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Motor Mouth: New technologies I wish I had thought of

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2018-06-22 David Booth

a car parked on the side of a road© Provided by Driving.ca With our laser-like focus on electric vehicles and cars that drive themselves, it’s easy to forget that innovation comes in many forms. No stranger to the “now why didn’t I think of that” self-recrimination, Motor Mouth looks at some head-smackingly obvious inventions I wished I had thought of.

A lightweight method to reduce carbon dioxide

Research

This one may be old but is still so painfully obvious that one feels literally moronic as soon as you read the abstract. To wit: We have too much carbon dioxide, but we don’t have anywhere near enough carbon fibre so why not create one from the other? That’s exactly what some researchers at George Washington University have done, developing a methodology to extract carbon fibre from the CO2 in our atmosphere. And guess what the other byproduct of this electrochemical process is?

Oxygen.

Yes, Stuart Licht, a chemistry professor in Ashburn, Virginia, claims to have found a way to convert CO2 into pure nanoscale carbon fibre filaments and replace it with the oxygen we breathe, thus both purifying the air and producing the lightweight man-made material destined to take over from steel, aluminum and magnesium in the building of our cars. Not only that, Licht claims that, if renewable sources of electricity are used, there’s a net reduction in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so much so that he estimates that, given an area of constant sunshine 1/10th the size of the Sahara Desert, his system could remove enough CO2 to return the global atmosphere back to pre-industrial revolution pureness within 10 years.

Indeed, Licht, and his fellow researchers, claim the process could be applied to coal-fired electricity plants that would emit no CO2 at all. Licht et al have formed a startup — C2CNT — that is developing a commercial process for the conversion. Closer to home, a Calgary company, Carbon Upcycling Technologies, has figured out a way to combine CO2 with waste products to create additives for concrete, plastic and batteries.

Save a motorcyclist, split a lane

This one hits close to home because a) I am a motorcyclist and b) whether it’s legal or not, I have been known to split a lane. For those not aware of what “splitting lanes” is, it’s the motorcycling art of squeezing in between two rows of cars so that one might get ahead of the traffic jams caused by “cagers.” In California, where it’s legal, filtering, as it is sometimes called, can take 30 minutes out of what would otherwise be an hour-long commute.

Ford has patented a system that can detect lane-splitting motorcycles.

Of course, there’s the danger that one of the car drivers you’re squeezing by might not see you and change lanes right into your front wheel. Take my word for this; you really don’t want to get knocked off your bike on Los Angeles’ 405; or Ontario’s 401, for that matter.

Enter Ford’s latest patent for Detection of Lane-Splitting Motorcycles. Essentially, what the Ford system does (or would do if it ever makes production) is use cameras like those in rear cross-traffic alert systems to spot motorcycles white-lining. If the car driver tries to switch lanes as the motorcyclist approaches, the onboard Advanced Driver Assistance Systems — that include such technologies like adaptive cruise control and Lane Departure Assist that you are already familiar with — would automatically prevent your from steering into his, or her, path. According to CNET, this new ability to recognize motorcyclists is actually quite important to the future of self-driving as current autonomous systems “have difficulty detecting motorcyclists in traffic” and Ford’s patent “could mean a big leap forward for autonomous four-wheeled vehicle and two-wheeled vehicle relations”

Car washes and self-driving hardware don’t get along

File this one under “who’d a thunk of that?” It turns out that, according to a study by the International Carwash Association (ICA), carwashes and the modern computerized automobile don’t always get along. For instance — and who hasn’t experienced this — almost 80 per cent of car wash owners report damage to automatic “rain-sensing” wipers because they sense, well, a soapy thunderstorm in the making. Some new fangled transmissions don’t like being dragged through the wash either (they engage their hill- or auto-hold mechanisms).

Modern cars can have their safety systems activated by simply going through a car wash.

More troubling is that almost 40 per cent of the association’s operators have reported problems with Automatic Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) being applied — the collisions avoidance system brakes when it shouldn’t, the Lane Departure Warning is triggered and more — during the wash cycle. Even keyless entry systems seem to go haywire when hosed down, almost a quarter of carwash operators receiving complaints of cars locking themselves while getting scrubbed.

Thankfully, this all comes with a relatively easy solution, the ICA recommending that all automakers simply install a “car wash” button that would deactivate all these Fancy Dan electronics. And as ADAS technology becomes more common, sensors could wirelessly communicate with car washes so the computers were automatically deactivated. Of course, we could all just hand wash our own high-tech rides.

And finally, once more with the carbon dioxide reduction

Synthetic gasoline is not a new idea, the theory behind synthesizing fuel from coal put forward way back in 1913. The difference, 105 years later, is that Bosch is trying to accomplish the same task using the carbon dioxide we’re all trying to reduce in the atmosphere. According to Bosch, they get their hydrogen from the electrolysis of water and the carbon from captured CO2. In theory, if renewable energy were used for the entire program, the process could capture and synthesize as much carbon dioxide as is released in the internal combustion process. As Dr. Volkmar Denner, chairman of Robert Bosch GmbH said “Synthetic fuels can make gasoline- and diesel-powered cars carbon neutral.”

Maybe we don’t have to give up on internal combustion engines quite yet.

Author’s note: The carbon capture technologies noted above are very much still in their infancy, the CO2-to-carbon fibre process barely past the theoretical stage and synthetic fuel a long way from commercially viable. Indeed, Audi just announced that, together with Global Bioenergies, the company has just created the largest batch of synfuel ever produced, barely 60 litres.

Nonetheless, there is a great deal research into conversion of carbon dioxide into fuel. For instance, Dan Nocera, a chemist at Harvard, inventing an electronic “leaf” that is capable of an efficient photosynthesis that is required in CO2-to-methanol (and ethanol) metamorphosis. Other start-ups — Catalytic Innovations and Opus 12 — are working at recreating photosynthesis, but at 10 times the speed occurring in nature.

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