Will Automobiles Ever Achieve 100 Miles Per Gallon?

Recently, I learned how a local gentleman accepted a personal challenge to conserve limited global reserves of oil by producing a highly fuel efficient motor vehicle.

Combining his knowledge from an electrical engineering degree with the experience of designing and supervising major renovation and new construction at the WCA Hospital, Martin Lydell and his team entered an automobile in the Green Grand Prix of Watkins Glen competition, including 115 teams hoping to win the best miles per gallon (mpg) vehicle.

The contest offered $5 million to the team developing a gasoline powered vehicle achieving 100 mpg. The vehicle had to carry four people including the driver, contain 10 cubic feet of cargo space and drive at speeds of 35-45 miles per hour. The reward remains unclaimed although his team achieved 80 mpg. Last week he invited me to his shop to learn how he accomplished this feat.

Hybrid battery use was permitted even though the batteries do run electric motors because they are never replaced, altered or plugged into an electrical outlet. Hybrid batteries are recharged by the gasoline engine when the vehicle slows down or descends a hill. I can attest to these facts because the hybrid batteries in my 6-year-old Altima have never been touched and help generate 31 mpg. Hybrid technology will likely become a universal component of motor vehicles.

Several ingenious techniques were used to achieve 80 mpg in a functional standard automobile. As the speed of a vehicle doubles, the power to push the vehicle increases four times, which is primarily due to drag or friction from air passing around the vehicle. The aerodynamic profile or drag in his team’s vehicle, a Ford Focus Wagon, was improved by incorporating moon hubcaps and fender skirts to reduce air turbulence around the wheel well. The bottom of the vehicle was enclosed by material smooth as glass. The side view mirrors were replaced by tiny closed circuit TV cameras directed toward the rear and side. Special high pressure tires created less road friction so they rolled easier.

Most importantly the new technology, a prototype gas motor designed and built by the team, coupled with three electric motors powered the vehicle. A traditional automobile uses an internal combustion engine which means a piston moves inside a cylinder compressing air and gasoline vapor until the sparkplug ignites the mixture creating an explosion to push the piston down. The piston moves a crank shaft, which via gears, turns the wheels. The prototype engine consists of one piston in one cylinder instead of four, six or eight cylinders and pistons commonly used in today’s cars and trucks. When gas ignites or explodes their single cylinder it pushes the piston down more rapidly than in standard engines since a light weight flywheel is attached. Therefore the cylinder has less time to heat up so cooling with a radiator is avoided.

The explosion in the cylinders of standard automobiles generates enormous heat, 75 percent of which is lost to exhaust or absorbed by the cylinders and cooled by water in the radiator. Just 25 percent of gasoline energy remains to power the wheels. The team’s prototype engine captures much of this lost heat in exhaust by heating water to create steam which turns a turbine and thus generates electricity used to recharge the hybrid batteries. In addition, three electric motors under the hood use the battery to supplement the gas engine.

Onboard computers adjust gas and air mixtures and the variable speed transmission for efficient fuel use.

Research for the contest discovered that only 18 horsepower is necessary to push a regular car and recharge batteries at steady cruising speed on a level road. A typical highway vehicle requires higher horsepower around 80-100 to climb hills or pass another vehicle thus reducing fuel efficiency.

I asked Martin whether there are prohibitive expenses or engineering obstacles associated with his new engine technologies. He feels there are none. Today, he states the time is right to switch to more efficient engines; the technology is available; he is just waiting for the day it happens.