The experts differ, as experts do, as to just how many years the process will take. Many reckon half century or less, at current rates of use. Others, predicting further significant oil finds, suggest double that or more.
But while fuel prices today often respond to short-term events, such as the tragic World Trade Centre attack, in the longer term accelerating world demand for energy and diminishing supply will inevitably see fossil fuel-based energy prices soar.
That threat has forced carmakers, which need to make sure their customers remain able to afford to both buy and to run their products, to throw large dollops of research and development dollars at the problem.
They have had to operate on two fronts: firstly to make the processes of building and fuelling this oil-dependent generation of cars more efficient; secondly to adapt and improve alternative energy technologies and their supply to level of practicality and performance which matches or betters conventionally fuelled vehicles.
The second process is already well advanced. An interim technology has seen the first so-called hybrid vehicles reach the showrooms, vehicles like Honda’s two-door Insight coupe and Toyota’s Prius five-seater. Both use combination of small, highly fuel-efficient conventional engines with electric motors and battery stacks. They include processes to feed energy from braking back into the energy loop to help achieve outstanding fuel economy. The Insight, particularly, goes all out to cut weight, and independently has recorded well over 100mpg.
The next stage for the hybrids will be commercial production of vehicles with on-board fuel cells producing environmentally clean hydrogen to power those electric motors.
DaimlerChrysler, along with Ballard Power Systems of Canada, which it partly owns, has been to the fore in developing fuel cell vehicles. The size and weight of the necessary fuel cell stacks which use hydrogen and oxygen with catalyst to feed power to an electric motor have been sharply reduced.
DaimlerChrysler, which has been working with fuel cells since 1985 and has produced series of vehicles based on this technology, is promising its first production fuel cell car will appear in 2004, probably powering the compact A-Class.
Meanwhile it’s building over 30 fuel cell buses for use in Europe from next year. Buses and other heavy transport vehicles which return regularly to depot are most suited at this stage to full hydrogen technology, which produces only water vapour as byproduct. That’s because most fuel systems use liquid hydrogen, which must be kept at very low temperatures for bulk storage.
Meanwhile hydrogen can also be used as gas, which creates its own problems because it must be stored under very high pressure in the car to achieve reasonable range. But development here is also proceeding swiftly, with Korea’s Hyundai recently revealing light, three-layer tank which can store hydrogen at up to 5000 pounds per square inch against the previous best of 3600psi.
Whatever hydrogen system is used, huge cost is in store to go to the next stage necessary to match the ease of use of current cars, creating the necessary infrastructure of filling stations.
In the meantime, using fuel cell in the car to reform either petrol or methanol into hydrogen poses the problem in the former case that petrol remains the fossil fuel with the most limited future. Methanol, however, is now made mainly from natural gas, which has known reserves for another century, or can be made from plants.
All major car companies are working furiously on future fuel technologies. But BMW is promising production hydrogen car within the life of the new 7 Series model just introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show. BMW showed its 745h prototype, the first eight-cylinder engine to be powered by hydrogen, which has dual fuel technology, being also conventionally powered by petrol.
While companies like Mercedes and BMW are touting their advances in hydrogen technology, some experts are predicting that the Japanese giant Toyota, or its technological rival Honda, could be the first, just as they were with hybrid cars. And Japan would be specially suitable country in which to do it, because the population density would lend itself to an efficient infrastructure and hydrogen vehicles could make difference to the currently poor air quality.
Whatever, expect the first vehicles to be priced at well below the real underlying cost of the research and development required to create them, just as are the prices of Insight and Prius. And the takeup will be relatively slow until economies of scale and realistic infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations becomes available.
DaimlerChrysler has predicted that up to one in five new cars sold in 2010 in Germany will use fuel cells, with up to one in 10 worldwide 10 years later. Others suggest it will be 30 to 40 years before hydrogen-powered cars dominate.
In the meantime continued refinement of conventional engines, particularly diesels, is achieving remarkable improvements in fuel economy and minimised noxious emissions.
Diesel, almost as old as petrol in terms of its basic technology, has only in the last decade or so received the development attention it deserves, given that diesel is inherently more efficient than petrol. The result has been, particularly from diesel specialist, the French PSA Group, which produces Peugeot and Citroen cars, and more recently the big three from Germany, very fine engines which not only give superb performance – they are particularly torquey which is highly suited to general running conditions and much quieter than before.
New Zealand has particular reason to embrace diesel technology because the fuel is cheap here. But so far New Zealanders have only embraced them in volume for off-road vehicles. Nevertheless, the high performance and refinement of vehicles like BMW’s 330d and Audi’s turbo diesel Allroad are already having an influence.
Meanwhile PSA has made breakthrough in getting rid of the nasties in diesel exhausts by producing special filter which automatically incinerates exhaust particulates.
Even petrol engines are responding to new ideas. BMW’s new Valvetronic technology, which adjusts the stroke of inlet valves, doing away with the traditional throttle butterfly, is used in the new BMW Compact, saving 10 percent fuel, and is also being employed in new models.
Audi has been leader in lightweight vehicle construction, first with the aluminium-bodied executive A8, more recently with the A2, which is considerably lighter than most compacts. The special Al2 (for aluminium 2) uses variety of lightweight materials and special little turbo-diesel to record fuel use of around 3 litres/100km, around 90mpg.
It’s something of struggle, given that car buyers are constantly looking for more luxury equipment and safety features.A lot of current economy successes are down to current powerful computer management systems. These, for instance, enable supercharging and turbocharging to get strong performance, yet decent fuel economy, out of smaller engines, which themselves save weight.
Honda is still getting big improvements in power and economy without resorting to force-feeding its engines. And some experts reckon that by 2020 cars will use third less fuel than now, stretching out those limited fossil fuel resources.
Meanwhile companies like Volvo are taking holistic approach to the problem, making sure that all the processes of building cars, the materials they use and their usage of fuel, meet high environmental standards. Its cars for instance are almost totally recyclable.
There’s still much to be done on variety of fronts. But whatever happens in the short term, hydrogen remains the hot favourite as the world’s future transport fuel. And the engineers are already hard at work on developing fully sustainable technologies for creating hydrogen using sun, wind and water power, breaking down water
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