Alternative Energy Cars – The New Reality

This topic is absolutely fascinating because of the wide variety of alternative energy cars now becoming available to individual motorists and corporate fleets alike.

The arrival of peak oil, rising oil prices and the world wide emphasis on the use of renewable energies have all combined to stimulate research and development in alternative energy cars, or to put in its widest context, alternative energy vehicles.

The great majority of car manufacturers, world wide, are investing heavily in research, development and production of alternative energy vehicles.

What Are The Available Options For Alternative Energy Cars?

The work being done obviously tends to have alternative fuel as its main focus and the following is a list of the major projects currently being studied and developed:

Electric cars

An electric car is one that is powered by an electric motor rather than a gasoline motor. It is also different from a hybrid car. The origins of the electric car go back as far as the mid-eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century they were the car of choice as roads were not widespread, meaning short journeys, and gasoline vehicles were still primitive, requiring crank starting.

However, with the improvements in gasoline vehicles and the low cost of oil, they virtually became obsolete by the mid-1930's. Later that century they began to re-appear and now we have an absolute feast of electric vehicles available in the marketplace.

The Achilles heel of the electric car has always been the battery. The shift from lead-acid to lithium ion has resulted in great improvement. There are now cars with battery systems that will give you up to 300 miles on a single charge, but they are very expensive. A case in point is the Tesla S Roadster at around $60,000. For many people, though, being able to drive 100-150 miles on a charge will be quite sufficient. The only real issue is the occasional longer trip.

The future stable of alternative energy cars is definitely going to include electric cars.

Compressed air car

This type of vehicle may be on a somewhat similar footing to the Water Powered Car At this stage, there doesn't appear to be any scam involved, but the technology may struggle to become a commercial proposition. The French company, MDI, has been researching it for years and has teamed up with the giant Tata company in India. The idea is attractive – fill a tank with compressed air and run your car on it, with the engine being driven by the expansion of the compressed air and resulting in zero emissions.

The major drawback lies in the energy losses involved in the process and the process struggles to reach an efficiency of 7%, well below that of internal combustion engines and electric motors. There is also the problem of “icing up” which occurs due to the cooling taking place when the air expands. The Tata company is still talking up their vehicle but nothing concrete has yet emerged apart from the prototypes.

It may well be that the technology has good applications for smaller vehicles such as scooters, bicycles, lawnmowers and back-up generators. Any widespread use in motor vehicles is likely to be in tandem with another fuel to provide the extra power.

Liquid nitrogen car

In this case we produce liquid nitrogen which is readily obtained from air, which is 78% nitrogen; the nitrogen is then heated using the ambient temperature of the engine and the resulting expansion drives the motor. There are zero harmful emissions.

There are significant issues with the technology, the main one being the energy intensive process to make the liquid nitrogen and then the energy losses sustained in converting to energy drive the vehicle. Overall the prototypes lacked sufficient power to be commercially viable.

Both the University of Washington and the University of North Texas, independently developed prototype nitrogen vehicles in the 1990's.

image of workings of a liquid nitrogen car

However, nothing has emerged of real commercial interest.

The low energy density of nitrogen means that you need a large storage tank to give equivalent distance traveled compared to gasoline engines. This may well be OK but the energy losses in the production, heating and cooling processes remain a significant hurdle to be overcome. The research continues.

Hydrogen car

In 1842 William Grove invented what he called the gas voltaic battery where he reversed the normal electrolysis process of breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen. He combined hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and steam. This became the forerunner of what we now call the hydrogen fuel cell.

The following image explains clearly how the process works.

The use of hydrogen fuel cells in motor vehicles holds great promise for the future even though there are significant challenges to be overcome. These are:

  • Storage issues - because hydrogen is has only one third of the energy by volume compared with gasoline, it poses a problem of storage within the vehicle, bearing in mind factors like weight, size and cost.
  • Costs The cost of fuel cell technology has come down as indicated by the following graph.

    image showing fuel cell costs for hydrogen cars

    However those cost need to come down further as well as the cost associated with storage, mentioned above. Only then will car manufacturers be able to offer the cars at a price likely to attract public support.

  • Fuel cell life - presently the projected life of a fuel cell is about 75.000 miles(120,000 kms) but it is felt that development needs to occur to double this, if possible.
  • Delivery issues - the oil companies will have no interest in incorporating hydrogen delivery systems into their existing frameworks for fuel delivery. This will mean the development of a separate system at considerable cost.
  • Public approval - the final clincher is for the public to embrace the technology and that will not happen until the other challenges have been met.
  • There is every reason to believe that hydrogen cars will be a vital part in the future of alternative energy cars as long as governments continue to fund research and development along with private investors.

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