The Tata Nano

The Tata Nano – the newly announced one lakh (100,000 rupees) car from India’s Tata group – hasn’t got a lot to do with nanotechnology (see this somewhat bemused and bemusing piece from the BBC), but since it raises some interesting issues I’ll use the name as an excuse to discuss it here.

The extensive media coverage in the Western media has been characterised by some fairly outrageous hypocrisy – for example, the UK’s Independent newspaper wonders “Can the world afford the Tata Nano?” (The answer, of course, is that what the world can’t afford are the much bigger cars parked outside all those prosperous Independent readers’ houses). With a visit to India fresh in my mind, it’s completely obvious to me why all those families one sees precariously perched on motor-bikes would want a small, cheap, economical car, and not at all obvious that those of us in the West, who are used to enjoying on average 11 times (for the UK) or 23 times (for the USA) more energy per head than the Indians, have any right to complain about the extra carbon dioxide emissions that will result. It’s almost certainly true that the world couldn’t sustain a situation in which all its 6.6 billion population used as much energy as the Americans and Europeans; the way that equation will be squared, though, ultimately must be by the rich countries getting by with less energy rather than by poorer countries being denied the opportunity to use more. It is to be hoped that this transformation takes place in a way that uses better technology to achieve the same or better living standards for everybody from a lot less energy; the probable alternative is the economic disruption and widespread involuntary cuts in living standards that will follow from a prolonged imbalance of energy supply and demand.

A more interesting question to ask about the Tata Nano is to wonder why it was not possible to leapfrog current technology to achieve something even more economical and sustainable – using, one hesitates to suggest, actual nanotechnology? Why is the Nano made from old-fashioned steel, with an internal combustion engine in the back, rather than, say, being made from advanced lightweight composites and propelled by an electric motor and a hydrogen fuel cell? The answers are actually fairly clear – because of cost, the technological capacity of this (or any other) company, and the requirement for maintainability. Aside from these questions, there’s the problem of infrastructure. The problems of creating an infrastructure for hydrogen as a fuel are huge for any country; liquid hydrocarbons are a very convenient store of energy, and, old though it is, the internal combustion engine is a pretty effective and robust device for converting energy. Of course, we can hope that new technologies will lead to new versions of the Tata Nano and similar cars of far greater efficiency, though realism demands that we understand the need for new technology to fit into existing techno-social systems to be viable.

13 thoughts on “The Tata Nano”

  1. I’m curious why you are almost certain that it will be impossible for the entire world to enjoy as much per-capita energy use as Western countries do today? Are there fundamental physical limitations which lead to this certainty? Or are you implicitly assuming only near-term technologies? Or is this perhaps a moral judgment rather than a technical one?

  2. I’m implicitly assuming near-term technologies, because if we don’t get through the near term there’s no point worrying about what might happen next.
    Looking at the numbers, Hal, we find that the world’s total energy consumption was, in 2006, 10.9 billion tonnes of oil equivalent, 21.4% of which was consumed in the USA, where 4.6% of the world’s population live. So if the whole world consumed energy at the USA rate, consumption would amount to 83.8 btoe. You don’t need to be a peak oil doomster to appreciate that, given at the moment there is real difficulty matching supply and demand in the oil trade, and that it seems unlikely that big new discoveries of easily found oil remain, this is going to be a cause of trouble in the world economy for some time to come.

    Of course, while oil and gas supply gets tighter there is a lot more energy in coal, bitumen, tar sands and the like. It may of course be that projections of climate scientists are wrong but it seems overwhelmingly likely to me that the problems of climate change are going to become increasingly pressing so this option isn’t going to be very attractive. Nuclear power of course has capacity problems in the short term as well as other issues. Fusion in principle remains very attractive but it still remains some way off (and is perhaps a little further off now the USA has reneged on its ITER commitment).

    One can see most clearly that there aren’t yet fundamental physical limitations from calculating solar fluxes, and you’ll know from reading this blog that I’m optimistic about new solar energy technologies. But the orders of magnitude by which this technology needs to be scaled up to make a real impact should make us cautious about expecting this to contribute significantly to the energy balance for several tens of years.

    In summary, then, my view is based on political and technical practicality rather than fundamental physical limits.

  3. Richard,

    The Tata engineers did think about taking a radically new approach to the whole automobile concept, but Indian consumers really wanted something that looked and behaved just like a normal car. In an aspirational society you cannot tell the less well off that they have to have something different from the better off, and Ratan Tata’s vision for the project was to produce something safe and economical for the majority of people who currently have to rise three to a motorcycle.

    What it may replace is the noisy dirty autorickshaws that comprise most of India’s taxis, something that could have a real impact on the both the environment and the mortality rate on Indian roads.

