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Welcome arrow Articles arrow Environment arrow What?s the Alternative?
What?s the Alternative? PDF Print E-mail

Until the early 1990s, what car buyers cared about most was how much could be knocked off the sticker price.  The effect on the environment?  Go ride a bike.  The SUV is a gas guzzler?  Eat my dust.


Things have changed dramatically – there’s a new driver behind the wheel.  A more influential, demanding consumer concerned about energy and the environment – aware of the apparent destruction of the planet by carbon emissions – is helping to steer research and funding onto alternative fuelled vehicles. Gone are the days when a used car salesman could easily talk a passive customer into buying the latest model by just kicking the tyres and haggling over the list price.

Other factors have also shaped new car consumers: they are younger with fewer children and more affluent than their parents.  And those who live in cities tend to find smaller cars easier to park and get around in.

Billions of dollars are at stake in getting the balance right. Informed sources, such as the International Energy Agency, estimate that the world’s vehicle count will reach one billion by 2010 – 80 percent of them passenger cars.

Industry experts agree that social conscience has to be balanced with the personal needs of the consumer, for cost-effective, safe, reliable day-to-day transport.  Hybrid vehicles, which use a mix of gasoline and electric power, could be just around the corner.

While hybrids pollute less, consume less and provide a feel-good factor, price is a major speed bump on the road to green power.  Among some current choices on the market: a Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid costs US$30,500, a Ford Escape Hybrid $28,000, and a Toyota Prius goes for about $21,000.  However, under a US Inland Revenue Service “clean vehicle” scheme, it is possible to claim $2,000 against a hybrid in 2005, although this will drop to just $500 in 2006.

Image Taking the lead in hybrid technology are Toyota and Honda. Honda currently produces the futuristic two-seater hybrid Insight, as well as the more pragmatic Civic Hybrid, which is selling well.  Toyota has its second-generation Prius hybrid and has recently launched the Lexus RV400h, hybrid SUV.
“Honda and Toyota appear to be further distancing themselves from other manufacturers relative to this area of development,” notes a US industry expert.
Manufacturers are also looking at other alternative sources in the hope of meeting consumers’ concerns.  Of the 92 chemical elements, only two are considered as controllable energy sources: carbon and hydrogen.  Carbon is the main energy source in crude oil, but releasing that energy also releases the pollutant carbon dioxide.  Additionally, oil is becoming more expensive and ultimately, supplies will run out.

Hydrogen is considered a valuable source of clean energy as it is easily produced either by electrolysis of water, or by gasification of a hydrogen-containing raw material. There are currently two schools of thought concerning hydrogen as a source of energy.  Hydrogen, of which the only by-product is water, can be used as a conventional fuel or as a means of producing electricity – again, a zero-emission power source.

However, hydrogen has two major drawbacks that consumers aren’t happy about: difficulty of storage within the vehicle, and the lack of infrastructure, namely refuelling stations.  Germany is responding, in part, with fuel stops beginning to pop up.  German industrial gas giant Linde AG has proposed the rapid construction of some 40 hydrogen fuel stations along existing autobahns to establish a 1,800 kilometre hydrogen ring in central Germany.  However, only BMW has to date produced a so-called dual-fuel car which can use hydrogen or gasoline.

Image Recently, General Motors provided a Chevrolet Avalanche capable of running on E85 fuel (85% ethanol, 15% petrol) to the Illinois Corn Growers Association for use in the state as part of a campaign to promote ethanol.  Illinois, the second largest producer of ethanol in the US (after Iowa) is home to six ethanol plants, which produced 875 million gallons of ethanol from 325 million bushels of corn last year.

“We’re proud that Illinois leads the nation in the use of ethanol blended gasoline and we are excited to work with General Motors to further promote the benefits of E85-capable vehicles across the state,” says Roger Sy, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.

A lot of research and money is being channelled into fuel cell technology - a method of storing hydrogen within a metal matrix and using the fuel to produce electricity on which the vehicle will run.  There’s no carbon dioxide or other noxious emissions.

At the California Fuel Cell Partnership in Sacramento, which comprises members ranging from oil giant BP to Volkswagen, and from United Technologies to the US Department of Energy (DOE), research is being conducted on a number of test vehicles.  By 2007, the partnership aims to have around 300 fuel cell vehicles on the roads of California; currently there are just 37.

Recently, the DOE also announced that it would spend millions of dollars to help develop fuel cell vehicles and raise public awareness about the technology that drives them.  The DOE has agreed to two separate five-year fuel cell contracts: an $88 million pact with General Motors and a $70 million deal with DaimlerChrysler.  The DOE says it wants the programme to foster technology development and raise awareness about the vehicles and the hydrogen technology that propels them.

“DaimlerChrysler has worked with the department of Energy from the beginning.  We have a fleet of fuel cell vehicles ready to go into service in this demonstration programme,” explains Deborah Morrissett, vice-president for regulatory affairs at Chrysler.  “This is an example of the type of partnership that is necessary to accelerate the evolution of the fuel cell vehicle and to reduce the dependency on oil of the United States.”
The company has a 100-strong fuel cell vehicle fleet, placing DaimlerChrysler in a unique position to put numerous fuel-cell powered vehicles within the US this year.

While a number of motor manufacturers have followed the hybrid route, not everyone believes this is an essential part of lowering emissions.  Europe’s largest vehicle producer, Volkswagen, is focusing its research on optimising the internal combustion engine, using a range of synthetic fuels.

“You can design your own fuel so that existing diesels are between five and ten percent more efficient, while simultaneously reducing particulate emissions by up to 50 percent,” says a Volkswagen spokesman.

Synthetic fuels can be produced from natural gas or from biological matter such as plants.  The spokesman adds, “The supply of natural gas is almost unlimited, and when produced from bio-mass, is a near-sustainable energy source.”

There are solid indications that if everything is equal, consumers may be willing to pay a little extra for a green vehicle.  The conclusion researchers and manufacturers are drawing from the search for an alternative energy source is that few are perfect, most are more expensive than our existing resources and may require further research and development before they can realistically be considered for everyday transportation.

Yet the drive for change is gaining speed.  And in the current world of rising oil prices, climate change and the depleting ozone, switching to hybrids and alternative fuels may become more of a necessity than a choice.

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© 2019 Jeff Heselwood. All rights reserved.
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