The Government Subsidized Fisker Hybrid Manufacturer is Liquidating its Assets

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 24th, 2013

Week in Review

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has had some problems with its lithium-ion batteries.  And now there is an icing problem with its engines.  Which is a bug to fix in their radical new design that eliminated the bleed-air system from its engines.  Reducing weight and increasing the efficiencies of the engines.  Which translates into lower fuel/operating costs.  Making the Boeing 787 Dreamliner a winning economic model.  And why airlines are waiting anxiously to add it to their fleets.  Now contrast this to a losing economic model.  The electric/hybrid car (see Fisker sells its assets to Hong Kong tycoon, files for bankruptcy by Jerry Hirsch posted 11/22/2013 on the Los Angeles Times).

An investor group headed by Hong Kong tycoon Richard Li purchased the federal loan made to Karma plug-in hybrid sports car maker Fisker Automotive and acquired the assets of the nearly defunct automaker.

Fisker has voluntarily filed petitions to liquidate under the U.S. Bankruptcy code, and Li’s Hybrid Technology has committed up to $8 million in financing to fund the sale and Chapter 11 process.

The federal government, which had lent money to the Anaheim auto company under a Department of Energy clean vehicles program, will lose about $139 million on the deal.

“Because of these actions, along with the sale announced today, the Energy Department has protected nearly three-quarters of our original commitment to Fisker,” said Bill Gibbons, a department spokesman.

The all-electric car suffers from range anxiety.  The dread a person feels as they are far from home and their battery looks like it won’t have enough charge to get them home.  Hybrids are expensive.  But carrying around that extra internal combustion engine in addition the electric system makes the car heavier.  And reduces its battery range.  Meaning that if you drive more than, say, a 45-mile round-trip you’ll be using that internal combustion engine most of the time.  Which will burn more fuel than in a gasoline-only powered car.  Because they don’t have the extra weight of the electric system to drag around.

This is why there isn’t a long list of orders for these electric/hybrid cars like there is for the Dreamliner.  For the Dreamliner is what most airlines are looking for in a jetliner for solid economic reasons.  While the electric/hybrid car is more of a novelty.  Few people are buying them.  And because of this they need government subsidies to remain in business.  Whereas Boeing’s strong sales are one of the few things driving the nation’s GDP into positive territory.

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A Third Tesla Model S is Consumed by Flames from their Lithium-Ion Batteries

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 9th, 2013

Week in Review

There were two Boeing 787 Dreamliners that had a battery problem and a burning smell.  Fire is dangerous.  Especially in an airplane.  There was no loss of life in either incident.  And there was minor damage.  But two incidents were enough for the FAA to ground the entire Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet.  Yes, fire is dangerous on an airplane.  But the government was also mad at Boeing for wanting to make the Dreamliner with nonunion labor.  Did this play a role in the grounding?  Who knows?

Tesla has now had three lithium-ion fires.  Not battery problems with a burning smell.  The federal government likes Tesla.  Wants everyone to drive an electric car.  And subsidizes the electric car industry.  Interestingly how Tesla can have three fires that destroy the car entirely and yet receive no scrutiny from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Guess the government thinks Boeing wants to put people on unsafe airplanes while Tesla doesn’t want to put people in unsafe cars (see Tesla reports third fire involving Model S electric car by Ben Klayman and Bernie Woodall, Reuters, posted 11/8/2013 on The Globe and Mail).

Tesla Motors Inc. reported the third fire in its Model S luxury electric car in six weeks, this time after a highway accident in Tennessee, sending shares down sharply on Thursday.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol said the 2013 model sedan ran over a tow hitch that hit the undercarriage of the vehicle, causing an electrical fire on Interstate 24 on Wednesday. A highway patrol dispatcher called the damage to the car “extensive.”

The Model S undercarriage has armour plating that protects a battery pack of lithium-ion cells. Tesla said it did not yet know whether the fire involved the car’s battery.

An electrical fire in an electric car probably involved the car’s battery.  For without gasoline and a source for ignition what else can burn in an electric car other than a high energy density device under heat and pressure?

