Lately, there has been a buzz about the electric vehicle as the white knight of green driving. But there are alternative options — the three discussed here are more sustainable than conventional combustion engines.
To support the global push for a cleaner and greener planet, the automobile industry has been looking for more sustainable energy solutions in place of fossil fuels to power their next-generation vehicles. In this current climate, there seems to be a growing acknowledgement that electric vehicles (EVs) are the answer to the emissions problem. There’s no doubting the potential of EVs, but there are other clean-energy alternatives, such as hydrogen fuel cells, e-fuels and biofuel.
HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS
Hydrogen fuel cells were an instrumental part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) research during the height of the space race. In fact, hydrogen was used as a propellant for the Saturn V rocket series back in the 1960s and 1970s. Like battery-powered EVs, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) also use electricity to power an electric motor.
The key difference is that FCEVs produce electricity by using fuel cells powered by hydrogen rather than drawing power from a battery. In battery-dependent EVs, when the chemicals inside the batteries are spent, they have to be replaced; with a hydrogen fuel cell, the constant flow of hydrogen ensures electricity will continue to be generated. And as they don’t have any moving parts, hydrogen fuel cells are very reliable and produce no tailpipe emissions except water vapour and warm air.
The fuel cell system is also much lighter and smaller than a battery pack, making it easier for car manufacturers to scale up to larger vehicle types, eg SUVs, without the need to accommodate an equivalent-sized battery pack. The amount of energy stored on board the car is determined by the size of the hydrogen fuel tank. When the fuel tank is running low, FCEVs can be topped up at hydrogen-filling stations similar to how cars now fuel up at petrol stations. Where an EV may take up to eight hours to fully recharge, the tank in a FCEV only needs a few minutes to fill up.
Even more good news is that hydrogen can be farmed from natural gas using green methods that practically result in zero emissions to the environment.
Some car manufacturers are putting their green-energy eggs in a few baskets. While Porsche has invested heavily in EVs, it is also looking at synthetic fuels that offer a similar performance to petrol and diesel but produced using renewable energy. Also known as e-fuels, these will be manufactured using renewable electricity to obtain carbon dioxide and hydrogen from water. Combining this with carbon dioxide extracted from the atmosphere helps create a powerful hydrocarbon with virtually no greenhouse emissions.
E-fuels burn the same as petrol and diesel produced from crude oil but without the huge greenhouse emissions. It can also be sold at existing refuelling stations to existing cars, which means there is no need for expensive new technology investment like in the case of EVs — this in turn improves the sustainability of existing vehicles.
Biofuels are another renewable energy option, as they are predominantly produced from plants or natural waste products. That also means they are cheaper to produce since the materials are easily grown or obtained. Though they are not as efficient or powerful on their own, they can improve a car’s performance and provide better fuel economy when blended with conventional fuels.
One of the challenges facing EVs is the need for major changes in the automotive infrastructure. With biofuels, the current network of petrol stations can be converted to biofuel stations. Currently, there are some fuels with biofuel blended in, which makes a shift to a complete biofuel-based network certainly viable.
Even though there are a couple of seemingly viable solutions for cars powered by green energy, EVs are ahead of the race at the moment. There are, of course, many reasons for this — including those in the commercial and political realms. It doesn’t hurt that Elon Musk, the man behind the Tesla brand of EVs, is always in the news, although not just because of EVs.
There is an argument that it would be better, in terms of economies of scale, for everyone to back the same platform. However, it also makes sense not to place all of your eggs in one basket, and work on a combination of technologies, perhaps on EVs and e-fuels, like what Porsche believes in. To encourage the public to get onto the road towards sustainability, it helps psychologically to offer them a choice of technologies rather than just one, which could be viewed as an ultimatum.
MAXIMISE FUEL ECONOMY
AAS Academy wants to support your desire to stretch your dollar and maximise your car’s fuel economy. We will be organising an ECO-Driving Workshop that will impart driving techniques and maintenance tips intended to help you save fuel. Several web-based sessions have been scheduled in October 2021. Click here to find out more.
More good news! Receive a one-year AA Ordinary Membership (worth $112.35) when you pay and attend the workshop. If you already have an existing AA Membership, you’ll be able to extend it. If you are already holding a AA Lifetime Member, you can transfer this Membership to someone else.