A big part of sustainable transportation is not only decreasing usage or getting more people on communal and public means but also making all forms of transportation more energy efficient.  Energy efficiency can be measured by both how far a means can travel per unit of fuel as well as the effects of the fuel used on the environment.  In that spirit, here are two new means of energy that may one day be used to fuel vehicles on and off the electric grid.

The Navy has invested in 20,000 gallons (476 barrels of oil equivalency) of algae-based fuel.  The company, Solazyme, explains the process here.

Our unique, indirect photosynthesis bioproduction process uses microalgae to convert biomass directly into oil and other biomaterials, a process that can be performed in standard commercial fermentation facilities cleanly, quickly, and at low cost and large scale. Our renewable oil and bioproducts technology has manufactured thousands of gallons of oil and hundreds of tons of biomaterials that are tailored not only for biofuel production, but also as replacements for fossil petroleum and plant oils and compounds in a diverse range of products from oleochemicals to cosmetics and foods.

It somehow feels appropriate for the Navy to invest in algae.  However, I’m thrilled that the military is pushing such new technologies and funding their development.  First off, it is good for the alternative energy business.  Moreover, every soldier and citizen has a stake in this as the sooner we have viable alternative fuels the sooner we can stop fighting wars in the Middle East.  If Wikipedia is accurate, this is very exciting:

Among algal fuels’ attractive characteristics: they do not affect fresh water resources,[3] can be produced using ocean and wastewater, and are biodegradable and relatively harmless to the environment if spilled.[4][5][6] Algae cost more per unit mass yet can yield over 30 times more energy per unit area than other, second-generation biofuel crops.[citation needed] One biofuels company has claimed that algae can produce more oil in an area the size of a two car garage than a football field of soybeans, because almost the entire algal organism can use sunlight to produce lipids, or oil.[7] The United States Department of Energy estimates that if algae fuel replaced all the petroleum fuel in the United States, it would require 15,000 square miles (40,000 km2).[8] This is less than 17 the area of corn harvested in the United States in 2000.[9][10]

The second story isn’t quit as exciting in terms of viability, but it definitely registers high on the weird scale.  A man in Nepal has created a solar panel that runs on human hair!  Apparently the melanin in hair is light sensitive and acts as a conductor.

He was originally inspired after reading a book by physicist Stephen Hawking, which discussed ways of creating static energy from hair.

‘I realised that Melanin was one of the factors in conversion of energy,’ he said.

Half a kilo of hair can be bought for only 16p in Nepal and lasts a few months, whereas a pack of batteries would cost 50p and last a few nights.

People can replace the hair easily themselves, says Milan, meaning his solar panels need little servicing.

On second thought, if it can save the Nepalese people scarce funds and resources, why the hell not?


Earlier in the week I posted on the Department of Energy’s $300 million grant for developing municipal vehicles to run on alternative fuels as well as construction of corresponding fueling station. Afterward, I saw an essay discussing the opportunity for the United States Postal Service to transform its fleet of local delivery vehicles from petroleum-driven to electricity-based. A report from the USPS Inspector General concluded:

Our evaluation determined that broad use of EVs in the Postal Service delivery fleet would be operationally feasible. Current EV technology would work well with the average mail delivery driving distance of approximately 18 miles per day. Previous delivery operations tests under favorable environmental conditions within California have shown that the EV performance levels were adequate for mail delivery ranges of up to 40 miles a day and battery technology has advanced considerably since then resulting in significantly increased driving distance ranges. Only about 3 percent of the delivery fleet has driving distances that exceed that daily distance.

Because the government is currently making investments to advance battery technology, we suggest the Postal Service phase in any electrification of its fleet so it can capture future benefits before broad implementation. One area that should be further explored is how effectively EVs operate under adverse environmental conditions, such as very low winter temperatures.

The Postal Service has 219,000 vehicles of which 146,000 perform deliveries, averaging about 10 miles per gallon. Improving the efficiency of this fleet would eventually be an economic boon to the Postal Service and our fuel dependency. However, such upgrades come at an initial cost, a cost which the Postal Service may not be able to currently afford.

This problem of cost made me think of other large vehicle fleets that could be improved, and what better place to start than the US military. The military industrial complex has always advanced technological research and products, including advances in the semiconductor, nuclear technology and the internet. The military is looking into hybrid electric vehicles currently. However, there too there are concerns about effectiveness and operations in extreme conditions.

Here’s hoping that military and government development of alternative fuel vehicles will help propel American consumer choices as well.

Electric car fueling

GreenTech Media has reported that the federal government, via the Department of Energy, has granted $300 million for cities to work with industrial partners to buy alternative-fuel vehicles and set up refueling stations.  The list of city winners, under the Clean Cities Program, includes New Haven, San Bernandino and Chicago.  Some of the highlighted projects include natural gas garbage trucks in New Jersey, using landfill natural gas in Atlanta and Texas incorporating propane-fueled buses.  The DOE estimates that these 25 projects will offset the usage of 39 million gallons of petroleum annually.  That is nothing to laugh at for both environmental and foreign policy concerns.

In an unrelated story, Government Technology reported that city government in Washington, D.C. has adopted ZipCar technology to manage its communal fleet of vehicles.  In the process, the city has been able to better organize its fleet and reduce its size.  Here are some of the notes on the FastFleet program.

The city ultimately eliminated 360 vehicles from its fleet, bringing the total to approximately 1,200 (not including law enforcement vehicles, which aren’t eligible for the program).

At press time, DC Fleet Share used 58 passenger sedans — 56 of which are hybrids and two of which are powered by alternative fuel. Burns said the district’s vehicles are parked at several large office complexes that are home to city government. Between 10 and 25 Fleet Share cars are parked at each site.

Both of these programs are great news.  Think about how many vehicles every city owns, from cars used for everyday puposes to police cars, firetrucks, ambulances, street cleaners, garbage trucks, school buses, delivery vans, postal service vehicles, maintenance vehicles and much more.  Many towns and cities furthermore have their own refueling station for this vehicles.  Transferring a percentage of these cars and trucks to alternative fuels and beginning the process of building the infrastructure to refuel them has enormous benefits to both the environment and the communities.

One of the greatest challenge of alternative fuel vehicles is there are few places to get the right fuel and frequently there is no standardized fueling method.  When government begins the process in tandem with industry standards are easier to set and the foundation is laid for private car-owners to follow.  Such progress is even more reassuring when fewer vehicles need to be owned, as in DC.  Clearly this is a savings for the taxpayer, but is also a savings for congestion and fuel usage as well.  Lower congestion and better fuel usage are two pillars of cleaner, more efficient transportation.  Public transportation represents a large part of the solution, but certain vehicles will never be eliminated.  Making those vehicles better is a step forward.