Written by Jonny Williamson
Conventional fuels have been around for centuries, fossil fuels such as petroleum, coal, propane and natural gas, all sharing the same basic fundamental problem, a finite supply. Research into alternative, or advanced, fuels is growing exponentially, forced by an ever-expanding world population and our increasing over-reliance on conventional fuels.
Alternative fuels cover the whole gamut of more environmentally-sound sustainable energy sources; including solar, wind and wave power, bio-fuels, hydrogen battery cells and recycled vegetable oil to name the most well-documented. Many alternative fuels and processes focus on producing electricity, which only accounts for roughly a third of the worlds current energy demands. The more pertinent question is how we are going to fuel our aeroplanes, cargo ships, shipping trucks, agriculture machinery and automobiles which have become so intertwined with current society, once oil supplies run dry?
Year on year, the world’s global oil demand exceeds the global oil supply. The scientific community is split on the exact date when stocks will run dry; some researchers predict 2050, others are saying it could be as soon as the next 10 years. Regardless, the automobile industry, being so intrinsically linked to fossil fuels, is progressively investing more time and money into alternative solutions.
Electrical vehicles, EVs, have been lauded as not merely the works of science-fiction, but a practical solution to the growing fuel crisis. Many of the world’s leading automobile manufacturers have EV models in their current ranges, such as the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i MiEV and Renault Fluence ZE, with sales so far proving positive. Yet so far, even with the reduction in air pollution, greenhouse gases, dependence on foreign oil supply and increased government subsidies, there are not as many EVs on the road as you would expect. It would seem there are still some fundamental problems with EVs that are swaying both consumer and industry minds.
A recent study by BMW and the Technical University of Munich found that the electricity produced in a coal-burning power station needed to charge a battery for an EV equated to 130g/km of CO2, roughly that of a conventional petrol-driven engine, undermining the green credentials of EVs. There is also a lack of both public and private recharging infrastructure, hazy proposals for the disposal of batteries and so called ‘range anxiety’, the fear of not having enough charge to reach your destination. It would appear the EV is caught in a chicken-egg scenario; it is claimed that more charging stations and a lower retail cost will happen should a greater demand be proven, but until the two are addressed the demand doesn’t appear to exist.
With EVs not being the practical solution to our fuel problem, could the answer lie in hybrids, traditional internal-combustion engines augmented with electric batteries, such as plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). With the world’s population increasingly becoming centred in towns and cities, many drivers are travelling less than 30 miles per day, PEVs are ideal for urban driving with the petrol or diesel engine working in unison with the battery, allowing it to be recharged on the go. At the unveiling of the Volvo’s XC60 Plug-in Hybrid concept earlier this year Steve Jacoby, President and CEO at Volvo Car Corporation, said –
“A plug-in hybrid is the ideal eco-car for today's conditions. It gives a large proportion of motorists’ sufficient range on electricity for their daily commute.
There have been updated hybrid models available for a couple of years now called extended- range electric vehicles (E-REVs), such as the Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera, whose ranges extend beyond 300 miles; and still conventionally fueled engines far out-sell alternatives. Alternative biofuels have been prominent in the media recently with the aviation industry looking to find a more sustainable source of jet fuel (see ‘Innovation’). The automobile industry has had varying degrees of success in the past by using biofuels, so the focus now is on hybrid and electric cars. However, any serious advancement by the aviation industry could herald a possible change in direction.