Race For The Electric Car

There are a number of alternative fuels for motor vehicles being pursued around the world.  Most of these can be grouped into one of three categories bio-fuel, hydrogen or electric.Bio-fuels such as diesel, ethanol and methanol are not only viable but already in use around the world.  After 3 decades of pursuit, in 2006 Brazil achieved energy independence attributed largely to domestically produced ethanol.  However, there are two issues with bio-fuels that raise concerns with environmentalists; production and combustion.

To produce bio-fuels on a large scale you need a consistent supply of biomass.  For ethanol you need plants high in sugar such as sugar cane or corn.  For diesel you need plants high in oil such as Corn for Ethanol?soybean or palm.  For methanol wood and wood bi-products are typically used.  Sugar cane has grows quickly has a high yield ratio, this enabled Brazil to create a consistent supply.  Corn has lower yields and requires much greater resources for growing and processes leading many to believe that a large scale program would do more harm than good.  The same arguments have been made for most bio-diesel crops as well.  Recently companies have been experimenting with various strains of algae to produce both ethanol and bio-diesel.  Although this shows promise, with low resources and high output, it is far from ready for commercialization.  Of course, though lower than petroleum-based fuels, all bio-fuels create emissions.  In summary, when you consider land and water utilization, chemical fertilization, energy use for conversion, and finally emissions, bio-fuels may be the least practical motor vehicle fuel alternative for most industrialized countries.

Hydrogen solutions can be broken down into 2 categories; combustion and fuel cells.  The promise of hydrogen as a combustible fuel is excellent and is burns much more efficiently than petroleum-based fuels and produces nearly zero harmful emissions.  Furthermore, existing combustion engines need little conversion to burn hydrogen-based fuels; theoretically these costs could rapidly be offset by fuel savings.  There are a number of caveats, however, that must be overcome.  One is the gas tank; depending on the type of hydrogen fuel, the tank must be insulated and able to sustain high pressure.  Extreme combustibility can create safety issues in collisions and at the pump.  Work is being conducted on many fronts to overcome these issue and we are likely to see a clear road for hydrogen combustion engines in near future.

Simultaneously, work continues on hydrogen fuel cells.  Fuel cells mix a fuel, in this case hydrogen, with oxygen in the presence of an electrolyte to create electricity.
So in fact a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is an electric vehicle that uses a fuel cell instead of a re-chargeable battery.  Whereas a plug-in electric vehicle relies on energy storage, a fuel cell vehicle needs a continuous supply of hydrogen.

Whether hydrogen combustion or fuel cell, we find ourselves in a classic Catch 22.  A network of hydrogen filling stations need to be in place to begin marketing hydrogen vehicles, hydrogen vehicles need to be abundant to justify the establishment of such an infrastructure. Hydrogen Filling Station in Iceland Governor Schwarzenegger is building his Hydrogen Highway in California but his vision has fallen victim to Federal budget cuts.  Although President Bush allocated $1 billion in funding for hydrogen vehicle research in 2003, President Obama cut this back by $100 million for 2010.  Many supporters in Congress are working to restore funding to previous levels but they also acknowledge that this technology is not a near-term solution.  This is why the electric car, whether petroleum hybrid or pure plug-in, has become the darling of the decade.

Electric cars today can be divided into two groups; hybrid petroleum-electric and pure-electric plug-ins.  Most production hybrids today alternate from gas and electric systems to propel the vehicle.  This was a costly venture at first but the proliferation of vehicle such as Toyota’s Prius, due in part to government tax incentives, has brought the cost down through economy scale.  Chevy's 2011 VoltNew hybrids on the horizon, such as Chevy’s Volt, have only one drive mechanism, electric.  In these cars gas is used solely to power a generator that charges the system.  Plug-in cars rely on batteries which can be re-charged at home with standard 220v or 110v outlets.  Current battery technology falls short when tasked with powering a 4-person car for extended distances.  While some companies are working to improve battery life others are novel approaches such as battery-swapping stations.

All things considered, electric cars are indeed the obvious choice for most westernized countries to help lighten their dependence on oil.  For those who drive a lot, hybrid models provide a significant reduction in petroleum use.  For those who stay close to home, pure electric models can eliminate trips to the gas station altogether.  In either case no great changes in infrastructure are required.

This section of Got2BeGreen is dedicated to the fast-tracked developments of electric cars by manufacturers both large and small.  You will see that everyone is getting into the game.  Car makers are going into the battery business, and battery makers are building cars.tesla Golf cart makers are expanding their horizons too, creating full-featured models to meet a variety of new markets.

Meanwhile, start-ups all over the world are working vigorously to build a better mousetrap.  Join us as we monitor the latest developments, track both the front runners and dark horses, and watch alliance develop as a whole new industry unfolds before us.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4