Porsches, Hybrids, and Blimps

Hybrid technology arrives in unexpected forms.

The first well-publicized hybrid automobile, using a gasoline engine to power a generator and electric motors to turn the wheels, was the Toyota Prius (known in South Park as the Pious), which has become one of the ‘standards’ now available. It is hard to remember how revolutionary this vehicle was at its time of introduction. People paid thousands extra in the form of an ‘availability charge’ to obtain them in the early ‘00s.

Despite the marketing hype, though, hybrid vehicles weren’t new at all.  They form the norm in several important categories of vehicles, like railroad engines and seagoing freighters. These types of hybrids have been around us with little fanfare or hype; publicity is mainly aimed at people involved in the industries where they operate.

Even automotive hybrids aren’t new.  The first hybrid motorcar, we learn from Wikipedia where we stole this photo, was produced by none other than Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951). In 1900 he delivered it to a client of the company for which he worked, Lohner-Werke, this new class of technology – yes, Porsche’s first claim to fame was not a sports car.

A slightly improved model from 1901 is pictured. It was an enormous vehicle for its time, powered by hub mounted electric motors on all four wheels (the first one was two wheel drive), which motors were able to produce a whopping peak horsepower of 7 from each motor for short bursts.

These hub mounted motors drew power from a 44 cell 80 volt lead acid battery, which took up most of the volume of the chassis pictured. The battery was charged by a gasoline engine which produced 56 hp.

Ferdinand Porsche went on to other things, but none of them that we know of were as ungainly looking. Porsche’s cars were usually very sleek and aerodynamic; perhaps this beast frightened him away from hybrid technology.

But the basic idea behind the Lohner-Porsche vehicle was a sound one: a gasoline engine charged a battery, and the battery drove electric motors which powered the vehicle. That is the definition of a modern hybrid.

Porsche’s battery weighed 1.8 tonnes (4032 pounds). Contrast that with your car battery, which is 12 V and will have more than 50 amp hours – a small number of which batteries could be arranged to provide the 80 V and 270 amp hours of the first Porsche. Modern batteries arranged to duplicate the electrical characteristics of Porsche’s battery would be a fraction of the size of the car pictured. Battery technology has come a long way since then.

Several developers of automobiles followed in taking hybrid cars and other vehicles to the marketplace. The Lohner-Porsche company became a supplier of school buses and such; Porsche himself went on to become a legendary automotive engineer. During the filtering out of manufacturers of early vehicles, the hybrid technology that had been used in 1900 languished into obscurity: the necessary batteries were enormous, incredibly heavy, expensive, and inconvenient.

Gasoline engines with their light starter motors demanded a battery, but a much smaller and cheaper one would do the job. These were included in 1912 Cadillac production models, the first to employ engine starters.

The hybrid technology that had been developed was still useful, though. Boats, railroad engines, and some other specialized applications were not so sensitive to weight and limitations on the operation of an engine, like RPM, noise, or drive assembly size.

An engine power production band may be broad and flat (on a graph) or short and peaky, depending on the design. And, alternatively, the economy band is probably located at a lower RPM than the maximum power developed.

Therefore, the gasoline engines in hybrids are not used to regulate the speed of the vehicle – they simply run at their most efficient power level, regardless of what kind of driving is going on at the moment.  Various designs of the engine/motor combination take advantage of the characteristics of the particular petroleum engine and the particular electric motor to use those characteristics to the best advantage.Ferdinand Porsche’s technology evolved into locomotion for trains, boats, and other applications where the emphasis was on maximizing fuel efficiency and where weight was not the prime issue. A segment of our society has always been passionate about trains and their engines, but most of us seem to take them for granted. A train rolls by, and we think not at all of what is propelling it as we tap our fingernails on the steering wheel impatiently awaiting the crossing gates to rise after the last car – with luck, it will be one of the few remaining cabooses (‘cabeese?’).

But the engineers of the railroad – the design engineers not the engine-eers who drive the trains – have been utilizing whatever technology saves their company money for a century. Railroads have long had the upfront capital to spend on long-term savings, and they have been the agents who have made many technologies work.

Freight hauling could not do without the diesel engine. Diesels are the workhorses of industry and there are many reasons to choose a diesel. A diesel coupled with an enormous battery and an electric motor is the power plant that rides the rails and drives many of the ships across our oceans. Those are by definition hybrids.

From Webster’s third definition of hybrid: “#1. Something that is powered by more than one source of power. #2. A car or other vehicle that combines an internal-combustion engine with one or more electric motors powered by a battery.” This definition does not include some other types of hybrids, which use other kinds of propulsion.

We have been using engines together with other engines for decades. No one had tried to classify them separate from other technologies, but now they have been. “Hybrid” has come to mean a gasoline powered car that uses a battery for locomotion, either in conjunction with its motor or as the primary driver of the wheels.

