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Alternative Fuels and the Challenges of Electric Vehicles


Posted: 21st March 2022 08:41

Right now, it could well be argued that searching for alternative fuel for automobiles is a task of the past. The great shift we see now is away from expendable fuel of any kind and towards the full electrification of cars. Nearly every car company has now committed itself to ending the production of gas-powered vehicles by some time in the 2030s– and if every car is going to run on a battery by that date, then what’s the point of searching for other alternative fuels to replace gasoline?

Well, as it happens, there actually has been quite a significant amount of research into potential fuel alternatives for cars – from hydrogen to nitrogen and even plain air, there have been quite a few touted alternatives. But why are such things being researched when the eventual total domination of battery power seems to be just around the corner?

A Slow Transition

As it happens, battery power as a seamless replacement for gas in cars is not a foregone conclusion. With the massive increase in car battery production – not least by Elon Musk’s Tesla and its commitment to more massive battery factories –  there have been a few unexpected challenges springing up.

While it is true that many of these challenges have also led to the creation of workable solutions, and several plans laid out about how to continue into a world where everybody is driving an electric car, the questions are all far from settled. These challenges can be roughly grouped into a few categories, namely production challenges, environmental challenges, and geopolitical challenges.

But before outlining what those are, it is worth considering that personal and family cars are far from the only vehicles and machines that make use of petrol or diesel. There are also larger vehicles like trucks and specialist emergency vehicles, which have been much slower to transition to electric power. A lot of machinery within industrial settings also require gas to operate efficiently and, while electrification has been a little more successful in this department, we are still far from being able to power all industrial machinery with electric batteries.

Indeed, while the transition to battery power might seem assured when it comes to cars, other gas-powered vehicles and machinery has slowed down the touted transition significantly. This is just one of the reasons why many are keeping alternative fuels open as a practical possibility for the future.

Possible Problems with Battery Cars

But, to return to cars, what are the problems standing in the way of total worldwide electrification? Here follows some of the major ones, grouped into the aforementioned categories:

Production Problems

The problems regarding the production of car batteries are perhaps the easiest to instantly understand. To put it in the simplest way, we are going to need to produce a lot of car batteries to power a world where everybody drives an electric car. And to achieve this goal, we are going to have to produce a lot more than we currently are. And the precise means by which that is to be achieved is far from clear.

Electric car batteries are, most essentially, a large system of connected lithium-ion cells. As it happens, these are expensive and energy-intensive to produce. Lithium mining is an expensive process (and we need a lot of lithium) and the production in the factory of these batteries is a highly specialised and expensive process. To see the crux of the matter, consider that our current production levels of lithium-ion car batteries is nowhere near enough to provide for the electric revolution planned for the 2030s.

Environmental Problems

Lithium mining and lithium-ion battery production are not particularly environmentally friendly processes. In fact, they are not environmentally friendly at all – and nor are they sustainable. Lithium mining is a large operation which has already been seen to cause considerable ecological damage wherever it is carried out. There have been some touted solutions, such as alternative lithium extraction methods that rely on geothermal springs, but these are still far from being scaled up enough to solve the problem.

And when it comes to the factory production of lithium-ion batteries, this too is energy intensive and unsustainable. Furthermore, lithium-ion batteries are difficult to sustainably dispose of and the waste that could be produced by an entire world with electric cars would be considerable.

Geopolitical Problems

The final issue with electric cars is geopolitical. Most of the lithium in the world is mined by China. And that single country is also heavily involved in the production of many car parts and accessories, from brake pads to windscreen wipers and car first aid kits. Having one country monopolise so much of the production necessary for electric cars brings with it serious geopolitical considerations. This is even more pressing in light of the current international relations and the fact that China is the world’s largest polluter – and shows little sign of doing much about this.

Alternative Fuels for Cars

So, in light of the several serious challenges that face those producing electric vehicles, it perhaps is quite easy to see how researchers have not fully abandoned the possibility of alternative fuel as means of powering cars into the future. Here are some of those alternatives:

Biofuel

Biofuel most often means bioethanol (although there are others too). Bioethanol is designed to be used in the internal combustion engine just as petrol is. However, it is sustainably created from corn, sugarcane, vegetable oils, and animal fats. For further sustainability, bioethanol can be created from the by-products of other industrial and agricultural processes, meaning that its supply can hopefully be made sustainable too.

Steam

There were steam-powered cars in the 19th century before they were replaced by the internal combustion engine. Many researchers, however, say that steam could make a comeback. Development of this type of vehicle is pretty much non-existent right now, but the theory is there, and high-powered steam cars are indeed a theoretical possibility.

Hydrogen

The most abundant substance in the Universe, hydrogen is indeed in plentiful supply. Furthermore, this basic light element burns cleanly and in fact produces only water as a by-product. It should be noted that a world of hydrogen cars would require creating a hydrogen production infrastructure that does not currently exist. But it is certainly another possibility.

Air

It should come as no surprise that air-powered cars would be completely emission-free. And unbelievably, air does indeed have the potential to provide a considerable amount of energy. When it is compressed, not only can it be stored in significant quantities, but it can be released at high pressure and indeed provide a considerable amount of locomotive power. Just think of the force of an air rifle to see that this is so.

Last Word

Ultimately, none of these fuel alternatives are being produced in anything like the quantities that would be required for them to provide an alternative energy future to electricity. Nevertheless, with the current challenges of electric cars being as pressing as they are, it is not inconceivable that one of these – or, more likely, some combination of these – could end up being what powers the automobiles of the future.


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