A look at the main future automotive technologies

car2goWith peak oil approaching, alternatives are being sought to power our cars. From hybrids to biofuels and from electricity to algae, the possibilities are numerous.

Terra Eco, a French magazine, published recently an article on this very topic and the least we can say is that the findings are interesting. Cars in 10 or 20 years won’t look like the ones we drive now.

I don’t think any of these technologies will have  the quasi monopoly in ten or twenty years but each solution will be present at a different level.

  • Electric

Well adapted to urban lifestyles, electric cars are limited in autonomy (currently less than 250 kilometers /155 miles) and in speed (130 kmph / 80 mph).

Another French magazine, Science & Vie, outlined in its January 2009 issue no less than sixproblems that have to be solved. Besides the autonomy the time of charging the batteries is another.

Security is the third problem as batteries can’t heat up too much. Fourthly, the main raw material – lithium – is also scarce. Finally, cost and recycling have to be addressed as well.

  • Natural Gas

There are  two main fuels: methane or NGV (natural gas vehicle). One of the main advantage is the cost of fuel. It also burns more efficiently than gasoline.

However, the pollution is similar or even more important. To a French report, they could reach mass markets by 2030.

  • Biofuels

First generation biofuels compete directly with crops for food. With the riots of hunger we have seen recently, this is no sustainable solution.

To have ten percent of our oil for transportation coming from such fuels we would need more than a fifth of our arable lands…

Second generation biofuels emit less greenhouse gases such as biomass waste aren’t ready yet and will reach markets by 2015-20.

  • Hydrogen

Even if  it seems to be a great solution as it is totally renewable and is everywhere (H2O anyone ?), hydrogen is not ready as many problems – including storage and excessive costs – have to be solved.

  • Algae

Bringing at least 15 times more energy per acre than traditional biofuels this could become a solution. Read out more here and there.

The fact that more and more people are living in the cities at a global level leads me to believe that car sharing solutions like this one have a bright future. Indeed, who needs a car 24 hours per day, 7 days a week ? Renting one when there is the need seems to be a perfect solution.

To conclude, I believe future cars will be smaller and will have fewer passenger seats. Current trends show this quite clearly.

2 thoughts on “A look at the main future automotive technologies”

  1. I’m not sure what you mean by “natural gas vehicles”. There are two kinds of vehicles using gas rather than petrol.

    LPG – liquefied petroleum gas – is already used in many Australian vehicles, there’s even a federal government rebate to let you convert your car for just a couple of thousand. These produce less emissions per Joule of energy got from them than does regular petrol. They’re usually mixtures of propane and butane. The tank is one under pressure and sits in your boot, and it’s about twice the size of a regular petrol tank for the same range you’ll get from it.

    The trouble here for the long-term is that LPG generally comes from crude oil. When they pump oil out of the ground there’s a little bit of gas with it. In many cases they just flare this gas off – gas flaring’s around 5% of global fossil fuel emissions, so 2-3% of all emissions. But in countries like Australia we separate and use it. So anyway now that oil has peaked and will decline worldwide, LPG will decline, too. We could boost it for several years simply by stopping flaring, but after a bit it’ll decline.

    So really LPG, in terms of declining resources, it’s just like burning oil. It’s better in emissions, but the stuff will run short, and in any case there isn’t enough to keep the approaching a billion cars we have going. So it’s not a global solution.

    CNG is compressed natural gas. This has less emissions per Joule of energy got from it than either LPG or petrol. However, the tanks take up a very large volume compared to LPG and petrol. This makes them suitable for large vehicles like buses and trucks, but not smaller vehicles like cars.

    Natural gas we expect to peak later than oil, sometime in the 2030s. But oil’s having peaked will cause us to draw more on natural gas, bringing the NG peak closer.

    Of course it’s possible to make methane from biological sources. But this leads to problems like we have already for ethanol and biodiesel, that fuel and food end up in competition. I looked into it here, and what it comes down to is that once fossil fuels run short, if we want to get everything from the soil then it’s: grain, meat and fuel – choose any two.

    Both CNG and LPG have the advantage that they produce much less aerosols than diesel or petrol engines. That is, less acid rain, soot, ozone and all that nasty stuff that pollutes our cities’ air.

    CNG is better than LPG for larger vehicles because CNG takes up quite a bit of volume, more than LPG – even a compressed gas takes up more space than a liquefied one. Also larger vehicles are more likely to be diesel than petrol, and diesel engines are a bit easier to convert to using gas instead of petrol/diesel. Having a big tank on a bus is easier than a big tank on a car, plus they drive vast distances compared to cars so the conversion cost is much more likely to be absorbed by the fuel savings – even if LPG/CNG weren’t cheaper.

  2. Many many thanks for that looong comment. Terra Eco was very short on natural gas applied to cars but your info explains a lot of things.

    Enjoy your weekend ! 🙂

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