The first Model S fire occurred on Oct. 1 near Seattle, when the car collided with a large piece of metal debris in the road that punched a hole through the protective armour plating…

The second fire took place later in the month in Merida, Mexico, when, according to reports, a car drove through a roundabout, crashed through a concrete wall and hit a tree…

While none of the drivers in any of the Tesla accidents were injured, the glaring headlines about fires were unwelcome for a company whose stock soared sixfold in the first nine months of the year. Since the first fire, Tesla’s shares have lost more than 27 per cent, and this week’s declines are the worst one-week drop since May, 2012.

“For a company with a stock price based as much or more on image than financials, those recurring headlines are highly damaging,” Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer said.

When image is more important than financials that means the electric car isn’t selling.  That the costs far exceed revenue.  And probably the only things allowing them to stay in business are government subsidies (both for Tesla and for Tesla buyers) and irrational exuberance.  Like when investors created a dot-com bubble in the late Nineties.  Bidding up stock prices into the stratosphere when companies had nothing to sell let alone profits.  At least in the dot-com bubble investors were betting that they found the next Microsoft and were going to get rich.  It’s a little more puzzling why investors are buying Tesla stock in the first place. 

Tesla may build the best electric cars in the world.  But they are still electric cars.  The problem is no one is buying electric cars.  Except rich people who can afford a third car.  With the other two being powered by gasoline.  In case they want to travel a long distance.  Or drive at night or in the cold with the lights and heat on.  Or have to rush a sick child to the hospital when the Tesla is on the charger.

Tesla’s battery pack is made up of small lithium-ion battery cells that are also used in laptop computers, an approach not used by other auto makers. The battery pack stretches across the base of the vehicle. In comparison, General Motors Co. uses large-format battery cells in a T-shape in the centre of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid car.

Other auto makers have dealt with battery fires in electrified vehicles, including GM’s Volt and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s i-MiEV…

“For consumers concerned about fire risk, there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery” than a conventional gas-powered vehicle, he said on a blog post.

Company executives called that first fire a “highly uncommon occurrence,” likely caused by a curved metal object falling off a semi-trailer and striking up into the underside of the car in a “pole-vault effect.”

Gasoline engines are dangerous, but Americans have learned to live with them over the years, said Tom Gage, the former CEO of AC Propulsion, which developed the drive train for Tesla’s first model, the Roadster.

“Obviously, gasoline can be lit more easily and can burn with more ferocity than a battery can, but a gas tank in a car now benefits from 120 years of fairly intensive development and government regulation regarding how you make it safe,” he said.

Ever smell gasoline?  In a parking lot?  When you shouldn’t?  It might have been more common in the old days.  When the Big Three were selling their rust buckets.  Which rusted out in the northern climates where they salt the roads during winter.  Salt makes metal rust.  Including gas tanks.  Causing leaks.  If you smelled gas, though, did you run away from that car and wait for it to explode?  No.  You didn’t.  You probably thought something along the lines of, “That guy should get that fixed.  Gasoline is too expensive to waste like that.”

And you can fix a leaky gas tank.  It’s dangerous but you can.  For a tank full of gas has more liquid than fumes in it.  But an empty gas tank may be full of lingering gas fumes.  That can explode if ignited with a welding torch.  Which is why before they weld a gas tank they fill it full of sand.  So there is no room for any explosive gas vapors.

Gasoline is flammable.  It will burn.  But it won’t explode.  For gasoline in a liquid form is not as dangerous as in other forms.  It can leak out of a gas tank.  And then evaporate into the atmosphere.  In a car wreck something can puncture the gas tank and cause fuel to spill out.  If this fuel is ignited it can burn.  And the fire will follow the gasoline back to the source.  If the fire reaches the gasoline fumes under pressure in the gas tank there can be an explosion.  A very big one at that.  But if the fire department is on the scene they can wash that gasoline away with a fire hose.  And prevent any fire or explosion.  When a lithium-ion battery burns, though, throwing water on it won’t do much.

