We all know the impact cars have on the environment, but you might be less familiar with some of the experimental alternatives being considered by car makers and green enthusiasts. Finance for car R&D is a large part of a manufacturer’s budget, to ensure they stay ahead of competition and offer consumers cost-efficient cars, while also meeting regulatory standards on CO2 emissions.
Beginning to grow in popularity and accessibility, hybrid and electric cars offer an alternative to dirty fossil fuels. They are perhaps what most people think of when we discuss green cars, but if we were to say that electric vehicles are the solution and we can stop development, we would be deluding ourselves.
While the CO2 emissions of a hybrid or electric car are undoubtedly less than a petrol or diesel vehicle, there are debates around the methods required to produce both the electricity and the cars themselves. While we are still using fossil fuels to power the grid, electric cars are not as green as hoped. Manufacturers and consumers are looking for ways around this, such as home solar panels, but this is not practical for everyone. Additionally, a recent study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology indicated that producing and disposing of electric cars produces far more CO2 than building traditional cars, and uses a lot of toxic chemicals such as nickel, copper and aluminium.
Obviously, because running the cars actually produces less CO2 than running petrol or diesel, there is a tipping point at which electric cars do become the more environmentally friendly option – and this is somewhere around 150,000km.
As more is being invested into electric cars and refuelling points are increasing, they are becoming a more viable option, and for regular drivers could present a greener alternative.
Compressed natural gas cars are already widely used. Gas fuels cars in a manner not dissimilar to oil, in that they both produce use combustion. This means that engines can be retro-fitted to run on natural and liquid gas.
The gases have lower levels of carbon and high octane levels, bumping up their green credentials, but some are concerned about greenhouse gases used and the increased fuel consumption. Taking gases and consumption into account, CNG is probably on a par with diesel in terms of cleanliness at the moment, but for many consumers it is a cheaper alternative.
Fuel cells combine the combustion properties of traditional engines with the technology of batteries, which convert chemical energy to electricity. Fuel cells typically contain hydrogen, which combines with oxygen from outside the vehicle creating electricity. This eliminates the needs for the batteries currently used in electric cars, cutting out the toxic chemicals as well.
Hydrogen produces no toxic emissions, so is a clean, if expensive, alternative fuel. Hydrogen is sometimes produced from fossil fuels, in which case there is some negative environmental impact, but it is less than running a petrol or diesel car.
Vegetable oil and biomass are the next exciting developments in the auto world, but are probably some way from every day use. Biomass involves using any living or recently dead matter to create energy, and materials such as wood chips and compost can, theoretically, be used. Ethanol is already used in small amounts in fuel, but pure ethanol burns cleaner and produces less CO2. However, ethanol is derived largely from corn, and low production combined with high consumption is currently limiting it.