Free from fossil fuels: Current & future technology for clean, greener cars

Road transport is the single largest contributor to the UK’s carbon emissions, yet little-to-no effort has been made to bring transport emissions down since the 1990s. And although the government does plan to phase out fossil fuel cars by 2030, many experts believe this ambition is too little too late. But one thing is clear. Something must be done to bring down road transport emissions—and quickly. Here are some of the most promising contenders, which, if implemented sensibly, and with their long-term potentials, may finally allow us to be free from fossil fuels. At least, when it comes to road transport emissions.

Biotech (Biofuel technology)

The world is in a hurry to move away from fossil fuels. So, it makes sense to consider any green alternative, even if there are limitations. That’s where biofuels come in. Biofuels are a medium-term strategy that may be able to bridge the gap until electric vehicles (EVs) become commonplace. There, are two types of biofuel currently available to exploit today. That of bioethanol, a type of alcohol made from a mixture of sugarcane and corn, and biodiesel—which is largely made out of vegetable oils and animal fat. The emphasis on them being a medium-term strategy is that the production of both is not super environmentally friendly. Indeed, this may be an understatement. Bioethanol is only thought to be carbon neutral because it is largely made from crops which—before they are processed—naturally absorb carbon dioxide like most plants. Which is a kind of “looking the other way” for the immediate future.

The benefit is that “carbon neutral” biofuel such as bioethanol is very much cleaner than what is currently powering most automobiles on Britain’s roads. So currently the government is drafting plans to make biofuel the primary source for about 12 per cent of Britain’s cars by2032. The effect of this will be akin to removing hundreds of thousands of cars from the road. A great intermediary perhaps, but with the environmental concerns, biofuels will ultimately always lack mass public appeal.

Future impact potential: 5/10

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Hydrogen fuel technology

If there is a serious contender to rival electric vehicles, then hydrogen fuel cell technology is it. Which may be why some of the world’s largest manufacturers are keenly investing in the technology, such as Toyota. The biggest stumbling block for hydrogen fuel technology is that the cells are currently very expensive. And this makes the cars they power also expensive. To make matters even worse, many customers who have tried hydrogen fuel cell cars have reported feeling underwhelmed by their performance. Another big no-no for environmentalists is that the raw materials to make hydrogen-powered cars often comes at the exploitation of the Earth’s precious metals. And as stocks of platinum are depleted, the reality is this will drive prices up further, rather than bring them down. But bad news aside, there are lots of positives to take away from the emerging field of hydrogen cars. For one, they have a mileage equivalent that leaves EVs behind in their dust. And some models are even matching or rivalling their fossil fuelled equivalents for mileage capabilities. There is also the beautiful, almost science fiction-like beauty behind the concept of an engine that sucks in hydrogen—the most abundant element in the universe—and then emits only water as a waste product. That alone should drive more people to want to invest in hydrogen cars becoming an efficient reality. The only other major problem is the lack of infrastructure. If you thought EVs were undersupplied, well that’s nothing compared to the lack of hydrogen fuel cell car prospects. It would take a miracle shift in public opinion and consensus to make hydrogen fuelled cars THE cars of choice.

Future impact potential: 7/10

Electric vehicles (EVs)

The prospect of widely used cars that run on electricity, and that do not emit road emissions directly, seems to be an old fable never quite on the horizon. But finally, major developments are starting to happen. In terms of practicality, affordability, and feasibility, EVs may finally beat the stage where they are ready to usurp petrol cars. At least, the UK government certainly thinks so. Given the aforementioned plan to get rid of petrol and diesel cars in the next decade.

But EVs are still expensive, and there are some sacrifices that customers may not be too keen on to make during the switch over. In performance and reliability. On the plus side, electric cars are virtually silent. They also are exempt from both road tax and congestion charges. And you can get a grant from the government to help buy one. Plenty of big brand car manufacturers have EV options. Including Kia, Peugeot, Nissan, and VW. And with the market and the media’s blessing, it is fair to say that EVs represent the strong favourite at this time.

Future impact potential:9/10

Liquid nitrogen vehicles (LNVs)

Like hydrogen cars hope to exploit the abundant levels of hydrogen in our universe, so nitrogen fuelled vehicles look to do the same with the most abundant gas in our atmosphere—nitrogen. The idea for nitrogen-sucking engines is far from new, however. They are the brainchild of Victorian scientists. In fact, a nitrogen fuelled “modified locomobile” was demonstrated to work in front of onlookers at a Victorian exhibition in London by the Liquid Air Power and Automobile Company. More recently, in 1997 a Dr Carlos Ordonez managed to refit an old VW to run solely on nitrogen. It maxed out at a speed of 25mph.But while things certainly could be great for nitrogen fuelled cars, the market has already spoken. And EVs and even hydrogen fuelled cars are much higher in the pecking order. So unfortunately, it is not likely that we will see anything substantial in the development of nitrogen fuelled cars. At least for the foreseeable future.

Future impact potential:3/10

Kinetic energy recycling

The Toyota Prius was the first car to really push the idea of ‘regenerative braking’ into the mainstream. Since then, this type of kinetic energy recycling technology has set the standard for the development of both hybrid and EVs. The idea behind kinetic energy recycling is simple. Breaking uses up a lot of energy and generates a lot of heat in the process. Even bicycle brake pads get extremely hot when cyclists brake. At the extreme other end, Formula One car pads can quickly reach 1,000 degrees Celsius at breaking point. With all that friction and energy seemingly going to waste, it’s no wonder why scientists want to harness it. Pretty much all new cars and EVs make use of break-energy regeneration technology today. And they are a great, neat idea. But on their own, they cannot really hope to launch a new era of zero road emissions cars. But every little helps and these kinetic recycling systems are a great way to top up and put some energy back into the system. Even if the energy regenerated is limited.

Future impact potential:6/10

Other technologies and the future

The list above is far from exhaustive. Other alternatives not even spoken about above include the potential for vehicles to be powered by compressed air, liquids—even a return to steam has been proposed (albeit, in a contemporary sense). But unfortunately, most of these alternatives are half-prototype, half daydreams in the minds of factory floor engineers. And with pretty much zero market interest, those daydreams aren’t likely to come true anytime soon. The ideas listed above are the most likely—together—to lead the way into a zero-road emissions future. Some are more promising than others, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is, we might finally be in a position to jettison road emissions in the near future. The long-touted ambition may well soon become a reality.

About the Author – Neil Wright is a content writer and researcher for We Buy Any Motorcaravan. He has a special interest in climate change, the prospect of renewable energy, and eco-socialism.