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An Ethanol-Powered Plug-in Hybrid?

Well, that was fast. I was just contemplating an ethanol plug-in hybrid this weekend - and then on Monday Wired's Autopia blog reported that Nissan is actively working on several key technologies:

If Nissan's dream comes true its vehicles will soon be using a fraction of the petroleum that they require today.

Within the next few years Nissan will introduce plug-in hybrids, models that run on 100 percent ethanol, a fuel cell vehicle, and a car that can get up to 80 miles per gallon.

Reading the original article it's not at all clear that Nissan is considering putting the first two ideas:

  1. plug-in hybrid
  2. that runs on 100 percent ethanol

together in the same car. Please, Nissan, consider it. It would be an extremely clean, economical vehicle with all the range and power that we drivers have come to expect with petroleum-powered vehicles. And it appears that the price per gallon of ethanol could be coming down with new developments at MIT.

UPDATE: KurzweilAI points this morning to two very much on-point stories:

  • Mileage from megawatts: Study finds enough electric capacity to 'fill up' plug-in vehicles across much of the nation.

    A new study for the Department of Energy finds that "off-peak" electricity production and transmission capacity could fuel 84 percent of the country's 220 million vehicles if they were plug-in hybrid electrics.

  • Why a hydrogen economy doesn't make sense

    In a recent study, fuel cell expert Ulf Bossel explains that a hydrogen economy is a wasteful economy. The large amount of energy required to isolate hydrogen from natural compounds (water, natural gas, biomass), package the light gas by compression or liquefaction, transfer the energy carrier to the user, plus the energy lost when it is converted to useful electricity with fuel cells, leaves around 25% for practical use — an unacceptable value to run an economy in a sustainable future. Only niche applications like submarines and spacecraft might use hydrogen.

UPDATE: I don't want to completely write-off hydrogen. Things that may not be economical today might someday become economical. We might, for example, figure out how plants efficiently split water to make hydrogen and oxygen. Or if fusion reactors are perfected energy might become so cheap that it won't matter that electrolysis is inefficient.

That said, the future where we drive around in hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles seems remote by comparison to a future filled with some flavor of plug-in hybrids.


We should be concentrating on what we can do now, not putting our faith in alternatives that we don't currently have the technology to use.

When ethanol/hydrogen/solar becomes competitive it will take off by itself.

We could help by putting tariffs on all imported oil, both to spur development of new domestic oil and to develop alternatives, but I don't think we have the political will to do that. Whatever we do, it should use market mechanisms rather than using subsidies to make new technologies artificially competitive.


You're against making some energy artificially cheap but are in favor of making other energy artificially expensive?

Obviously you're not running for office. :-)

I disagree with your idea on tariffs on foreign oil. That would be a terrible message for a country that depends on free markets to send to the world.

But I agree that any per unit subsidy on alternative energy like hydrogen is a bad idea. If its too expensive, it's not ready.

Government can, should, and does support research into alternative energy. Programs like that ethanol research at MIT could allow alternative energy to become cheap enough to compete with petroleum.

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