Going Nuclear for Future Electric Cars
I admire the thought behind Max Boot's article deploring U.S. dependence on foreign oil to fuel our vehicles (March 27, B1). But I would be interested to see scientific support for the sensational claim by him and Frank Gaffney and R. James Woolsey that 500 mpg cars are "not science fiction; they are achievable now." While other ways to propel vehicles are available as well as fuels other than petroleum-based gasoline, such sensational and unsubstantiated claims should not be made in a responsible newspaper without referring to the research on which they are based.
I have professionally worked in the transportation field and must take exception to glib claims of a 500 mpg automobile. Fundamental mechanical laws cannot be repealed, most prominently here that propelling an automobile on a highway involves work not only against friction but particularly air stream resistance, which rises with the square of the velocity.
No matter how efficient the engine in extracting the available latent energy of the fuel, the work that must be done to move the car remains. Mr. Boot suggests we have 50 mpg cars today [actually a result of the use of regenerative braking, which recaptures the kinetic energy of stopping the vehicle] and that 500 mpg cars are possible. He suggests hydrogen fuel cell cars are pie-in-the-sky, perhaps recognizing there are no hydrogen extraction plants or mines and seemingly ethanol- and methanol- based fuels will permit 500 mpg cars.
Though no chemist, I find it preposterous to suggest increasing the energy available from a gallon of ethanol- and/or methanol-enhanced fuel by a factor of 10. In fact, I have noticed a diminution my own mileage during the months when the addition of ethanol to gasoline is mandated by law.
If the authors of the report making the claim want to solve the problem of dependence on oil, a totally electric car is the answer. But many practical, though hopefully solvable, problems remain for such a car.
We still cannot avoid the fundamental issue of the original energy source to provide the electricity. Oil is of course ruled out by their own hypothesis. It seems nuclear power is the way to go, and I would favor that. But will environmentalists?
No new U.S. nuclear power plants have been built in this country for many years. I understand 15 years are needed to get a nuclear plant on-line. Mr. Boot is right to suggest a problem looms. But squeezing more work out of a gallon of fuel for a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine doesn't seem the right tack with available fuels.
Unless chemists can find or create a fuel with tenfold the present available energy per gallon to meet Mr. Boot's claim of 500 mpg cars, there is no other solution other than nuclear to supply power for our future electric vehicles.
JOHN D.S. MUHLENBERG (P.E., Calif.)
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