Thursday, December 11, 2008

Peak Oil and transportation

Last month I attended the fall conference of the Utah chapter of the American Planning Association and spent the entire time in the "sustainability" track. "Peak Oil" was the major topic. I've followed the discussion of peak oil for quite some time, but never felt the immediacy of the problem nor considered just how far reaching its consequences until that conference. To summarize my feelings at the time, I will relate what I said to a friend at the conference. I said, "Dude, we're screwed."

If there was an upside to my feelings of dread it was that my creative juices started flowing. Since 95% of our transportation energy comes from oil, transportation will be hit hard as oil is harder to come by. (I haven't met anyone yet who believes the current low in oil prices will last into next summer.) To utilize other sources of power for transportation requires batteries or compressed gasses. Batteries are still not very efficient in terms of stored energy per unit of mass, despite continual research in the field. Compressed natural gas is a proposed solution, but requires replacement of the current fleet of vehicles, experiences energy losses due to compressing the gas, and will follow a similar depletion curve to oil. Hydrogen is a storage medium, not an energy source, so it would require additional energy to produce in addition to energy losses from compression and fleet replacement costs.

The thought occurred to me that rather than spending money on the kind of infrastructure needed for the inevitable change away from oil, we should consider a different kind of transportation infrastructure. Yes, trains and light rail would fall into this category, but what I'm referring to would be different altogether.

My idea is to utilize wireless electricity transmission systems to power cars. As I sat in the conference I tried to recall an article about MIT developing the ability to transmit power using magnetic induction. I couldn't recall the content then, but here is an article that discusses their technology. (Since that time Nevada Lightning Laboratory has published results of their experiments that can push more electricity over longer distances.) I reasoned that if transmitting coils could be embedded in roadways, cars could be manufactured with receiving coils that would in turn power electric motors. The beauty of the idea is that this could be a secondary system in traditional internal combustion vehicles or in battery powered cars. When such a car turns off of a "powered" road the other systems kick in. The cars could be put on the road during (or even before) the infrastructure build out.

Like most of my ideas, I'm not the first to think of it. Here is a patent application that states, "7. The system of claim 1, wherein said energy transmission system is arranged in proximity to a roadway and said energy reception system is arranged on an underside of an electrically chargeable vehicle." That's fine. I would just like to see the thing built. (To be fair, Nikola Tesla proposed the same thing a hundred years ago, but with airships.)

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