For gasoline to power a gasoline-powered car we first have to vaporize it.  Mix it with oxygen (pulled from the air).  Compress the air-fuel mixture.  And then ignite it with a spark.  That’s when it’s dangerous.  When it’s inside our engines.  Not in the gas tank.  For a piece of metal can puncture the bottom of a car—including the gas tank—without causing a fire.  Whereas it’s a little iffy with a Tesla.  If something punctures the batteries covering the bottom of the car there’s a good chance there may be a fire.  While if you puncture a gas tank you may just run out of gas.

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Federal Regulators find no Problem with Tesla Battery Design after one Burst into Flames this Month

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 27th, 2013

Week in Review

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a state-of-the-art fuel-efficient intercontinental jetliner.  Something that made airlines dealing with razor-thin margins and rising fuel prices stand up and take notice.  This was an airplane that they wanted.  And how did they squeeze these fuel savings out of the Dreamliner?  Well, they used more composite materials than before.  Reducing the amount of heavier metals.  And they eliminated some other ‘heavy’ metal in a way that increased engine efficiency.  By eliminating pneumatic systems and replacing them with electric systems.  Which eliminated the bleed air system that bled efficiency from the jet engines.  And removing all the metal ductwork that piped that hot pressurized air throughout the aircraft.  Such as to the anti-icing systems in the wings.  Which they replaced with electric heaters.

The Boeing 787 is the most electric plane in commercial aviation.  It uses an enormous amount of electric power.  Which requires powerful backup batteries.  Lithium-ion batteries.  That have a very high energy density.  Created from powerful chemical reactions.  Requiring complex controllers to regulate the power, temperature and pressure in the batteries to try and prevent a ‘thermal runaway’.  Especially during charging.  Which happened a few times.  Starting a fire or two.  Prompting the FAA to action.  And grounding the entire 787 Dreamliner fleet because of these high energy density batteries.

Electric cars also use these high energy density batteries.  And some of them have caught fire.  But federal regulators aren’t taking any electric cars off of the street (see Tesla dodges full investigation after fiery crash by Charles Riley posted 10/25/2013 on CNNMoney).

Federal regulators have decided not to open an official investigation into the crash of a Tesla Model S earlier this month that resulted in a fire in the electric car’s battery section.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that while it continually reviews vehicle complaints, the crash had not led to the discovery of any safety faults…

Auto blog Jalopnik posted photos and videos of the Seattle-area accident in early October, showing an electric Tesla Model S engulfed in flames…

Musk’s 560-word post explained the accident in his usual painstaking detail. He said the cause of the accident appeared to be a piece of metal that fell off of a semi-trailer and struck the Model S.

A fire then erupted in the car’s front battery section, but was contained to that area, the CEO wrote. No flames entered the passenger compartment.

Musk also tried to reassure his readers. “There should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid,” he wrote.

Well, one thing about our roads.  They are clean as a whistle.  So although there was a piece of metal once there will never be another piece of metal on our roads.  So there is no need to add some heavy metal under the Tesla to protect the battery from pieces of metal thrown up from the road.  Increasing the weight of the electric car.  Decreasing its range.  Further discouraging people from buying them.

If that piece of metal had hit a gas tank it may have dented it.  It may have even caused it to leak.  But it wouldn’t have burst into flames.  As the millions of cars driving on our metal-strewn roads testify to every day.  Gasoline stored in a tank slung underneath a car is pretty safe.  For it’s not what we combust in our engine.  No.  First we must aerosolize the liquid into a vapor.  Mix it with oxygen.  Compress it (greatly increasing its temperature).  Then ignite it with an electric spark.  And only then will it explode.  For an explosion needs heat and pressure.  Which isn’t present in a gas tank under normal conditions.  But they do exist in lithium-ion batteries under normal conditions.  Which is why they explode.  And burst into flames.

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Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Fuel Costs, Electric Systems, Auxiliary Power Unit and Lithium-Ion Batteries

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 23rd, 2013

Technology 101

Auxiliary Devices reduce the Power Output of the Engine available to Drive a Car Forward

If you’re middle age (or old) you may remember looking under the hood of a car.  When you could see things.  In the days of rear-wheel drive cars and big engines.  The front of the engine had a power takeoff pulley attached to the crank shaft.  The thing the pistons spun when it converted reciprocal motion into rotational motion.  Wrapped around that pulley were a lot of belts.  Sometimes three or more.  They transferred the rotational motion of the crankshaft to auxiliary devices.

