Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ethanol, E85, and Burning Your Food

In our modern day we are constantly being bombarded with the potential for new fuel alternatives that we can use to run our vehicles, or that we might soon be able to use to run whatever car or truck we might have in the future. One of the new technologies, or perhaps not so new is ethanol.

Ethanol works well as a fuel additive because it increases the octane rating of gasoline and it helps it to burn cleaner. When used as the primary component of the fuel, and not just an additive we usually refer to it as E85. This is a mix of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. Cars that are labeled “flex fuel” are capable of running on gasoline, E85, or any mixture of the two. These flex fuel vehicles are actually very common but most people who own them never run them on E85 and likely don’t even know that they can.

As an additive it’s great, as a fuel it leaves much to be desired. Ethanol takes so much energy to produce and provides so little energy in return that it is not very practical as a fuel. While it may be impossible to calculate the exact amount of energy return from E85 production, some experts say the return of energy with the production of E85 is actually negative.

Not everything about E85 is bad. The octane rating is somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 which is great. This makes it possible to produce a lot of power with E85 as a fuel. E85 is also completely renewable since it is derived from plant sources that are easy to cultivate. E85 burns very cleanly and produces fewer emissions than petroleum based fuels. If E85 is spilled or otherwise released into the environment it is much less harmful than most of the other fuels that we use.

The problem lies in the fact that E85 is not as energy dense as gasoline or diesel fuel. Because of this lack of energy things such as fuel economy suffer when running E85. Take the average midsize sedan that is flex fuel capable, with a V6 engine. Typically a car like this will be able to achieve a combined fuel economy rating of about 25 or 26 mpg. The exact same vehicle running on E85 will achieve about 14 or 15 mpg. Power output will feel the same but the engine will burn a lot more E85 to produce the same amount of power that the gasoline produces. The nationwide average price per gallon of E85 is currently $3.23 per gallon, while gasoline is $3.93. E85 is cheaper but not by much, and it’s certainly not worth the bad fuel economy. 

The FlexFuel badge found on the back of many cars. Most
people don't even know what it means.
Another problem with E85 is the feedstock that is most commonly used to produce it here in the U.S. is corn. This means that farmers who might otherwise grow corn that we eat, would instead grow corn for ethanol production. While the corn we eat is not exactly the same corn as that which is used in E85 production, the ground on which it is grown and other resources are the same. With ground and resources thusly diverted the amount of crops meant for human consumption goes down. Less food means more expensive food. And don’t forget, livestock eats corn as well, and if the cost of livestock feed goes up, the cost of food products derived from livestock also go up.

If we can get away from the idea of burning our food in our cars, we might be able to make something more useful of E85. One idea that is being developed is production of cellulosic ethanol. This is ethanol produced from things such as grasses and other plants that we do not eat, and that continually grow without the need for reseeding. Switch grass for example grows very well in many places around the country and can be used to produce E85. Switch grass grows very high very quickly and can be cut repeatedly without having to be replanted, kind of like your front lawn in the summer.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Removing Heat, Not Adding Cold

The air conditioning system in your car is one of those things that really has nothing to do with how well the vehicle runs, or how well the vehicle performs the tasks for which it was designed. However, it is a system that when not working can make the car more undrivable than something like an engine misfire. In the middle of July many people will put off getting new tires, or fixing that check engine light, in favor of getting the A/C system working.

So what is going on with this magical system of super coolness? Honestly it works the same way as the refrigerator in your kitchen. The principles at work are no different, and the first thing to understand is the fact that A/C systems do not add cold to the interior of your car, they take away heat.

Heat is a form of energy, and when it is taken away you are left with the absence of heat, or cold. Since heat is energy it can be stored and moved like many other forms of energy. The air conditioning system takes heat out of the air inside the car, moves that heat to the outside of the car, and dissipates it into the surrounding air. When heat is removed we are left with the absence of heat which leaves us feeling much more comfortable.

In order to do this, a refrigerant is used to transfer the heat around in the system. This refrigerant possesses specific properties that allow it to be pumped through the system in both liquid form under high and low pressure, and vapor form under high and low pressure.

The key to the refrigeration process is the diabatic expansion of the refrigerant in the evaporator core of the A/C system. This expansion causes heat to be drawn into the refrigerant. The evaporator is a small radiator type unit usually located under the dash. Instead of being a place where heat is released, the evaporator is a place where heat is absorbed. The refrigerant enters the evaporator as a high pressure liquid through a tiny orifice. As it passes through the orifice the pressure drops dramatically and the high pressure liquid can then expand and evaporate into a gas. This evaporative process causes the refrigerant to pick up heat. Air is blown through the fin-like structure of the evaporator so the refrigerant can take the heat from the air.

A/C compressor
All of this newly evaporated refrigerant is then pumped out of the evaporator under the dash to the front of the vehicle. As it moves, it passes through the compressor in the system that compresses the gas making it very hot. The hot gaseous refrigerant then passes through the condenser at the front of the car and condenses back to a liquid state as it gives off heat into the surrounding air. Think of the moisture that accumulates on the side of a cold soda can as condensation. At this point the process starts all over again.

