The global push away from fossil fuels is growing, but what alternatives do car manufacturers have to trusty old gasoline?
Taking an overview of the current renewably sourced automobile fuel industry, we see the growing shift to electric vehicles. Electric cars are fueling a revolution across the globe, but their sustainability still needs work to be proven. Don’t get me wrong, the future of electric cars is bright, but at the current state of the global energy grid, their global environmental impact has only been displaced to the coal plants that ultimately power them. Without divulging too much into environmental debate, electric vehicles, or EVs, are likely at the forefront of a non-fossil fuel powered automotive future. However, it would be naive to assume that EVs are the only solution.
Some of the more widely known alternatives to fossil are hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels. While their availability is in sharp contrast to the widespread use of electric power, their sustainability isn’t in question. Examining hydrogen fuel cells, they began their lives in the depths of NASA research at the heart of the space age. Hydrogen was used as a propellant for the Saturn V rocket series, and now, it’s being used to power your family car. Well, almost.
In terms of the viability of such an explosive fuel, hydrogen is highly more energy rich than gasoline and EV’s batteries. Not to mention that you can literally, not to overstate, drink the exhaust of hydrogen powered cars, otherwise known as friendly dihydrogen monoxide, water. The current hurdles the automotive industry faces in scaling hydrogen fuel cells is both their cost and societal stigma. Being that hydrogen fuel cells began as part of space research, it’s no wonder that cost is an issue.
Again, being that it began as rocket fuel, the general view of hydrogen fuel is that it is dangerous and explosive, although the public viewpoint is slowly becoming more favorable to the idea. Like any other fuel research endeavor, the cost of manufacturing will drop, and the public image of hydrogen fuel will grow better. In the big picture, hydrogen fuel will likely never overtake EVs because modern infrastructure can never catch up to support a large scale hydrogen power movement. However, nearly every automotive manufacturer has produced concept fuel cell cars, with Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai being the only companies to make their fuel cell vehicles commercially available.
It would be remiss of me not to discuss electric vehicles further given a discussion of alternatives to fossil fuels, but we will keep their evaluation short given current general knowledge. Nearly every automotive manufacturer has produced either a hybrid drive or fully electric vehicle on a production scale. EVs don’t only lend themselves to smart cars, electric drive engines are powerful enough that Mercedes-Benz and BMW have both built supercars with fully electric drive systems at their core (Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG & BMW i8).
Looking at the shift away from fossil fuels in terms of sustainability and lessening of environmental impact, EVs have some work to do. Due to the use of heavy chemically rich batteries and the offset of power to coal fire plants, it would be easy to argue that EVs are just as harmful as fossil fuels. However, once modern infrastructure comes around, and electricity can be generated in a more sustainable way, EVs will likely lead the future in the automotive industry.
Biofuels, or plant-based fuels, are the last major alternative to automotive power. Unlike hydrogen fuel cells and EVs, biofuels would require no reworking of the current automotive infrastructure. Gas stations would simply be converted to output the necessary liquid biofuels. The most common biofuel is ethanol, an ethyl alcohol fuel derived from cellulose from plants.
You are likely already using ethanol-infused gasoline in your cars, and for the most part, the shift completely to biofuels is commercially viable in the current age. The downside to biofuels, and likely the reasons why we haven’t seen the shift already, is the massive amounts of land that would need to be devoted to their production as well as the fact not every car can handle the fuel mixture. Converting completely to biofuel would directly compete with food production and land use. The global economy may very well shift to an agricultural one if biofuels are widely adopted.
The automotive industry is no longer one where companies can afford to take the back seat in power. They now employ top teams of researchers to find ways to power the next generation of cars. Whatever the future of car power is, within the next 20 years, we will likely see fossil fuels fall to the background.