Saturday, December 8, 2007

Running your car on renewable energy--now!

I have been reading with much interest David Blume's new book (more like a mini-encyclopedia on all aspects of ethanol) Alcohol Can Be A Gas: Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century (2007). Before reading the book, I did not have a very positive view of ethanol as a fuel. But I am now starting to change my mind after seeing how Blume disposes of several common myths about ethanol production and use.

Blume reports that most cars with fuel-injection (which is all modern gasoline cars) can run on 50% ethanol with no modifications. Included in his tests on page 330 is a 1998 Honda Civic. So I am giving this a try with my 1997 Honda Civic.

We have an E-85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) pump just down the road from my house in Urbana where today I put in 1 gallon of E-85 and then filled up the rest of the tank with Illinois gasoline that has 10% ethanol as an anti-knock agent. That yields a total of 16% ethanol in the tank that holds 11.8 gallons of fuel. The idea is to work gradually up to 50% ethanol, adding an additional gallon of E-85 at each fill-up until reaching 50% ethanol by adding a bit over 6 gallons of E-85 and then filling the tank with regular Illinois E-10 unleaded gasoline.

The gradual increase of ethanol in the tank is recommended because ethanol will dissolve the accumulated crud left by gasoline in the fuel tank which can cause the fuel pump to fail. (p. 356). Gradually increasing the percentage of ethanol will cause a more gradual dissolving of the crud allowing it to pass through the fuel pump. Experience in Brazil has shown that the engines of cars running on 96% ethanol and 4% water last three times longer than comparable engines running on gasoline. The engine deposits left by gasoline are like fine sandpaper and increase engine wear. Alcohol does not leave these deposits.

If you want to try this with your fuel-injection gasoline car, you can see see if E-85 is available in your area by going here, selecting "E-85" under "find gas prices," and entering your zip code. But if your car is still under warranty, using E-85 might void the warranty.

The only potential problem using 50% ethanol might cause is minor hesitations at stop signs that should go away as the fuel-injection system adapts to the new fuel (p. 329).

It is stated on page 326 of Blume's book that if all of the U.S.'s fuel-injection cars (just about all of them since the late 1980s) ran on just 40% alcohol, we might not need to import any foreign oil (although I don't believe the U.S. produces near enough ethanol now to make that possible).

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Carbon Offset Providers

I have been interested in some time in the idea of purchasing carbon offsets, a way for individuals and organizations to fund projects to reduce the world's greenhouse gas emissions or "carbon footprint."

This report, published in December 2006, provides detailed information about carbon offsets and finds eight "Tier 1" organizations that satisfy a number of criteria to increase the probability that the carbon offsets purchased will have a real effect reducing carbon emissions. These eight organizations (in alphabetical order) are:

  1. AgCert/DrivingGreen (Ireland)
  2. atmosfair (Germany)
  3. Carbon Neutral Co. (England)
  4. Climate Care (England)
  5. Climate Trust (U.S.)
  6. co2balance (England)
  7. Native Energy (U.S.)
  8. Sustainable Travel Int'l (U.S.)
Over the holiday season, environmentally conscious travellers might consider offsetting the carbon emissions of their travel. And some of these organizations make it possible to provide carbon offset gifts.

The report is careful to emphasize, however, that individual's efforts to reduce one's carbon emissions through lifestyle and consuming choices are most important.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Brompton Meets Twike

A new pedalling experience for me this evening!

I finally got a ride in a Twike, a double-recumbent, three-wheeled, enclosed pedal-electric hybrid vehicle designed and manufactured in Switzerland (now made in Germany) that gets the equivalent of between 350 and 600 miles per gallon using a combination of batteries/motor and human pedal power.

It is owned by Mark Childress and more info about the vehicle can be found at

Matt works on the Illinois campus. So at the end of the work day today I pedaled over to his part of campus on my Brompton folding bike, folded up the Brompton, put it in the Twike and away we went.