These devices included the water pump that pumped engine coolant to remove the heat of combustion.  An alternator to generate electric power.  A power steering pump to make steering easier.  An air pump to inject air into the exhaust system to help complete the combustion process to reduce emissions.  (An electronic air pump has since replaced this belt-driven device.)  And an air conditioner compressor.  All of these devices reduce the power output of the engine available to drive the car forward.  Requiring more fuel.

Today’s cars have a lot more stuff under the hood.  Engines are often mounted transversely.  And the multiple belts have been replaced with one serpentine belt that winds around all of these auxiliary devices.  And engines are smaller.  With on board computers that maximize the power output of smaller engines.  That drive lighter cars.  But one thing hasn’t changed.  When you turn on the air conditioning you can still hear the engine labor under the additional load.  While burning more fuel.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner can do what other Planes can do while Burning less Fuel

In the airline industry the greatest cost is fuel.  So anything that allows airlines to burn less fuel greatly interests the airlines.  And it’s why pilots do careful calculations to determine how much fuel to carry.  That is, to determine the absolute minimum amount of fuel to carry.  If it were up to pilots they’d top off the fuel tanks.  But if they did that the airlines could not operate profitably.  Because you have to burn fuel to carry fuel.  And the more fuel you carry the more you have to burn.  Increasing your fuel costs to the point an airline loses money.  Especially if you’re landing with a lot of fuel in your tanks.  So pilots load less fuel than they would want.  Because to get a paycheck their company has to operate at a profit.  But it doesn’t stop there.  Not for aircraft designers.

Designers have been using more plastic in airplanes.  Because plastic is lighter than metal.  So engines can burn less fuel.  These composite materials are also stronger than metal.  So less of them can replace equivalent metal components.  So engines can burn less fuel.  Airlines have also been charging more for carry-on luggage.  In part to help offset their rising fuel costs.  And in part to encourage people to carry less onto the airplane.  So engines can burn less fuel.  Then Boeing raised the bar on burning less fuel.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a remarkable design.  Remarkable because it delivers what airlines want most.  An airplane that can do what other planes can do.  But does it while burning less fuel.  Boeing has used more composite material than any other manufacturer.  Making the 787 the lightest in its class.  And lighter things allow engines to burn less fuel.  But Boeing did more than just make the airplane lighter.  They used electric systems to replace hydraulic and pneumatic systems normally found on an airplane.

The 787 Dreamliner uses Lithium-Ion Batteries to start their Auxiliary Power Unit

Hydraulic and pneumatic systems bleed power from the aircraft engines.  As the engines drive pumps and compressors for these systems.  By converting these to electric systems more of the power of the engines goes to producing thrust.  Which means they burn less fuel to fly to their destination.  They even replaced the pneumatic starters (that spin the engines during starting) with a combination electric starter/generator.  Saving weight.  And reducing the complexity.  By replacing two parts (pneumatic starter and electric generator) with one (combination starter/generator).

To start the aircraft engines they first start the auxiliary power unit (APU).  The APU is typically mounted near the tail of the aircraft.  The APU provides power, lights, heating, air conditioning, etc., when the main engines aren’t running.  Some provide back up power (electric and pneumatic) should the main engines fail in flight.  The APU also drives an air compressor to provide the pneumatic power to spin the main engines for starting.  Going to all electric systems (except for the engine anti-ice system) removes the air compressor from the APU.  Reducing the weight.  And they further reduced the weight by making another change.  To the battery that starts the APU.

The 787 uses lithium-ion batteries.  Which can provide the same power larger batteries of different technologies can provide.  As lithium-ion batteries has a very high energy density.  But with great energy density comes great heat.  Some of these batteries have actually caught fire.  In electric cars.  Laptop computers.  Cell phones.  Even in Boeing 787 Dreamliners.  They’re not sure why.  And they’ve grounded the fleet until they figure out why.  It may be because they are overcharging.  Or that there are internal shorts causing a thermal runaway (releasing all the stored energy at one time).  Or the caustic electrolyte is leaking and causing a fire.  Until they determine what the problem is the 787 will remain grounded.  Making it very difficult to enjoy the cost savings of that remarkable design.

