Air Car may fly in India, but will idea float in North America?

I’ve got a story at Technology Review ( that looks at a French-designed compressed-air car and a deal with India’s Tata Motors that could see commercial production beginning this year in France and India. Personally, I think the concept is quite neat — particularly when you envision every home having a portable compressed-air station that both fills your urban car and captures heat for your hot water tank. Let’s face it, not all of us need highway-speed cars or the range required to drive back and forth from Boston to New York. Most of our driving is local and at speeds under 60 kilometres an hour (assuming we obey speed limits). Motor Development International, based in Nice, France, has a well-engineered Air Car design that could work in such urban settings, particularly in developing countries such as India. In North America it’s a tougher sell, though at least one company has signed up to manufacture and distribute the Air Car in the United States. There are many skeptics out there who question the efficiency, speed claims and range claims of MDI’s Air Car, but it’s an interesting project nonetheless and I hope MDI makes some meaningful inroads.

Firing of nuclear safety chief is inexcusable

As a Canadian citizen I’m outraged. The federal Conservative government has fired the head of the country’s nuclear safety commission, using Linda Keen as a fall guy for the government’s own screwups related to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s NRU research reactor in Chalk River (it was shut down in late November because it didn’t comply with safety standards, causing a global shortage of medical isotopes). The government, because it didn’t have any of its own backup plans, blamed the “:independent” regulator instead of the crown corporation that was in violation of its license: AECL. It then overrode the authority of the regulator and ordered the reactor to be put back online. So much for independent oversight in the name of safety.

Now, Keen has been fired — for doing her job. And the last I heard, her job has nothing to do with guaranteeing the supply of medical isotopes. But there’s more to this. Keen, in the course of doing her job and keeping nuclear safety top-of-mind, has made life difficult for AECL and its ability to sell new reactors in Canada (specifically Ontario). Many observers of this battle between Keen and the federal government believe her dismissal is also part of a plan to make it easier for AECL to comply with safety rules and ultimately get licensed in Canada. Also, as the federal government looks to privatization AECL, it needs a reactor sale in Canada to get top dollar.

I should point out that Keen remains on the commission, but one wonders how long that will last.

Now, I don’t know about you, but as a Canadian I’m not comfortable with the government cutting corners and firing people who do their jobs just so they can sell a reactor or two and continue to justify the existance of AECL, and the further use of taxpayers’ dollars to support it.

End of rant.

When nuclear counts as greentech

Emission-free nuclear power: is it greentech or eviltech? If your only concern is climate change, then perhaps you think large-scale rollout of nuclear technologies is the way to go. But if you’re not willing to solve one environmental problem by creating another — i.e. reducing greenhouse gas emissions but increasing radioactive nuclear waste and associated proliferation risks — then the suggestion that nuclear is a green or clean technology could be offensive to some.

I’m sympathetic to both sides. My Clean Break column today takes a look at this dilemma, and concludes that some nuclear technologies can count as greentech/cleantech if they aim to minimize the amount of waste that is inevitably going to be created as countries like China rapidly build out their nuclear fleets. I focus my analysis on a technology developed over the years by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which has a process that allows its Candu heavy-water reactors to directly, after some mechanical reprocessing, use spent uranium fuel from light-water reactors. It’s a promising approach, and one can envision Candu reactors built around the world for the purpose of extracting more energy from a spent fuel product typically called “waste.” There’s also the opportunity for AECL’s technology, called DUPIC, to be an integral part of the Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

You can read the column for more details. Curious to know your thoughts.

Toyota to have 2010 plug-in; GM invests in cellulosic ethanol

I won’t dwell here — there are many announcements at the Detroit auto show and they’ll get tonnes of coverage by other bloggers and reporters. But two, so far, have stood out for me. First, GM said it had invested an undisclosed amount in cellulosic-ethanol maker Coskata, one of Vinod Khosla’s many biofuel investments. For details, read Greentech Media story here. Coskata is one of several companies going after the holy grail of biofuels, and certainly cellulosic ethanol is the only way this renewable fuel will have a major impact on fuel consumption without devastating food markets and causing other unintended consequences, as we’ve seen with corn ethanol production.

The other announcement came from Toyota: the Japanese auto titan said it would be producing a plug-in hybrid vehicle by 2010, and that it would use a lithium ion battery (a departure from what it has said in the past). This more aggressive schedule, and the fact that Toyota appears to have gained a new appreciation for lithium ion technology, puts Toyota on a crash coarse with GM in a race to bring the first mass-market plug-in hybrid to market.

There you have it. Two stories supporting two of the better trends in the cleantech space: cellulosic ethanol and plug-in vehicles.

EEStor partners with Lockheed Martin; Topfer returns

Well, well, well… finally some news on the EEStor front. The Cedar Park, Texas-based energy storage startup announced today is has signed an agreement with defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The agreement gives Lockheed “exclusive international rights” to “integrate and market Electrical Energy Storage Units (EESU) from EEStor Inc. for military and homeland security applications.”

Cool. According to Glenn Miller, vice-president of technical operations and applied research at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, “The EEStor energy storage technology provides potential solutions for the demanding requirements for energy in military and homeland defense applications.”

I’ll compare notes later to see if EEStor is watering down the claims of its EESU units, but in the press release is described the technology as having “10 times the energy density of lead acid batteries at one-tenth the weight and volume.” That seems consistent. It also said it would be “half the price per stored watt-hour than traditional battery technologies.”

Now the kicker: “EESU qualification testing and mass production at EEStor’s facility in Cedar Park is planned for late 2008.”

It’s later than we all expected, but “late 2008” at least gives us something new to measure the company by. Besides, it appears the late 2008 applies just to Lockheed, according to one source close to EEStor. ZENN Motors, according to the source, “expects delivery before Lockheed Martin as the existing plant is exclusively for ZENN production.”

In related news, the company announced that former Dell Computer vice-chair Morton Topfer has joined EEStor’s board of directors, which I find odd given he was previously on the board and then left.

But who cares. This news is important, just because of the credibility it brings to EEStor and what it’s trying to do. As many have commented on this blog and others, delays are expected when you’re trying to introduce a technology with such a disruptive potential. This exclusive agreement with Lockheed tells us there’s enough potential there that this defense contracting giant — and perhaps the U.S. government — doesn’t want the technology to fall into its competitors’ hands. What would be more interesting is to find out the terms of this deal, which were not disclosed. Has Lockheed made an investment in EEStor? Has Kleiners upped the ante? Who else is on the board?

Lots of unanswered questions, but increased confidence now that they’ll be answered over time.

UPDATE: Great interview here on the GM-Volt blog site. The author interviewed Lockheed’s Lionel Liebman, manager of program development related to missiles and fire control. I had a chance to interview Liebman as well, and the company appears quite committed to this partnership (though I should point out Lockheed has not yet seen a working prototype).