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Life After Petrol – Pros And Cons Of Alternative Fuels

August 15, 2013

Whether or not we’d care to admit it, oil is a finite resource. Regardless of the time frame, running out of this non-renewable resource someday is an inevitability. And when we do eventually run out of oil, everyday essentials such as petrol will no longer be accessible to us. Fortunately, there are several alternatives already available on the market – but how viable are these replacements for our old friend petroleum?

Electricity

green fuelHow does it work? Electric cars dismiss combustible fuels altogether and replace them with battery power, allowing the wheels to instead be driven directly by electric motors. Popular examples include the super-efficient Nissan Leaf and high-performance Tesla Roadster.

Pros? It’s a pretty environmentally friendly option, with a significantly lower carbon footprint than your traditional petrol-guzzling cars. Electric cars are also relatively practical, especially for city-dwellers, as modern versions typically have a decent range and can be charged up anywhere there’s a normal power socket. They are also comparatively quiet to non-electric alternatives.

Cons? Compared to petrol cars, electric vehicles still don’t have the best range. It all comes down to the weight of the batteries versus the extra miles each additional battery carries. Relatively slow charge times mean that electric cars are, as of now, only particularly suitable for shorter journeys, such as commuting within cities. There’s also the considerable fact that all that electricity must come from somewhere, which currently means that power plants are having to burn those fossil fuels electric cars are trying to eliminate.

Biodiesel

How does it work? A form of diesel derived from plant or animal fats which can be used in existing diesel engines.

Pros? Because it can be used in existing diesel engines, there are already millions of compatible vehicles worldwide. It’s also relatively easy to make biodiesel available through the existing petrol station infrastructure, making the transition straightforward and hassle-free. Advocates also argue that biodiesel has the potential to be a carbon neutral option, being primarily produced from crops taking in CO2.

Cons? Using biodiesel still ultimately results in the output of CO2 into the atmosphere. So although this may be a more sustainable source of fuel, it’s debatable whether the CO2 taken in during production really offsets what is released during consumption – especially as some biodiesel is generated from waste fats, such as animal fat. It’s also unlikely that the demand for biodiesel could be met by the supply of which, as the planet’s ever-increasing population puts more and more pressure on the world’s farmland to produce food crops.

Hydrogen

How does it work? Hydrogen is stored in gas form and can then be burned in specialised internal combustion engines to produce power.

Pros? It produces absolutely no carbon when consumed, as the combustion process combines hydrogen and oxygen to give off water vapour as a by-product. The gas is produced from the electrolysis of water and the combustion process returns it to this form, meaning the potential supply is theoretically infinite. Hydrogen could also be slotted into the existing infrastructure as an alternative option at petrol stations, and provides a highly efficient way to store energy, giving hydrogen cars impressive overall performance.

Cons? One of the major downsides of hydrogen fuel is that it requires more energy to produce than is then delivered from combustion. This energy has to come from somewhere, which currently means fossil fuels, making the whole process both somewhat inefficient and not entirely eco-friendly. Increasing pressure on fresh water supplies in much of the world also means using up water as a fuel source might not be economically or ethically viable.

Synthetic Hydrocarbons

alternative-fuel-carHow does it work? Reacting hydrogen with waste CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels can result in the production of so-called synthetic hydrocarbons, including petrol, diesel and jet fuel. These can then be used in exactly the same way as the traditional forms of these fuels.

Pros? It’s a carbon neutral, self-sustaining process which would allow us to go on using all the vehicles and infrastructure we already have in place, making this the most painless of all the available options. Feasibility studies suggest the technique would be commercially viable and, as the CO2 could be captured directly from vehicle exhausts and power plants, it would prevent further CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

Cons? The hydrogen used for the reaction would, of course, need to originate somewhere, so again would probably have to be produced from water. Both this and the fuel-producing reactions would require energy, so in order to be truly carbon neutral, this power would need to come from carbon neutral options, such as hydro or nuclear power.

Although the coming century is likely to bring significant challenges in terms of fuel sustainability and environmental issues, there are a great many up-and-coming options for alternative fuels. What’s now necessary is increased pressure from us, as consumers, to make sure we have viable alternative fuels to secure a sustainable future for the coming centuries.

About The Author

Jon Le Roux is co-founder and company director of The Car Loan Warehouse. Being a mad engineering and motorsport enthusiast, I spend more hours than is healthy, watching, reading or talking about cars, boats, motorbikes…..basically anything with an engine.