Fusing transport, technology and energy – engineering an Irish revolution
10 October 2017
In the first part of his presidential address, Engineers Ireland president Dr Kieran Feighan outlined how harnessing energy to improve mobility has been the foundation for the development of many of the great empires in the world over the course of history. You can read it here.
One of the key areas that we need to explore is energy storage. There are many innovative solutions being put forward, both on a large scale and on a small scale. There is currently a well-advanced project in Larne, Co Antrim, to use compressed air storage within two large caverns to be mined from within the existing salt geology at a depth of 1.5 kilometres below the surface. The salt deposits in Larne are particularly dense and suitable for this compressed-air storage.
After a major mining and construction project to create the caverns, the ongoing operation will entail using off-peak or surplus power (from renewable energy sources, e.g. wind power) to compress the air within the caverns. When peak electricity is required, the pressurised air from the caverns is used to power the generator for electricity generation. This technology has been used in other countries but will be a first for Ireland.
It mirrors an approach to using off-peak energy to create a very large battery, or storage followed using hydroelectricity at Turlough Hill, built in the 1970s, and fully refurbished in 2016. In this case, off-peak or low demand energy is used to pump water to the upper reservoir and then at times of peak demand, the water from the upper reservoir runs back to the lower reservoir, through a generation station, to produce peak demand electricity.
The Spirit of Ireland proposal, which was launched a number of years ago, was a very innovative, interesting proposal with some clear drawbacks. The proposal was to use the natural geology and geographic shape of Ireland to identify some existing natural valleys close to the sea that could be converted into much, much larger ‘upper’ storage reservoirs than that created in Turlough Hill. The sea itself would function as the ‘lower’ reservoir.
Wind energy would be used pump sea-water to the ‘upper’ reservoir in times of low energy demand. At peak demand, the sea-water would be released from the reservoir and generate hydroelectricity through a power station as the water was released back to the sea inlet.
There is also very interesting current research and commercial development underway in small-scale energy generation and storage. Tesla has developed a new type of solar panel which looks almost identical to existing roof tiles, with four variants available by 2018. In addition, Tesla has developed a very neat and clever design for the battery to store the electricity generated by the solar panel.
The battery is then used to either power the home through an alternating current inverter or charge an electric vehicle at night using the direct current that’s stored in the battery. The domestic user operates as a mini power plant, supplying at least the user’s own requirements, and in the event that there is a surplus, feeding it back to the grid.
Effectively, in this case, rather than an electricity company having to bear the costs of power generation and distribution, the consumer pays for the storage and pays for the solar panels, using the electricity generated for charging or for immediate consumption. Given Tesla’s strong positioning in the electric vehicle market, this combination of electric power generation and storage to support one or more electric vehicles is innovative and attractive. Will Elon Musk be seen in time as the 21st-century equivalent of Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, or both?
There is an alternative to electric battery storage to power electric vehicles, with hydrogen fuel cells used to drive the electric motor in the vehicle. This area is very much of the moment, with ongoing research and pilots in Korea, Japan and the USA.
H2-USA is a public-private partnership between the US government and some of the car manufacturers aiming to promote introduction and widespread application of fuel cell electric vehicles across the US. General Motors/Chevrolet are heavily involved in both conventional electric and hydrogen fuel cell development, but Audi, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes Benz all have vehicles with working hydrogen fuel cells operating on a pilot basis in the US. The big attraction of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is a range of up to 500 kilometres before refilling, much more similar to the existing range that we get from petrol-driven and diesel-driven vehicles.
It is also timely to highlight current research output from the CRANN Institute in TCD. An ideal scenario would see the development of a cost effective method to allow the production of hydrogen from hydrolysis, taking water and splitting it up into hydrogen and oxygen using excess energy that may be available through wind, renewables or off-peak generation.
The biggest problem with hydrogen production through hydrolysis is the cost, and in particular, the catalyst, Ruthenium oxide, which is extremely expensive and extremely rare.
The CRANN Institute’s research found a way to substitute manganese oxide, an extremely cheap and more abundantly available material, for ruthenium oxide without any adverse effects on production. This Irish innovation has huge potential to drive the ability to generate hydrogen from hydrolysis, rather than current hydrogen generation from carbon based sources, primarily gas and oil.
In considering alternative fuel sources for vehicles, the future configuration of fuel retail outlets must also be discussed. Since the dawn of the 20th century, fuel distribution through petrol and diesel pumps for the automobile and trucking industry has been a familiar part of the landscape.
There has been a drop in the number of carbon fuel outlets in Ireland: in 2016, there were roughly 1,800 retail outlets. The ESB has rolled out charging points and fast charging points, currently 1200 charging points nationally, but with likely increased adoption of electric vehicles, those charging points will need to be increased hugely.
An interesting question arises. Should additional charging points be provided independently of existing retail outlets or provided in conjunction with those? And if the retail outlets become multipurpose outlets, providing oil and diesel and petrol for the foreseeable future but also locations for a number of fast charge electric points and potentially also outlets for hydrogen fuel, then there may become space for innovative involvement, by semi-state and state-owned bodies in Ireland in direct energy production/generation and distribution to transport vehicles on a much greater scale than now.
