National Geographic : 1983 Jul
buy little boxes that got 50 miles per gallon; now we can't give them away. Someday, though, there will be another OPEC shock and gas prices will go up, and we'd better be ready with good, efficient transportation." Some in the industry are already looking beyond the next price rise to the gradual de pletion of oil supplies. "The research is done," I was told by Thomas J. Feaheny, vice president for vehi cle research at Ford. "The only obstacles are economic. We could run automobiles on methanol now, but it takes years to build the plants to produce the fuel." West Germany is taking a serious look at alternate fuels. I flew to Berlin, where 600 cars running on a variety of them are being closely monitored. Most are powered by M 15 (15 percent methanol, 85 percent gaso line). A smaller group runs on 100 percent methanol. A number of electric cars are also being watched, and 20 cars powered by hy drogen fuel are to join the test before it ends in 1984. "The M-15 fuel requires fewer engine ad justments and brings fewer changes in per formance," said Rainer Paulsen, engineer with a transport research association. "But the M-100 holds more promise because of its greater substitution for petroleum. Of course it also requires more sophisticated changes in the motor. "The Federal Republic now produces about a million tons of methanol a year," said Herr Paulsen. "A coal-gasification project now under construction could raise that to eight million tons, enough to run only 3 percent of our 25 million vehicles." The verdict on the electric cars was a fa miliar one-limited range. There were no results available on the hydrogen cars still being built. As a fuel, hydrogen is virtually inexhaustible, and it burns without pollut ing. Extracting it from natural gas, coal, or even plain water, however, remains too ex pensive to make it competitive with more available fuels, and it is difficult to handle. Also in the distance are radical new en gines. I rode in a car with a whistle under the hood-General Motors' turbine engine fu eled by coal dust. This plentiful mineral could free us from OPEC but would dirty the air unless cleaned of impurities. And all turbine engines await the low-cost ceramics that can dependably withstand tempera tures of 2350°F. Another promise for breaking America's costly gasoline habit may be shown by an en gine invented in the 1940s by an oil compa ny. The Texaco Controlled-Combustion System (TCCS) injects fuel directly past the spark plug and into a cyclonic whirl in the center of the rising piston. "The fuel burns continuously and com pletely," said project manager William Tierney, who has worked on the engine for nearly 40 years. "That means octane ratings are unnecessary. We can burn many fuels." Part of every barrel of crude oil that yields gasoline must be burned in the refining pro cess. Using other fuels for TCCS engines could cut process-fuel needs by about half. Gasoline, heating oil, diesel, alcohol-the TCCS will run on any of them. The United Parcel Service will soon be road testing 500 TCCS-powered vehicles and eventually ex pects to cut fleet-wide fuel consumption by 15 million gallons a year. SHANGES in the conventional en gines are on the horizon. An Indi ana firm is developing a diesel that eliminates the conventional cooling system, making more efficient use of wasted exhaust energy. Superlubricants such as graphite could improve engine efficiency as much as 5 percent. Two Arizona inventors have designed a valve with a double screen that could help engines run cleaner, cooler, and more eco nomically. The device vaporizes gasoline and forces it to mix more thoroughly with air, allowing a more complete burn. Even with low-octane gasoline, it reduces emis sions and improves performance. Performance. The word emerged in near ly every car conversation. Often it means quickness more than headlong speed, and it spells danger if unadvisedly unleashed. But it cannot be denied that from the first hic cuping horseless carriages to the screaming blur of Formula One racing cars, the thrill of exceeding human limits in movement has been a seductive brew. At Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, I met a part time sports-car racer who caught the speed bug late. P. L. Newman had never compet ed in an automobile until the age of 47. In 11 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!