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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gas prices: maybe there is a positive side

By Dick Hirsch

We have all heard of the need for future energy independence, that warning about reliance. I first heard it many years ago from Mr. Olandt, my teacher of General Science. Back then, they didn’t call it energy. They just called it oil.

“Someday,” the teacher said, “someone is going to discover an inexpensive new fuel for our cars and we won’t use so much oil.”

I heard it again in Chemistry class from Mr. Snow, who made the same prediction suggesting it was “only a matter of time,” before cars were powered by some magical substance not yet invented. I later heard it from Professor Small in Geology class and Professor Barber, who taught a course in Geopolitics. From different viewpoints they each stressed that oil was a finite resource, that alternatives needed to be developed in case the supply should dwindle or be interrupted by political events in the Middle East.

That all occurred so long ago that it can be filed under ancient history, yet they all seemed to believe they knew what they were talking about. Nobody paid much attention, though; the students were listening but we weren’t hearing. And why should we have been paying attention? It was typical to stop at the neighborhood gas station and tell the attendant to put in $2 worth before taking the family car for a joyride. That two bucks would cover about six gallons. Today two bucks might get you almost two quarts but be careful when you’re squeezing the pump handle.

I am about to examine the bright side of the spiraling price of gasoline. Is there a bright side? Not really, but, if you are determined to search for a positive approach, as I am, it doesn’t take that much spinning to discover an obvious promising possibility.

My positive is this: the rising cost will continue to be painful but the pricing will force researchers to find answers that will liberate us from the clutches of the oil producers and refiners. Shame on us. We all now remember hearing about the potential for an oil crisis while in school, but we were too satisfied to demand progress. The oil companies and the carmakers constructed an impregnable front that discouraged any change that would impact their ways of doing business.

They were able to maintain the status quo. There were power shifts in the US, with new leaders emerging and political parties either ascending or descending, but there were seldom any serious challenges to the dominance of the internal combustion engine.

That has changed. In Detroit, while they shut down assembly lines for the SUVs, they were working overtime in the research laboratories and test centers. The same activity is taking place around the world.

The hybrid car is a spectacular success. Price doesn’t seem to be the primary concern. Buyers are standing in line to place an order for a car that won’t be delivered for months. Once they take possession of the car, they become the envy of the neighborhood. They may still be paying that big money per gallon, but they’re using less than half as much.

Years ago the guys in the cafeteria would discuss reports of the prototype engines which supposedly ran on water or air. The persistent legend was that General Motors had paid an enormous sum to the inventors in order to keep that development secret and off the market. Maybe those were just fictitious tales, but today’s truth is that they are actually test driving cars that run on compressed air. Yes, believe it: maybe it’s air time. A joint venture is underway and developers and manufacturers in France and India are predicting the compressed air car will be on the road in the next few years.

The electric car is more than a possibility. General Motors is in the final stages of testing and predicts that its concept car, the Volt, could be ready for the market by the end of 2010. The company says: “For someone who drives less than 40 miles a day, Chevy Volt will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions. For longer trips, Chevy Volt's range-extending power source kicks in to recharge the lithium-ion battery pack.”

Hydrogen fuel cells are a compelling consideration, more than bio-diesel, which uses reclaimed and recycled cooking oils and produces exhaust that smells like French fries.

That’s my glimpse of the bright side. Today’s pain will yield tomorrow’s progress and relief. Meanwhile, we must pay for past lethargy.



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