Some of the output numbers are worth looking at. Typically for carbon fuel it currently takes about 2 minutes to fill a 60 litre tank with a range of over 800 kilometres. A 10,000 PSI hydrogen pump will fill a hydrogen tank in 6 to 7 minutes and that gives a range of c. 500 kilometres on average. Electricity charging, even with fast charging points will take 20/30 minutes to charge up the battery to 80% capacity giving a much smaller range (150 to 350 kilometres depending on the model).
A home charge is much slower, taking about 6 hours to fully charge the battery. Clearly there are huge improvements to be made in these areas, particularly on the electricity side, in order that the electric capacity and recharging time can compete with the carbon based and hydrogen based technologies that the consumer is used to.
Autonomous and connected vehicles
Turning to the very topical area of autonomous vehicles, there is a widely recognised six level definition of autonomous vehicles developed by SAE International and summarised in Figure 1. Many of us currently have level 1 autonomous vehicle with cruise control, parking assistance, automatic emergency braking etc. There are a very limited number of Level 2 vehicles available, primarily from Mercedes Benz, Volvo and Tesla, where the vehicle can control steering and speed autonomously for at least a number of seconds.
The areas that require a lot of research and engineering research across a very wide number of different areas are at levels 3, 4 and 5. Level 5 is the ultimate autonomous vehicle with no human intervention required or facilitated. Most research interest is currently focussed on Level 4, with some manufacturers indicating possible commercial availability in the early 2020s.
When we look at the improvements in the 19th century with Brunel going from the Great Britain to the Great Eastern steam ship in a matter of 13 years, we may be able to move up through these levels more quickly than is currently envisioned depending upon the resources and the research and the level of smarts and engineering that are applied. What will these autonomous vehicles look like?
Potentially they may be much smaller and lighter than our current vehicles as we move up towards Levels 4 and 5 capabilities, with significantly lower crash protection facilities as the computers and sensors and smarts of the vehicles lower the risk to the passenger and drivers of collisions with other vehicles and with roadside objects.
A related but separate area of innovation is the field of connected vehicles. Over and above the multiple sensors on each individual vehicle, there may well be a requirement for a centrally controlled system that is aware of where all of the vehicles are, all of the time. This requires enormous capacity and capabilities in the broadband area to allow real time reciprocal recognition of vehicles and recognition of vehicles by an overall controlling system.
Typically, at the moment, the autonomous vehicles are collecting and carrying their own data using a variety of different sensors and significant computing ability to allow the vehicle to be autonomous in its driving capability. Additional computing power and communications systems will be needed to allow the vehicle to communicate with other controlling systems, whether centrally located or at spaced intervals throughout the network.
As authorities become responsible for the movement of significant numbers of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, how these interactions work and who bears the responsibility for vehicle interactions is going to become a very interesting and difficult area, and one that will involve the need, the coordination, of a large number of state and semi-state bodies.
There is a massive amount of research to be carried out with huge potential for private companies, for semi-state companies and state-owned companies in this space, particularly in the development of the ‘brains’ of the operation and interaction.
Clearly, there is a whole raft of legislative and ethical requirements beyond the engineering considerations to be developed. Road authorities, legal authorities and policing authorities have to figure out how these autonomous vehicles are allowed to interact firstly with other autonomous vehicles, and secondly, with human controlled vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, public transport and other road users. These non-engineering factors may ultimately determine the scale and speed with which autonomous vehicles will expand in time.
If a much higher percentage of the vehicle fleet are at Levels 4 and 5, there are potential major benefits in drastically reduced amounts of accidents, and increased mobility for the elderly, the disabled and the socially disadvantaged. Depending on the evolution, there may be reduced traffic and congestion through better control and better usage as a smaller number of vehicles are used much more intensively over the course of the day than our current vehicles are through implementation of MAAS (Mobility as a Service) solutions.
Against that, it is likely that these vehicles may be extremely expensive given the multiple levels of sensor technology, computing technology and communications technology required in addition to the controlling software systems. There will need to be widespread adoption to roll out the potential benefits, as a limited number of autonomous vehicles in a stream of primarily human activated and human driven vehicles will not have a lot of the benefits that have been put forward.
The risk of hacking the systems causing localised or widespread disruption is clearly evident as the vehicles are so dependent on communications and computing abilities. The potential to eliminate enormous numbers of jobs for drivers and others involved in the transportation industry is immense. It is possible that there will be more rather than less congestion as demand for the mobility offered by autonomous vehicles is increased.
Roads as energy generators/distributors
While transportation, and roads in particular, has been a user of energy, as we move forward there are distinct possibilities that road, airport and port pavement networks may be used to both generate energy directly, and as a means of delivering energy to the vehicles using the networks.
