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Electric, Hybrid or Alternative Fuel Cars – Which Will Prevail?

There is a growing sense of urgency in the automotive industry that more should be done to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. OEMs are continually channelling more resources into developing the next generation of low carbon vehicles, aimed at addressing the issues of CO2 emissions, the soaring cost of fossil fuels and fuel source security.

Currently there are four main approaches to powering vehicles that are leading the change; electric, biofuels (e.g. ethanol), alternative fuels (e.g. hydrogen) and fossil fuels (e.g. diesel), or some combination of these. All of these fuel types are capable of changing our approach to the technological aspects of vehicle powertrain, and there are both positive and negative aspects. The question is… which solution do we think will prevail?

Electrically powered vehicles produce less emissions and environmental pollutants at the point of use, however issues start to arise when we take into account how we go about generating the significant amounts of electricity required to power such vehicles. Part of the solution of course is to make full electric cars smaller and use them within the urban environment, which constitute the majority of journeys. For longer journeys the current approach to address range anxiety issues is hybridisation. Nevertheless, unless sustainable and renewable energy sources are utilised, many feel electric vehicles may struggle to make a real impact on the well-to-wheel CO2 emissions.

Hyundai fuel cell vehicle

Fuel cell vehicles such as this Hyundai have made great strides, work is still continuing on hydrogen storage

Biofuels are another viable fuel source that is becoming more widespread around the world. One example of this is the generation of fuel from crops in an environmentally friendly manner. Biofuel creation is becoming increasingly important for addressing sustainability issues within the automotive industry; however there is also a belief shared by some visionaries that it may be pragmatic to burn biofuels in an efficient way using a gasification unit to power an internal combustion engine.

Utilising hydrogen as a fuel source for vehicles is a solution that has received a lot of investment and media coverage in recent years. As both an additive for co-combustion and an energy source for generating electricity in conjunction with hydrogen fuel cells, which only results in the emission of water and no CO2; at the tailpipe. Big strides have been made with hydrogen fuels cells for automotive applications but more needs to be done regarding the fuel cells and technologies for storing and distributing the hydrogen in ways that can be scaled up across our transport system. MIRA is currently researching the storage of hydrogen through the use of ammonia borane, a compound that enables the generation of hydrogen from a solid precursor that can be easily stored and distributed.

Despite the obvious issues of CO2 emissions and the negative effects this can bring, fossil fuels are of course the most common source of energy used in powering our vehicles. Unfortunately there is only a finite amount of this precious resource available and fuel source security is also a real concern, given the potentially volatile political landscapes of some of the world’s larger oil exporters. Estimates from some organisations suggest that the world’s oil reserves will run dry in the next fifty years, with natural gas supplies only surpassing this by a further twenty years. By hybridising larger vehicles, reducing the size of internal combustion engines and augmenting the power requirement of the vehicles by providing short bursts of electrical energy, engineers are helping to extend the lifespan of fossil fuels. Engineers are also looking at ways of super-boosting the engines of smaller vehicles over short periods of time in order to achieve greater overall efficiency.

With the different fuel technologies presenting clear benefits to their use, it’s becoming clear that not one solution will win in the medium term. This is why engineering and technology organisations such as MIRA are looking into maximising the benefits of a range of solutions.

There is a pressing need for experts in the industry to find new solutions that will enable us to continue our mobility, and now is the time for automotive technology providers to innovate with all the different energy solutions and get the new technologies into production quickly. The consequence of this pressure has meant that a large amount of investment is required in order to enable technology providers to bridge the so called ‘Valley of Death’ – the large gulf that exists between the R&D stage and productionisation. Fortunately companies and Government are working together more than ever in order to address this challenge. For example The Proving Factory - a £21.8m automotive manufacturing initiative recently announced by business secretary Vince Cable - is just one major initiative helping to address this issue.

In the end the technology developers who are able to produce the most cost effective and appealing solutions that meet the needs of the consumer, will prove to be the real winners!

