Future of fuel based automotive: what will power tomorrow’s cars?

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Introduction

Fly into any major city around the world and you will be greeted with a familiar sight: sheen of brown smog that floats over the city. This smog comes mostly from cars.

The steady increase in pollution has caused governments around the world to create legislation. The Australian Government has committed to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions by five to 15 per cent below as compared to year 2000; by 2020.In addition to reducing pollution, many nations, such as the United States, have talked about energy independence.

Don't worry, the car will not disappear. Even as you read, today's scientists are researching tomorrow's fuels. Here are the three most promising candidates.

Hydrogen: The Space Age Fuel

Good: More energy rich per kilogram than petrol or battery-powered electric cars • Produces only water as exhaust • Refuels faster than electric cars.

Bad: Very expensive to produce • Difficult to store and transport • Incompatible with current infrastructure.

Bottom line: Although on paper it's an extremely promising fuel, high costs and problems with storage means that a lot needs to be done to make hydrogen the fuel of the future.

In many ways hydrogen is an ideal fuel. In fact, when scientists really needed a fuel that would go the distance, they turned to hydrogen to generate power on NASA's Apollo missions— including the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first humans on the moon in 1969.

Despite all these complications, a number of car manufacturers have produced prototype hydrogen fuel cell cars including Fiat, Volkswagen and BMW. However, the big car manufacturer that is arguably pushing hydrogen hardest is Honda.

Batteries: High Voltage Dreaming

Good: No tail-pipe exhaust • Almost silent • Utilizes current electricity grid • Batteries already produced in masses.

Bad: Terrible range • Batteries are heavy • Long charge times • Most of Australia's electricity comes from burning coal.

Bottom line: The electric car has long been an inventor's dream. With the right government and industry support, it might just come true.

Technologies big and small have increased demand for more efficient batteries. Smaller gadgets, such as cell phones and tablets, require powerful batteries at the smallest size possible. Meanwhile, larger, more environmental friendly vehicles require batteries that can compete with their internal combustion cousins. Just over a month ago, Tesla made a proposal to purchase Solar City and now they are announcing that the two companies have reached an agreement to combine, creating the world's only vertically integrated sustainable energy company.

Biofuels: Mother Nature to the Rescue

Good: No new delivery infrastructure needed • Renewable • Can be carbon neutral • Already in production and use.

Bad: May damage bikes and older cars • Competes with food production • Massive amounts of biomass required to meet the world's fuel needs.

Bottom line: Biofuels are already in use today. With further technological refinement and increased production, they're potentially unstoppable.

Let's get back to basics. A biofuel is any fuel that is derived from biological materials such as wood chips, sugar or vegetable oil.

The good news is that a diverse range of fuels can be made from biological material. These include fuels ranging from natural gas (methane) and LPG, to the common fuel additives, like ethanol, right up to heavier fuels, like diesel.Biofuels are the subject of intense scientific research and have received a considerable amount of government subsidies in Australia and overseas.

What will be the fuel of the future?

If fossil fuels are to be phased out, the cheapest and fastest alternative to get to market will win.

Judging by this criterion, biofuels currently lead the race. They are on sale today, broadly used and are yet to feel the full price drop that accompanies significant economies of scale. In some cases, they are sold today at a cheaper price than the equivalent fossil fuel.

Electric cars come a close second, with many car makers trialing or leasing electric cars. Though, the ones already on sale, such as the Tesla Roadster, and the ones due for sale shortly, like the Mitsubishi i MiEV, are a tad on the expensive side. Hydrogen cars languish in last place as, outside certain parts of California, the infrastructure to support them simply doesn't exist.

Of course, the story that has not been told here is that of hybrid cars. If run off a combination of biofuels and renewable electricity, they are pollution free. Judging from consumers' reactions to cars like theToyota Prius, the hype surrounding the Chevy Volt, along with the US Government's commitment to put one million hybrids on the road by 2015, these will be the cars of the near future.

Then again, a sudden technological breakthrough might change the game, such as a cheap way to store large amounts of hydrogen. Who knows what the future holds.