The Green Guide

Accelerating hydrogen fuel production; Rocky Mountain Institute's think-and-do tank; Creating renewable rubber; Using agave and coconut to make biofibers.

Accelerating Hydrogen Fuel Production

The cost of producing hydrogen may go down thanks to work done by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; mit.edu) who have developed a compound catalyst able to split oxygen atoms from water molecules (remember: water is H2O) up to 10x faster than current methods. This catalyst, which is composed of cobalt, iron, oxygen, and various metals, could help pave the way for more affordable hydrogen fuel.

The catalyst’s high level of activity was determined from a systematic experiment that studied the catalytic activity of 10 known compounds, including iridium oxide, which was pre-viously the best known catalyst for hydrogen fuel production.

Faster hydrogen production means greater supply, which could consequently drive the cost down for the element.

MIT researchers have developed a compound catalyst to accelerate a key chemical reaction necessary for hydrogen fuel production.


RMI Is Working to Change the World as We Know It

Although there are but some 80 people—sustainability experts, scientists, and engineers among them—working at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI; rmi.org), a self-described “think-and-do tank” founded in 1982 by Amory Lovins (an experimental physicist by training who received a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1993), and even though they have a budget on the order of just $12-million per year, the kind of money that gets lost in the couch cushions of global petrochem companies, they have some lofty goals: By 2050 they believe a transition to efficiency and renewable energy sources can end the U.S. “addiction” to fossil fuels, create the core industries of the new energy era, and generate $5 trillion in new economic value.

And this think-and-do tank isn’t simply coming up with clever or crazy (depending on your point of view) ideas, but they are actually working to make this a reality.

Structurally, there are three core practice areas they are addressing:
• Built Environment
• Electricity
• Mobility and Vehicle Efficiency

As the transportation sector gets increasingly electrified, which necessitates changes in infrastructure (e.g., roads and other aspects of the “built environment”), working to coordinate the efforts of vehicle producers, utilities, municipalities, and other stakeholders is part of what RMI is all about.

“RMI is dedicated to the efficient and restorative use of resources,” says Robert Hutchinson, managing director. So one of the things that they do is to work at addressing what is trying to be accomplished, which might seem simple, but which is oftentimes overlooked. “In the car business, what you’re really trying to do is move yourself.” So RMI is working at developing the best possible ways to get drivers where they need to be while using the least environmentally harmful methods possible.

A classic example of this is the Hypercar that was introduced in 2001 (see Automotive Design & Production, November 2001). This is a composite-intensive vehicle that uses a fuel cell and wheel motors that provide the 857-kg vehicle the means to achieve 100 mpg. Not only did they design the architecture, but they processed the vehicle, determining the tooling and manufacturing requirements. While there was no intention of producing the car, Hutchinson says that they’ve shared the know-how with OEMs. This project gave rise to Fiberforge (fiberforge.com), which concentrates on high-volume, low-cost production of fiber-reinforced thermoplastic parts.

In addition to which, Bright Automotive (brightautomotive.com) spun-off from RMI in 2008; it is developing battery packs, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle conversions, and providing hybrid system development consulting and alternative powertrain modeling simulations.

Hutchinson says that RMI is now working on “Project Get Ready,” which is addressing the demands that will be placed on the infrastructure and grid as the number of electric vehicles multiplies. Through the collaboration of interested parties, he says “If someone tries something that doesn’t work, everyone in the network immediately knows so they don’t also try it. And if someone figures out a way to do something that’s better and faster, everyone finds out about it quickly. It’s a way to minimize waste and cost associated with getting a quality electric infrastructure in place.”

Reducing energy use while meeting the demands of a mobile society has no room for waste.


Creating Renewable Rubber

While “burn renewable isoprene” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “burn rubber,” the folks at Michelin (michelinman.com) are hoping the eco-friendly chemical building block that they are developing in collaboration with California-based synthetic biology company Amyris (amyris.com) will replace some of the petroleum-derived materials currently used to develop tires. The bio-isoprene (commercialization expected to begin in 2015) can be derived from a range of plant sugars; the company is using Brazilian sugarcane to create the renewable rubber for the tires that are still under development.

Michelin isn’t the only tire company looking into greener options when it comes to the development of tires. Goodyear (goodyear.com) has been working with California-based Genencor (genencor.com) to do the same. And as we’ve previously reported, Yokohama Tire (yokohamatire.com) is the only company producing tires using orange oil (see: autofieldguide.com/blog/post/orange-tires-are-still-black-but-also-green).

Using Agave and Coconut to Make Biofibers

When it comes to ideas for new materials, Jim Preston, vp of Business Development for RheTech (rhetech.com) will tell you that people call the Whitmore Lake, MI-based company at least once a week with a plan for a biowaste product they think will fit in the RheVision biocomposites line. So when the company bites, the idea must be good—not to mention cost-effective. The newest additions—and yes, they are the result of a couple of those phone calls—are a line of natural biofiber thermoplastics produced from agave and coconut fibers, which Preston says can be used for automotive interior and underhood applications. These materials use the natural fibers in place of fillers like fiberglass.

The agave fiber, sourced from Mexico, comes from a plant and is the residual by-product of the production of . . . tequila. Because it is very strong, it is recommended for applications that require impact strength and stiffness. The coconut fiber is made from ground shell, which comes to the company from Indonesia. The processed shells result in a fiber that can be used to produce products with hard, stiff surfaces. This material was developed for use in end-products like the interior trim in vehicles that is usually manufactured from talc-filled polypropylene.

Preston says that in addition to the renewable qualities of these materials, the aesthetic value also sets them apart: “They have a sort of speckled or a fibrous look that you can’t get from traditional fillers.” He adds that the company is working with several OEMs to further develop the fibers to best meet automotive specifications.

RheTech’s coconut fiber is a biofiber thermoplastic made from ground shell.


 The company’s agave fiber provides strength and stiffness.



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