An Internet search of the term “types of hybrids” returned a plethora of results. It seems that types of hybrids have proliferated beyond what we have seen in the past.

    1. This group includes plug-ins as one of its classifications.

    2. This group tries to define how many types of hybrids there are.

    3, This group has three categories – the historically magic number 3.

    4. Or, series, parallel and combinations are the principal types.

Does this emit smug too?

There is something about breakthroughs in technology which leaves the recipients of the benefit, not grateful and astounded as they should be, but with a shrug and a yawn. And so it was some four years ago when General Electric introduced its Evolution series locomotive, a normal looking piece of gear – painted enviro-green/blue, of course – which has some useful capabilities in the economics of operation.

The emissions of the unit are far lower than existing equipment; the fuel economy is a large improvement over current units; more than 8,000 fuel saving modifications were made; lifecycle costs are vastly reduced. This evolution in locomotive technology is a product of GE’s new-product development, and allows one of the new series of clean diesel locomotives to move a ton of freight 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel.

General Electric’s ESL engine, while not a breakthrough, ushers in a new level of economy of operation for existing railroads, and continues to help rail transportation remain competitive with trucking and other forms of delivering the goods.

Where GE is making train engines in the mode of hybrids, Siemens, the gargantuan German company with fingers in everything technology, is utilizing its corporate might to develop ships that take advantage of the combinations of power plants which define hybrid.

Siemens ship designer Odd Moen recently reflected upon the advent of hybrids some 20 years ago:

Siemens has been using this technology since 1996. The Skandi Marstein, a supply boat for drilling platforms, was the first vessel with a diesel-electric drive in the North Sea. “That ship was a milestone for us,” says Moen. On a three-day cruise, the Skandi Marstein used 35 percent less energy than a diesel vessel.”

That level of savings is nothing less than astounding – and it was more than 20 years ago. It means that three ships could operate for the same cost in fuel as two with the then-current competing technology.

The principles of design of the ships utilize their diesel engines within their power bands to generate electricity which powers electric motors; electric motors run efficiently whether they are running fast or running slow. Electric motors can run ‘dead slow’ to operate very precisely; fossil fuel engines have no means of doing this.

Diesel engines have a narrow power band defined by RPM. By utilizing diesel engines which operate only within that narrow power band, the maximum efficiency for generating the electricity required for charging batteries can be utilized. Anyone who has ever paid attention to the engine sound when riding in a boat knows that the sound varies, and the engine speed varies, even as the throttle remains at a constant setting.

Currents, wind, and other physical changes occur as a boat travels across the water, and these physical changes affect the power demanded from the engine. Gasoline or diesel engines that are constantly dealing with changing loads do not operate at peak efficiency. Electric motors are not affected as badly by these conditions, and can maintain their efficiency.

Electric motors running off batteries are ideal for ship power.  This is the beauty of the hybrid: the battery has its own charger, and even though it uses petrol, it uses much less than conventional engines.

Hybrids are becoming increasingly sophisticated, using the optimal coupling between engine and motor for each situation. A dead slow motor allows the ship to be located within a moving stream and accelerate as needed, thus maintaining a position very precisely. This capability is very useful for many applications, constructing undersea foundations for instance.

Then there are hybrids for the air. Hybrid Air Freighters is a well-capitalized startup  that intends to use Lockheed-Martin dirigibles for their freight service.  As their marketing materials have it:

 The Hybrid Airship provides affordable and safe delivery of cargo and personnel to virtually anywhere –water or land. Hybrids were designed to enable a more sustainable future

Enthusiasts have been looking for a use for dirigibles for nearly 100 years. They tried luxury air transportation for passengers at first, but the Hindenburg put the quietus on that.

The only use that dirigibles seemed to find was as a steady platform that network sports could use as a camera mount for football games. The problems that dirigibles had were incredibly slow flight speed and enormous mooring spaces that were inconvenient for passengers - they took up for too much room for the expensive territory around airports.  The gasbag was the main contributor toward the size.

Assuming the change from explosive hydrogen to safe helium, the problems with dirigibles are no different now than they were in 1930. How will anyone overcome those obstacles by using hybrid technology for propulsion?

Hybrid Air Freight is going to give it a shot though, and promises that, “with a 21 ton cargo payload and the ability to land on any surface… deliveries to any remote area can be made easily.” Maybe. We wish HAF good luck.

Even without a sky full of airships, these new tools are allowing new technologies to be used in doing things that were regarded as impossible not many years ago. The technologies related to hybrids allow us to refine our use of energy, making us able to use very sophisticated means of transportation efficiently. Siemens, General Electric, and other companies are able to use the technology of 2018 in ways that were not even considered a decade ago.

Thomas Anderson is a multi-state registered architect and an ex-Air Force electronic technician, who is a keen observer of the human condition.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Thomas Anderson or other articles on Business.
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