It was quite an experience pedaling and moving at close to 40 mph (top speed in the country is up to 55 mph). At city speeds the motor is used to get you up to speed and two strong pedalers can keep it going on mainly pedal power on the flat at city driving speeds. We zoomed over to Champaign where he lives, and I pedaled back to Urbana on my Brompton.

This may be the first time that the world's most compact folding bicycle (bicycles being the most energy-efficient vehicles on the planet) was combined with what is likley the world's most efficient pedal-electric vehicle on the planet!

You can see more photos at:

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Passive House Conference: Moving Toward Zero-Energy Homes

I attended the Second Annual North American Passive House Conference last weekend in Urbana, Illinois and my head is still spinning from all the presentations, demonstrations and conversations about ways of reducing and even eliminating carbon emissions from homes that stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

The essential component of these super-efficient homes is a structural envelope that is superinsulated (with up to 15 inches of insulation in exterior walls) and super airtight. Passive solar energy from large south-facing windows is used as the main form of heat. And an energy recovery ventilator (such as the RecoupAerator) is used to provide fresh air from the outside without cooling (in winter) or heating (in summer) the house.

Passive Houses are quite common in Germany and Austria where energy costs are very high. But they are not yet well known in North America. The conference drew together builders, architects, engineers and other sustainability-minded folks from all over the United States and Canada together with a number of Germans and Austrians living either in Europe or the U.S. who are involved in some fascinating projects in the U.S. and Europe.

Urbana's own Katrin Klingenberg, an architect who learned about Passive House concepts in Germany (where it is known as Passivhaus) organized the conference and showed attendees the two Passive Houses that she has built in Urbana and another under construction. Katrin is the director of the Ecological Construction Laboratory (e-co lab) in Urbana and also heads Passive House Institute US (PHIUS).

A Passive House can be built for 10 to 20% more than a conventional house of the same size with typical energy savings of 80 to 90%. Some speakers at the conference showed how adding other renewable energy sources such as solar electricity, solar hot water, wind and geothermal energy could reduce energy consumption to zero.

Some interesting technology that I learned about at the conference include research at the Univeristy of Illinois by Ty Newell on using CO2 as a refrigerant, vacuum insulating panels that provide an insulation value of R-30 per inch (such as Vacupor), and indirect evaporative coolers that can cool air down to its dew point (instead of just to its wet-bulb temperature), making these practical for more humid locations such as parts of the midwest and northeast U.S. (see products made by Coolerado). Other technology exhibited at the conference can be found here.

Passive House technology looks like an obvious move in a world where housing and buildings consume vast amounts of non-renewable, greenhouse-gas-producing energy.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Introduction: Maybe Not So Obvious

My daughter, Anne-Marie (who recently started a blog Core and Rind with her husband, Kevin), has been bugging me recently to start my own blog. If I send an e-mail to her and other family members (often with an attached photo or two), she will reply with something like "blog, blog, blog, blog!". I suppose that is because she believes that what I have to say should have a much larger audience and she wants to share the wisdom of her father with the rest of the world! So I'll give it a try, although at this point it remains to be discovered how much time I will have for regular blog entries.

I have lots of interests and concerns. Among those at the top of my list are environmental issues, especially sustainable transportation and housing. Other interests that will no doubt eventually show up here are bicycling, music, travel, swimming, running, skating, foreign languages and technology (especially technology for education and language learning). The blog's name, Obvious Moves, was originally motivated by my transportation interests, although the meaning of Moves is larger than that. The Obvious part has to do with searching for, discussing and finding solutions to problems that will eventually appear obvious (such as facilitating bicycle transportation in the world's towns and cities) but are not yet generally considered obvious by all or most individuals.

I also have lots of questions about many issues, and so I am planning to use this blog as a way of soliciting answers to my questions (and readers' related questions, too).

Now on to figuring out what my first real post will be about.