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Life Arts    H3'ed 5/16/10

The US vs China: the Race to Produce Composite Fiber Cars

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I just downloaded a free book by Amory Lovins at www.winningtheoilendgame. It should be required reading for high school graduation. I was intrigued to learn the research behind Winning the Oil Endgame was partially funded by the Pentagon, a clue that US military leaders, at least, view the work as cutting edge.

Lovins, a physicist and environmentalist, is the co-founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit think tank formed in 1982 to investigate and advise industry around energy and resource efficiency. According to the RMI website, the main focus of their present work is to free the global economy of its current dependence on fossil fuels.

On the Line: American Global Competitiveness

It's fair to say the hero of Winning the Oil Endgame is composite carbon fiber. Moreover Lovins is totally justified in raising the alarm that the US lags far behind China, India and now Germany in embracing this technology. The US auto industry has already been thoroughly disgraced in losing out to Japan in the seventies and eighties in the design, production and mass marketing of compact fuel efficient cars. Business and government leaders at all levels will do well to heed Lovins' wake-up call or accept that by 2025 the majority of Americans will be driving low cost Chinese cars that do 94 miles per gallon.

As Lovins explains it, the sheer weight of steel auto bodies makes them extremely energy inefficient. He then presents data demonstrating that by replacing our current (mainly steel) auto fleet with light weight cars made from composite carbon fiber, Americans can reduce our oil usage by 50 percent (totally eliminating our dependence on foreign oil) by 2025. He goes on to lay out the economics of developing a number of alternative fuel sources that could potentially end our reliance on domestic oil by 2040.

Changes that Improve Profitability and Economic Sustainability

The emphasis throughout the book is that these changes should and will be market-driven. And that far-sighted car, truck, and aircraft, manufacturers and airlines will make the transition to carbon fiber because it will increase their profits. He gives numerous examples demonstrating that saving a barrel of oil is always cheaper than buying a barrel of oil at current inflated prices. He also argues, convincingly, that federal, state and local governments will be motivated to (modestly) subsidize these technological changes because they will increase tax revenues, reduce indebtedness and improve overall economic sustainability.

Answering Carbon Fiber Critics

Historically the main arguments against composite carbon fiber have revolved around safety and greater expense (compared to steel). Lovins addresses the safety question quite convincingly by describing the lightweight woven carbon fiber cones inserted into the chassis and door panels that are six to twelve times more durable than steel in absorbing crash impact. Collisions set up between carbon fiber mock-ups and much larger, heavier steel sedans and SUVs have been truly awe-inspiring (the steel cars get demolished and the carbon fiber cars might need a panel replaced).

And critics are correct - at present carbon fiber body parts are more expensive than steel ones. So why is Tata Motors Limited of India preparing to release a five seat carbon fiber car in 2013 that sells for $2,200 US? While the actual parts are expensive (though like most new technologies, the cost will drop precipitously when the scale of production increases), it turns out that production costs drop by about 40 percent when auto plants produce cars out of carbon fiber instead of steel. Current carbon fiber models have on average 14 parts to assemble, rather than the 150 parts for cars on the road today. Only one die set is required, as opposed to four die sets for steel parts. Carbon fiber parts can be molded so they can be snapped together and glued, rather than welded and are light enough to assemble without using a hoist. Finally color can be incorporated in the molding process, eliminating the paint shop.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

My initial reaction to Winning the Oil Endgame was wild enthusiasm. Here at last was a practical blue print for cheaply and painlessly ending our reliance on foreign oil with existing technology. The elegance of author Amory Lovins' proposal is that it simultaneously ends our need for military domination (and unwinnable wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) of Middle East oil fields and solves the issue of the US carbon debt. I have never been a big fan of the automobile relying for most of my life on my bicycle and public transportation. However I am aware that most Americans love their cars and that women with young children and people in rural and disadvantaged communities with poor public transportation simply can't get by without them.

Unfortunately my positive feelings didn't last long. As I performed an Internet search for to identify car makers embracing carbon fiber technology, my initial excitement was replaced by confusion as I realized nearly all the action is happening in China, India, Japan and Germany. The confusion morphed into anger, followed by dismay as the usual questions popped into mind. Why is Obama throwing three trillion dollars at the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and five trillion dollars at the banks when for an investment of $180 billion (over 10 years all recoverable) he could in one fell swoop totally end our reliance on foreign oil, withdraw our troops from the Middle East, restore US competitiveness with foreign automakers and eliminate both our sovereign and carbon debt?

Why isn't this stuff front page news? And why does the mainstream "climate change" movement try to reduce carbon emissions by guilt tripping individual Americans into changing their lightbulbs and turning their thermostats down? While the majority of Americans can take these admonitions in stride (most simply ignore them by denying that climate change is occurring), psychiatrists and psychologists are seeing a lot of really anxious people who sit in cold apartments during the winter because they're afraid of destroying the planet.

How Much Will It Cost?

In Winning the Oil Endgame, Lovins points out that while $180 billion is a substantial amount, the US spends $7 billion a year with zero return at home for every $1 increase in the cost of a barrel of oil. He estimates $90 billion would be needed to retool current auto plants and $90 on investment in new fuel sources all money that would remain in the US. He has a particular interest in the development of cellulose to ethanol conversion. He cites new technology using woody plans like switchgrass and poplar that yield twice as much as current corn-to-ethanol processes yet cost less in both capital and energy investment and pose no threat to world food supplies. He is also a big advocate of electric cars which immediately become much more feasible and cost effective (they require smaller batteries and can be used for longer distances) when they are made out of lightweight carbon fiber. He believes most electric cars will eventually be powered by hydrogen cells produced from wind energy and natural gas surpluses (resulting from more efficient electricity generation and use).

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I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW (which won a NABE Pinnacle Achievement Award) about a 16 year old girl who (more...)
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