I’ve been reviewing cars for over three decades and in the last 12 months I’ve tested more electric cars than in the entire previous 30 years. The tide has well and truly turned. The nation’s drivers are switching-on to plugging-in big time, with more manufacturers adding fully electric offerings to model ranges by the day.
With road transport being responsible for a quarter of the world’s damaging pollution, motoring emissions need to be dramatically reduced. Aside from the environment, the benefits of electric vehicles to the health of those living in big cities is significant.
However, aside from the issues of ‘transferring the problem’ from cars to power stations in terms of both pollution and energy consumption (although this is being addressed by a move towards renewable resources such as wind and solar power) and the poor energy-efficiency of battery-powered cars versus internal-combustion engine cars, not to mention the impact of activities such as cobalt mining for batteries, there’s also the overall high carbon footprint of producing a new electric car.
Volvo (which is actually betting its future on electric cars, both through its offshoot Polestar brand, and its own ‘Recharge’ range) admitted that overall emissions resulting from making EVs can be as much as 70% higher than equivalent petrol models, and would take nine years (based on average annual mileages) to offset.
Are we being too blinkered? Are we charging too fast towards embracing electricity without having considered alternatives? Electric cars are certainly part of the solution to our transportation requirements but surely, they can’t be the only answer. What else should we be considering?
Honda, Toyota and Hyundai actually offer hydrogen cars for sale in some markets. Hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet, is more energy efficient than batteries and even petrol, and the only emissions you get out of the tailpipe is water! There are two approaches to using hydrogen - either as fuel cells that create electricity to drive an electric motor, or as fuel for a modified traditional combustion engine that runs cleaner and leaner.
However, the cost of extracting, storing and distributing hydrogen, the lack of infrastructure, and the perceptions and fears over the volatility of Hydrogen, have held back progress. Don't count it out just yet though, as research and development continue apace.
Oft-ignored Nitrogen can also be used as fuel for modified combustion engines and produces harmless emissions. Alternatively, when vapourised, it can also be deployed to propel a drive unit akin to something like a steam engine. Nitrogen is widely and cheaply available, but again the huge investment required to develop it for use in automobiles is the prohibiting factor at the moment - but as petrol and diesel is phased out, that could change.
Synthetic and bio fuel
We are already using biofuels in our cars. Well, partly. The new E10 fuel has 10% ethanol in it which is a form of alcohol derived from plant cellulose. The energy yield is lower, but the biggest issues with plant-based fuels is that harvesting it would compete for land use against already under-pressure food production. Do we need to eat or drive?
Synthetic fuels on the other hand are made out of thin air. No really! They're created by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combining it with hydrogen from water. The resulting fuel is a viable alternative to petrol and diesel and it produces far lower carbon emissions. These are theoretically then offset by the carbon being extracted from the air, making the fuel entirely renewable.
It does need energy from other sources to produce. Nonetheless, major manufacturers like Porsche and Mazda are investing heavily in synthetic fuels and these are likely to become more widely available in future.
LPG & CNG
CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) and LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) conversions are both currently available. They are cheaper and much cleaner than petrol or diesel to run on, and usually you can switch your car between the regular petrol tank or LPG/CNG system.
The systems will take up part of your boot space as an extra tank is installed, produce less power and a lower mileage range. Servicing costs can be higher. There are also concerns over the safety of these systems (CNG and LPG equipped cars are not allowed for transport through the EuroTunnel). Additionally, CNG does have particulate pollution including ultrafine particles harmful to our health. Likewise, while much lower than regular cars, LPG does emit carbon dioxide.
The sun provides us with all our needs, and potentially is a limitless source of energy too. If only we could harness it. Ah yes. Solar energy; surely, it's the perfectly solution - inexhaustible and freely available.
The trouble is that solar panel technology is very inefficient converting only about 20% of light into electrical energy. This will undoubtedly improve in future, but for now solar power remains unviable for cars. On the other hand, solar panels installed on the roofs of houses can be used to charge EVs.
Dilithium Crystals – or Radioactive Diamond Batteries
We’re about to go all Star Trek, but stay with me. The biggest problem with current electric cars is that the batteries (apart from being environmentally costly to produce and recycle) are bulky and need constant recharging. With continuing advances this will change for the better, but what if we had batteries that were small and essentially lasted forever?
Diamond Nuclear Batteries are made from Carbon-14 extracted from radioactive waste from Nuclear Power Plants. This is converted into a diamond form and then covered in another non-radioactive synthetic diamond to make it safe to use. Believe it or not, you then end up with a tiny battery that can last THOUSANDS of years! The problem is these batteries are very low yield, heavy and as you’ve already surmised, very expensive to make. Nonetheless, wouldn’t you pay extra for a car, even a heavy one, if you knew it would run for a lifetime without ever needing fuelling or charging?
Converting Old Cars to Electric
Finally, we return to electric power, because in the short term at least, this appears to be the most widely adopted and catered for ‘clean fuel’ option, aside from the dilemma of the much greater carbon footprint of producing a brand-new electric car.
What if, instead of manufacturing a complete car, we’re able to take existing cars and convert them to run on electric power instead? The battery and motor still have to be manufactured, but the rest of a perfectly serviceable existing car, that might be retired only because of its emissions, is retained, reused, recycled.
There is already a growing industry of specialists who are giving classic cars a second lease of life, making them cleaner, but also more reliable,faster and hence more usable. Converting newer cars can be fraught with problems because of complex electronics and engine management systems, but models produced up to the early 1990s are viable for relatively straightforward conversion.