April 23, 2007

Hybrid vehicles will impact industry

Everyone wants to cut costs, and with fuel prices creeping inexorably upward, everyone wants engines and power trains that use less fuel, or different, cheaper fuel.

But cost alone isn’t the only factor driving researchers around the world. The spectre of global climate change has most people worried. The debate over “peak oil,” the time when we reach maximum possible supply and fall into an unstoppable decline, is also a spur for researchers and those who finance their work.

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Korky Koroluk

And, as has so often been the case in the past, we might be able to find some of our answers by looking to the military — specifically the U.S. military, which is the world’s biggest single consumer of oil.

The U.S. military burns as much oil in six days as all of Canada does in a day. They’re burning more than 400,000 barrels every day, and they’re worried. It’s no wonder their planners are developing of hybrid diesel-electric armoured vehicles, and they have enlisted the military in Europe and Scandinavia to work with them.

What’s being worked on are two types of hybrid: the parallel hybrid and the series hybrid.

The parallel hybrid has electric and diesel motors that reinforce each other, with the electric motor kicking in at low rpm and when standing. The diesel takes over at higher rpm. These vehicles still have both a driveshaft and a differential gear.

Series hybrids uses a diesel engine simply to run an electric generator, which is connected to electric motors that actually run the vehicle. They can be arranged in either of two configurations. In one, there are two motors for each axle; in the other, there is one in each wheel hub.

Both versions use less fuel than conventional internal combustion engines. They pollute less, and cost more.

But armoured vehicles are not the military’s only concern. This month, the U.S. air force began evaluating the six heavy hybrid trucks. Two are being used as tenders for refueling aircraft; two are being used for trash collection, and two are dump trucks.

Part of this project is an evaluation of a third hybrid technology — the hydraulic drive.

This is somewhat more specialized than other gasoline- or diesel-electric hybrids, and seems to work better on heavier vehicles and in stop-and-go traffic. It’s a system that recovers energy when braking by engaging a pump, turned by the wheels. The pump powers hydraulic pistons to pressurize nitrogen gas contained in a high-pressure tank. The energy thus stored is then used by allowing it to flow back through the pump, transforming it temporarily into a drive motor directing power to the wheels.

This is an engine that can store and deliver huge amounts of energy quickly, more quickly than battery systems. And its storage ability doesn’t diminish over time, which is a fact of life with present battery technology.

All this work is something the construction industry should watch closely. The U.S. air force project is important because the air force operates thousands of pieces of equipment — trucks, tractors, earth movers, graders, loaders — everything needed to support its operations.

The work is being done in conjunction with Mack Trucks, part of the Swedish Volvo Group, which is also involved in heavy equipment for the construction and mining industries. Volvo believes the technology will be mature enough by 2009 to offer it for sale commercially. The equipment will cost more, but the company believes the forecast fuel savings of up to 35 per cent will be enough to offset the cost of the hybrid components.

There are so many different technologies being developed in so many fields now that there is no such thing as one size that fits all. The people charged with writing the specs when a company decides to buy new equipment will have a whole new vocabulary to learn, and will have to be much more careful in their product comparisons.

The result, though, ought to be equipment that works better, more cheaply, and in a fashion that is much more friendly to the environment.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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