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Lithium Ion Battery Fires ground entire Boeing 787 Dreamliner Fleet

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 20th, 2013

Week in Review

The big drawback for electric cars is range.  For after a battery powers all the electrical systems (heating, cooling, lights, etc.) what charge is left is for going places.  And if that place is more than 30 miles away few people will feel comfortable taking a chance that they will have enough charge to drive there and back.  Unless that trip is to work where the car can recharge for 8-9 hours while at work.

Range anxiety is the greatest drawback to an all-electric car.  For if you run out of charge there is only one way to get your car home.  With a tow truck.  For you can’t walk to a gas station and ask for a can of charge to pour into the battery.  Charging needs an electrical source.  And time.  So the Holy Grail of the all-electric car industry is a battery that can hold a lot of charge.  But is small and does not weigh a lot.  And can be recharged in a very short time.  Right now that Holy Grail is the lithium ion battery.

But there is a cost for this Holy Grail.  There is a lot of chemistry to do this.  Chemistry that can produce a lot of heat.  Catch fire.  And explode.  Which has happened in some electric cars.  As well as in some airplanes (see Bad Batteries Seen as Best Case for 787 Overcoming Past by Susanna Ray, Alan Levin & Peter Robison posted 1/18/2013 on Bloomberg).

Other aircraft bleed air off the engines for a pneumatic system to power a variety of critical functions, such as air conditioning. That diverts power from the engines that they could otherwise use for thrust, and means they use more fuel.

With an electrical system for the jet’s other needs, the engines become much more efficient. The 787 uses five times as much electricity as the 767, enough to power 400 homes. To jump- start a so-called auxiliary power unit that’s used on the ground and as a backup in case all the plane’s generators failed, Boeing decided on a lithium-ion battery because it holds more energy and can be quickly recharged, Mike Sinnett, the 787 project engineer, said in a briefing last week.

Those capabilities also make lithium-ion cells more flammable than other battery technology, and they can create sparks and high heat if not properly discharged. Chemicals inside the battery are also flammable and hard to extinguish because they contain their own source of oxygen, Sinnett said.

A couple of battery fires have grounded all Boeing 787 Dreamliners.  The last commercial jetliner to receive such an order was the McDonnell Douglas DC-10.   Which happened after an engine came off while taking off at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.  Due to a maintenance error in changing out the left engine and pylon.  Causing the plane to crash.  After investigation they found the slats did not mechanically latch into position.  When the engine ripped out the hydraulic lines the slats retracted and the wing stalled.  The plane slowly banked to the left and fell out of the sky.  Killing all on board.  The DC-10s were grounded worldwide until the hydraulic lines were better protected and the slats latched to prevent them from retracting on the loss of hydraulic pressure.  Now no 787s have crashed.  But few things are deadlier to an airborne aircraft than a fire.  For there is nothing pilots can do other than to continue to fly towards an airport while the plane is consumed by fire.

Stored chemical oxygen generators in the hull of ValuJet Flight 592 were stored improperly.  They were activated.  Producing oxygen by a chemical reaction that generated a lot of heat.  The heat started a fire and the oxygen fueled it.  Once the pilots were aware of the fire they turned to the nearest airport.  But the fire consumed the airplane and fell out of the sky before they could land.  Killing all on board.

Fire on an airplane rarely ends well.  Which explains the grounding of the entire 787 fleet.  Because these lithium ion batteries run very hot when they make electricity.  And they can generate oxygen.  Which is the last thing you want on an aircraft.  However, both Airbus and Boeing are using them because they are the Holy Grail of batteries.  They’re small and light and can hold a lot of charge and nothing can recharge as fast as they can.  Which is why they are the choice for all-electric cars.  Even though some of them have caught fire.  This is the tradeoff.  Smaller and lighter batteries are smaller and lighter for a reason.  Because of powerful chemical reactions that can go wrong.  So to be safe you should park your electric car outside and away from your house.  In case it catches fire you’ll only lose your car.  And not your garage or house.  Or you can stick to the gasoline-powered car and not worry about battery fires.  Or range.

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