  4. that will be the day when when nano science does a Tata -make nano products inexpensive and available to one and all, viv la nano democracy!

  5. U.S. per capita total energy consumption is about 300 million BTUs per year. This is 90,000 kWh per year, which works out to an average of 10 kW. Per capita solar irradiation on the whole earth, for a population of 10 billion, is 10,000 kW, although we would never capture 100% of that. But in principle we could approach 3 orders of magnitude increases over current U.S. energy consumption levels just from solar energy. And that’s before we put up the solar power satellites…

  6. Hal, I completely agree with you that in principle the sun could indeed provide all our energy needs. The problem is converting that “in principle” to an “in practise”. World total primary energy consumption amounts to about 14 TW now (if I’ve got my energy conversions right) with some 1.8 TW of electricity being generated. This is indeed much less that the 120,000 TW of solar radiation arriving at the earth. But the total world installed capacity of PV is only about 5 GW. The industry currently has the capacity to add 1.445 GW per year to this (2005 figure) and this capacity itself is increasing between 20-30% a year. This is impressive growth and very good, but there are three orders of magnitude to catch up. At current rates of growth, we’d expect solar to be able to make a significant contribution somewhere around 2030-2040.

    Of course, we should work towards a disruptive technology development that will allow us to increase capacity much more quickly than that, and that should, in my opinion, be the highest priority for R&D in nanotechnology.

  7. Hi Richard,

    You should not forget that India / China has plenty of coal. It is true that this leads to Global Warming, but in terms of GDP if you do not care… There are no short term problems.


  8. Another take on global limitations to energy use (even solar) comes from Robert Freitas in his Nanomedicine:

    He concludes that we can’t increase current energy usage by more than a factor of 10-100 without significantly disturbing global heat balance, even if we use renewable sources. That might allow the rest of the world to rise to current U.S. levels, but not much more.

  9. I don’t really understand that line of reasoning when it comes to renewable energy. Suppose we found an earth-like planet completely covered with photovoltaic cells, but we leave them unconnected. 120 petawatts of sunlight or whatever would land on the cells, and all the energy absorbed would be converted into heat, which would heat the planet up until the point at which it was at a temperature such that its total black body radiation back into space amounted to 120 PW and it was thus in a steady state. Now we wire up all the cells and use the energy to drive cars and run our dishwashers or whatever. We thus divert some fraction of the 120 PW into usable energy, and if we didn’t immediately use it, but used it to charge batteries or make stocks of hydrogen and oxygen from water the planet would start to cool. But when we use that energy for our useful purposes it all ultimately gets turned back into heat anyway, and the conservation of energy says that at steady state we still end up with 120 PW of heat dumped into our planet to end up being radiated back into space. We don’t, therefore, permanently divert the sun’s energy when we capture some of it in a solar cell, or a plant – what we do do is capture some negative entropy. While the energy flows in and out of the planet are in balance (neglecting intrinsic sources of energy within the planet like radioactive decay), the entropy flows aren’t, because the light flowing in comes from a body with a higher temperature than that which characterises the black-body radiation flowing out.

    A particularly puzzling part of the argument you link to is the bit that says plants dissipate 10^14 W on the basis of the energy of CO2 fixation. But fixing CO2 is an endothermic reaction, driven by the energy of sunlight, so this is an estimate of energy absorbed rather than energy dissipated.

    Am I missing something here?

  10. Zelah, clearly India and China are using a lot of coal and this will increase. But I don’t think the authorities there are unaware of the problems this will probably cause, some of those problems being likely to show up sooner rather than later.

  11. Though radical and impossible, I have another idea:

    -Limit the per capita energy consumption across the world. One can go beyond but has to pay huge tax OR in-turn has to provide XYZ… (e.g. job opportunities etc) i.e. you cannot consume unless you create some value out of consumption.

    This energy saving then can be translated into more uniform availability across the globe.

    It may sound socialism BUT if we feel global warming is a common cause, you need to take common measures. OR else stop preaching. Human nature is to do what one like unless penalized to do it.

    You cannot stop a society to enjoy newly acquired gizmos that rest of the world has been enjoying for decades irrespective of the outcome.

  12. Ashutosh, of course people everywhere aspire to US standards of living, and why shouldn’t they? To be optimistic, one could hope that it is possible to achieve comparable or better standards of living with less, sometimes a lot less, energy input. In purely monetary terms, there are a number of countries that are richer per head than the USA but use less energy, and this list expands if you use non-monetary measures of quality of life based on indicators such as infant mortality, for which the US doesn’t fare so well. And I don’t think it is unreasonable to hope that better technology well directed can further decouple energy use and standard of living.

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