Readers' comments (24)

  • We had the solution in the 1960’s through the Sun City project in the USA which modified combustion engine in cars to run on dual fuel using petrol and hydrogen as fuel. From memory the Hydrogen was stored as a hydride with an equilibrium partial pressure of hydrogen in the tank between the atmosphere above the tank and stored as hydride. As hydrogen was pumped into the tank it is stored as hydride and as it is pumped to the engine hydrogen is liberated from the hydride to maintain an equilibrium pressure.
    The Hydrogen tank could be filled in 3 ways:-
    1) At home by plugging the car into the mains and electrolysing water in the cars water tank and pumping the hydrogen liberated into the cars hydrogen tank.

    2) At road side coffee houses by plugging the car into the mains whilst having a break from driving.

    3) Filling stations with gas pumped in.

    The cars had a 250 mile radius on hydrogen with a petrol tank as back up if needed. The Sun City project envisaged cars being plugged in and recharged on off peak ‘Economy 7’ style tariffs.
    The benefits listed were eliminating lead in petrol, eliminating carcinogens in exhaust emissions and keeping oil as a natural resource.
    The Sun City project also used Hydrogen liberated locally by electrolysis as needed to provide Gas heating and cooking.
    The Sun City project in the USA during the 1960’s was to evaluate life with Nuclear Fusion – Names the Sun City project as Nuclear Fusion is the reaction powering the sun.
    In the 1960’s Acid Rain and Global Warming were not known about BUT the deaths in mining and debilitation lung conditions and white finger conditions were known about and seen as saving miners lives – It would also have saved the planet from global warming and acid rain!!!
    I became a ‘Green’ in 3 stages dedicated to my keeping the planet as we find it or better for succeeding generations. A ‘Green’ dedicated to Nuclear Power with Nuclear Fission the stepping stone to Nuclear Fusion – Views formed in 1968 at age of 14 as a result of the ‘Sun City’ project. Views reinforced at University in 1971/72 as an extraction Metallurgy student because I learnt that:-
    1) Coal and Oil were too valuable a natural resource to burn as fuel or in the internal combustion engine AND that gas was to valuable and convenient as a home heating and cooking fuel to waste in power generation!
    2) That we are stewards of our environment and that in making our lives useful and the lot of human kind better we must not pollute or destroy the environment/planet!
    Obviously discovering acid rain and global warming have added to those views and why I am passionately in favour of Nuclear power supported by tidal/wave power driving a hydrogen economy with off peak electricity used to generate hydrogen to use for heating, cooking and powering motor vehicles via either the hydrogen fuelled internal combustion engine or hydrogen fuel cells.

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  • Gasoline will win. Always has before, always will in the future

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  • I think the future lies with trifuel cars that can run on ethanol, methanol as well as gasoline along with cars that can also run on natural gas.

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  • Here is the truth on the "Hydrogen Economy":

    "... hydrogen cars would be available 'not in our lifetime, and very possibly never.'" Dr. Joseph Romm, former DOE official in charge of fuel cell development.

    "Hydrogen is just about the worst possible vehicle fuel." Economist (magazine), July, 2008

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  • Those are two opinions. Opinion is different from truth.

  • I wouldn't get over-excited about it.

    When the implications of the IPCC AR5 fiasco sink in, much of the urgency to reduce dependence on fossil fuels will vanish like the early morning mist.

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  • This Hyundai looks exactly like the one that was being driven around the Isle of Wight by Dave Green the CEO of Eco-Island , who was yesterday arrested on fraud charges and bailed until December

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  • Fission then fusion energy produced energy producing hydrogen from water then used to power ic/fuel cells for single/hybrid power units.
    Hydrogen storage volumw needs to be be the main thrust of research.

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  • The important takeaway here is that we should have choice. Americans should be able to choose whether they fuel their vehicle with gasoline, ethanol, methanol, natural gas, or whether they want to drive an electric vehicle. Introducing replacement fuels will increase competition and drive down prices overall at the pump!

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  • Just Americans?

  • We could go back to the days of the multi fuel turbine engine. It could use any type of fuel & be very efficient. Combined with an electric motor & generator system; I think this is the best solution at the moment.

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  • I just don't get that how come people don't see that electric cars are the future. Look at tesla model s. It's only second model of tesla motors. Last month it was the best selling car in norway. Maintenance free, no pollution, cheap to run, much faster than many many road cars etc etc. they will develop battery technology and electric technology year by year. I believe they will produce cars for all ranges in 5 years and in 15 years tesla motors will be the biggest carmaker in the world if conventional carmaker keep sleeping about electric cars.

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