If any of the components are not functioning properly, this cycle will not work to remove heat. The most common problem is a leak in the system causing loss of refrigerant. If this happens then the system lacks the capacity to remove the BTUs necessary to make the passengers feel cool and comfy.

Sometimes when ambient conditions are especially hot, the A/C system will struggle to keep you cool. Some things to remember about your A/C system: You can’t have instant cold. In order for the system to keep you cool it must first remove all of the heat from itself. This might take a few minutes.

Also, make sure to set your fresh/recirculate controls to recirculate. This means the system will draw air from inside the vehicle instead of the outside. If the system is drawing in air that is 100° it might not cool enough on one pass through the evaporator, but if it recirculates air that has already been cooled once, it can cool it a little more at it goes back through the system.

The last tip is to set your mode selector to discharge air from the dash only, do not split the discharge air between dash and floor. You need to move the heat away from around your head and shoulders in order to be comfortable. Nobody ever complained of feeling comfortable up top but feeling too hot around the feet. Not to mention the fact that the cold air coming out higher up on the dash is going to sink to the floor anyway. This flow will also help the recirculation mentioned earlier.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

New Owners by Federal Fiat

At the Chrysler Corporation things are changing dramatically and it’s certainly for the better. It’s been a rocky road for the house of the Pentastar over the last several years but since corporate restructuring that resulted from the bankruptcy of 2009 Chrysler is in new and seemingly capable hands.

Fiat S.p.A. based in Turin, Italy has been gobbling up shares of Chrysler.  The federal government was in charge of the Chrysler bankruptcy proceedings back in 2009 and declared by ummm, fiat, that the Italian automaker would be allowed to purchase an initial share of 20% of Chrysler. This allowed Chrysler to stay in business.

From 1998 to 2007 Chrysler was mostly owned by Daimler Benz (the Mercedes people) and the company was called Daimler Chrysler. During this time Daimler Benz tried very hard to keep the Mercedes line and the Chrysler/Dodge line of vehicles completely separate. They didn't

mix vehicles back and forth much so they could keep things distinctly American or German. This didn't prove very profitable for Daimler Benz so they axed the Chrysler part of the company to a capital management firm here in the U.S. back in 2007.

Sergio Marchionne
This, along with many other problems, caused Chrysler to start bleeding from the ledger so badly they had to declare bankruptcy in 2009. This is when Fiat stepped in to help. They had already righted their own ship back in 2004 when the dynamic Sergio Marchionne took over the helm of Fiat. They were now looking to grow dramatically and saw value in the Chrysler name, as well as an easy way to break back into the North American market. Fiat used to sell cars here in the U.S. until the mid 80’s when they had to pull out.

The 20% of Chrysler that was owned by Fiat has grown to about 60%. Recently it is being reported that Fiat is looking to increase ownership by another 15 to 20 percent. While Fiat is already completely in control of Chrysler Group LLC, the further increase in their share would allow Fiat more access to the revenues generated by the now growing Chrysler. Marchionne is also now the head of Chrysler.

With this new arrow in the Fiat quiver they are handling the situation differently than Daimler Benz did. Fiat is completely combining the companies into one corporation in every way possible. This means that products from other Fiat subsidiaries will be rebadged as Chrysler and Dodge vehicles, and Chrysler products will be rebadged and sold under the names of other Fiat product lines. A good example of this is the new Dodge Dart. This good looking little sedan is actually an Alfa Romeo Giulietta with a different body on it.
The New Dodge Dart

Many old Chrysler faithful are upset about the new owners of this American icon. They feel that somehow the products from the new Chrysler will be lacking the American heritage of the Chrysler products from a few years ago. What heritage exactly? The unreliable cars that few people wanted to drive? This is the reason Chrysler had so many struggles. Wouldn't it be best to do something completely different?

Actually the things that Fiat is doing for Chrysler are beneficial in many ways. The Dart is an outstanding car compared to the Neon and the Caliber which used to be the offerings in this segment. This car was only possible because of Fiat. The only other choice in this matter would have been to close the doors of Chrysler forever. The modern technology and the vast amounts of product lines that Fiat has under its umbrella provide substantial resources for Chrysler engineers back in Auburn Hills, MI. Don’t forget that Fiat owns Ferrari. Wouldn't it be interesting to see some Ferrari rub off on something with the Dodge name on it?

The other thing that is good is many cars that Chrysler builds here in the U.S. are now being sent to Europe and are being sold with Italian names on them. American workers selling more of the products they build, to people overseas is most certainly a good thing.

Considering the fact that Chrysler is now in the black and prospering nicely, it’s hard to make an argument against ownership by Fiat. Most of the naysayers are holding on to old time sentiments and that’s okay, but it doesn't sell cars. Not to mention that Fiat has no plans to mess with the Ram truck. It will still be the rugged beast it has always been. Keep the good stuff, replace the bad stuff with new stuff, and let’s watch Chrysler grow.