Colas in France has unveiled a solar road in 2016, generating electricity from solar panels over a 1.5 kilometre road length. The panels have been designed to withstand the loading of road vehicles while generating sufficient functional skid resistance to be effective as a pavement surface. The Colas project, at this very early stage of development, costs €5 million per lane-km.
Similarly in the United States, a company named Solar Roadways has developed hexagonal shaped solar panels that can be snapped together, almost like Lego, to form pavement solar panel arrays in different shape configurations for roadways and parking areas (Fig 2). It is currently constructing a rest stop parking area on the iconic Route 66 using the panels which also have fully integrated LED lighting allowing directional lining to be displayed.
There are obvious problems to be overcome if the use of solar panels as pavement surfacing is to become widespread. The surface is clearly flat, not oriented to the sun, lowering the potential energy yield generated, particularly in higher latitude areas of the world including Ireland.
A very significant portion of the pavement will be covered in high traffic situations, and there are also masking/coverage difficulties with dirt, snow and water. Maintaining skid resistance over time may be an issue, and the quantum of maintenance costs associated with the electronics in such a harsh and unforgiving environment is unknown.
When we look at other forms of vehicle battery charging, the vast majority currently take place with direct plug-in methods at home or in public areas. There is a lot of early-stage research underway into wireless, non-contact charging, both static and dynamic. Tesla has put forward a contactless charging system for home use. In Sweden, there is a static contactless system for buses currently being trialled, with charging plates in the pavement surface at bus stops and bus termini.
Early-stage research is also underway in a potentially transforming technology, allowing charging of vehicle batteries as they move at traffic speed along specially fitted pavement lanes with charging coils fitted just beneath the pavement surface. This technology, if successful, would lead to much smaller battery requirements for trucks and buses as well as dealing with the ‘range anxiety’ issue that is hampering widespread acceptance of electric vehicles.
The cost of installing the charging coils in new road construction is relatively small on a per kilometre basis, but the cost of retro-fitting the technology into existing roads is much more challenging. More importantly, the concept raises significant issues on the role and interaction of transport infrastructure companies, such as Transport Infrastructure Ireland, with electricity/energy companies such as ESB.
Who provides the initial capital, and who collects the revenue and sets the charging fees? What role will Revenue play, or wish to play, as excise revenues on carbon-based fuels decline over time? Will adoption of this technology create a ‘captive audience’ over time, wholly reliant on the charging lanes for power, and what public policy implications derive from this ‘capture’? How do you police, and derive fees from unregistered vehicles using the charging lanes? Will we end up with transport authorities that are more energy provider than infrastructure provider?
Accepting the need to be centrally involved in the new revolution of energy and transport, we in Ireland are in a very strong position to take an active and leading role in this 21st- century revolution. In the eras of the Spanish and British Empire developments, we lacked access to indigenous resources such as coal and iron ore, as well as lacking the democratic control to determine our own path and destiny.
Having secured our independence in the 20th century, we did invest very early on in hydroelectricity and the provision of electricity to all of our citizens, but did not participate to any significant extent in the manufacturing revolution of growth and development in new transport and energy modes.
Today, we are ideally placed to play a central role in the fusing of new energy sources, transport modes and controlling software and hardware. We have developed top-class transport infrastructure in the past 20 years, in roads, airports, ports and heavy and light rail. We have very high skills in the ITS and Big Data areas, with many thousands of highly skilled engineering graduates employed by indigenous and FDI companies.
Most importantly, in my view, we have many state-owned companies that are engineering-led and engineering-focussed in the key areas of transport infrastructure provision, energy provision and fusion of energy and transport requirements. These companies have a strong mandate to grow and be at the technological leading edge worldwide. We have access to a wide and increasing range of renewable energy sources and a very active sustainable energy authority.
We have top-quality universities and Institutes of Technology with a proven record of leading world-class research, working in conjunction with focused, research-sponsoring body in Science Foundation Ireland. We must harness these capabilities to create institutional and product development synergies, to innovate and create a better, sustainable transport/energy future for our country and our people.
To quote Sir John Armitt in his ICE Presidential address to Engineers Ireland in February 2016, “We are the holders of the knowledge necessary to create the systems. We are the best able to work with other engineering professions to assess solutions, the alternative technologies, to develop new technologies, to design, fabricate, cost, build, operate and eventually decommission the systems. We have a responsibility to put all this information before politicians and investors, and make it available to the public.”
History has shown us that the underlying driver of preferential economic growth is the discovery, adoption and adaptation of new sources of energy linked with new forms of transport.
We are ideally placed to be a full-scale R&D laboratory, investigating solutions for congested cities, growing towns, rural areas and ultra-low rural density areas, using new energy sources and connected communications and IT systems, using the flexibility and ability to work together and develop pragmatic and practical solutions that Irish people, and Irish engineers in particular, are renowned for.
If not us, who? If not now, when?
Dr Kieran Feighan is president of Engineers Ireland.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2017/10/10/fusing-transport-energy-technology-engineering-irish-revolution-2/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/transportation-communication-1024x683.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/transportation-communication-300x300.jpgElecelectricity,energy,Engineers Ireland,transport