then Brazil has rekindled its interest, and a two per cent tax break has triggered a new generation of flexifuel cars able to run on alcohol, petrol, or any blend of the two; a microchip tastes the mixture and adjusts the engine accordingly. Flexifuel cars accounted for more the 17 per cent of sales in 2004, and nearly 54 per cent last year. If ever there was an example of motor industry good-guy response, this is it.

Even the gross oil-consuming US now produces almost as much ethanol from maize as Brazil does from sugar, though its adoption by the North American automotive sector has yet to become significant. But add in the soyabean potential pinpointed by Mr Bush, and biofuel looks more relevant than ever, a timely development in view of the latest dire ecological forecasts.BMW has dug into a 92-year-old patent book to find an intriguing parallel in the search for a hybrid solution. A patent issued in Germany in 1914 for a steam auxiliary drive harnessing exhaust heat is being revived by the company in a bid to boost power and fuel efficiency in its conventional engines.

Using a four-cylinder 3-Series 1.8 petrol engine, BMW is testing the Turbosteamer, a two-stage device that converts 80 per cent of the exhaust heat into reusable energy. Two fluid circulating systems recover the heat. One pumps water through a heat exchanger round the exhaust pipe, brewing 550 degrees C., the resulting steam driving a mechanical pump with pulleys attached to the crankshaft. The second heat exchanger transfers heat to an ethanol circuit which replaces the engine’s regular coolant system. Engine heat is again harnessed through pump and pulley linked to the crankshaft. The Turbosteamer has been tailored to fit the 3-Series engine compartment with a small loss in ground clearance, and could be adapted to any conventional engine, says BMW. In 1.8 application it is achieving a consumption cut of 15 per cent while generating an extra 13bhp and 20Nm of torque.

The on-cost will have to be justified by the amount of fuel saved, of course, and series production could lie somewhere beyond 2010, but Munich is sufficiently pleased with its results to reveal this line of research at an early stage.Steam has an honourable if ancient history in motoring. In 1902 in Nice, Frenchman Leon Serpollet took the world land speed record to 75 mph in a steam car of his own manufacture. Four years later, at Daytona Beach, Fred Marriott moved the record to 121 mph in a Stanley Steamer, and the following year, in another red-painted steamer called Wogglebug, he survived a stupendous crash at an alleged 150 mph, car and driver rolling over and over along the sand.

Theodore Roosevelt used a steam car for presidential functions, and the New York police department had several. No fewer than 13 makes of steam car were available in Britain before WW1, though steam peaked culturally in the 1920s with the Detroit-built Doble Model F. It cost twice as much as a Rolls-Royce, but six swanky Yanks bought one.

Cynics claimed that steam cars were then put out of business by the oil companies, but steamers not only ran on one or other oil-based fuel but burned far more of it than internal combustion cars. The oil companies loved them! It was their inefficiency compared with petrol that did for them.