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Fuel for thought

April 15, 2012

Alternative ways of thinking about alternative energy

It is pouring down with rain as you dash out of the supermarket, trying hard not to splatter your new suit you dodge puddles and hurry over a zebra crossing as headlights come to a sudden halt before your feet. The bags are banging against your legs as you pick up the pace, march down the rows of vehicles and scan them looking out for your own. Fumbling for the keys in your back pocket you then see it, sat there, waiting, loyal, just where you left it. A click of a button and you chuck your shopping in the boot and collapse into the front seat greeted by silence and safety. You watch as the weather hammers on the windscreen and distorts your view and turn on the ignition, the headlights, the windscreen wipers and hear the familiar hum of the engine. She is there to guide you home. What would you do without her?

The automotive has created a lifestyle of flexibility, security and opportunity for you. In order for you to sustain that lifestyle the car itself must be sustainable and therefore live in harmony with the environment. It comes as no surprise to anybody when we are told that conventional fossil fuels are depleting, fuel prices are ever-increasing and that car manufacturers are under intense pressure to reduce carbon emissions in their vehicle production, design and performance. Who ultimately decides how we fuel the automotive industry looking forward? You. The customer. So what are your sustainable choices and how do they impact the environment?


Bioethanol is ethanol liquid that is made from common crops, including sugar cane and corn and is considered an alternative to petroleum and diesel. A Bioethanol for Sustainable Transport (BEST) trial was implemented from 2006 to 2009 in nine participating destinations across Europe, Asia and South America. During the project more than 10,000 ethanol cars and 160 ethanol buses were put into operation and bioethanol fuel stations were opened. The project demonstrated that ethanol-powered vehicles reduced greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. Sweden continued the implementation of the BEST project and now has the largest flexible-fleet in Europe. Closer to home, Somerset was a participating region in BEST.

Somerset county council installed 5 E85 (ethanol fuel 85% blend) fuel pumps on Morrison forecourts in the Somerset area, obtained planning consent for a 100,000 tonne bioethanol production plant by Green Spirit Fuels in Somerset and integrated 41 Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFV) in fleets operated by local businesses and authorities. The FFV’s provided an overall 70% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions once the energy used in growing the crops and processing the fuel had been taken into account. Somerset council said, “As well as raising awareness of the need to reduce transport carbon emissions, this project supports the local economy in the agriculture and local construction industry sectors.” Supermarket chains in the future could go one step further to produce bioethanol fuel onsite for their customers. It would be a secure fuel supply, conscious of climate change that meets the needs of the local population.

Bioethanol fuel pump, Oregon, US - could we be seeing more of these on supermarket forecourts in the future? Photograph: Flickr/neufcent9


Car manufacturers are increasingly positive about opting to release electric vehicles (EVs) into the marketplace. The Nissan Zero Emission statement said, “It is easy to imagine how fewer emissions, alongside infrastructure will make life in cities more attractive.” There is certainly a general assumption that electric cars are ‘cleaner’ than petrol/diesel/hybrid cars and therefore can justify a place within the car market. But can electric cars really claim to be ‘emission free’ if they are powered from an energy grid supplied by coal stations burning coal, gas or even nuclear?

Professor David Mackay, the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Chief Scientific Advisor has carried out research into the efficiency of EVs in his book, Sustainable EnergyWithout the Hot Air. In response to whether EVs can really be cleaner than fossil fuel cars, Professor Mackay said, “This is quite an easy calculation to do. Assume the electric vehicle’s energy cost is 20 kWh (e) per 100 km. If grid electricity has a carbon footprint of 500 g per kWh (e) then the effective emissions of this vehicle are 100 g CO2 per km, as good as the best fossil cars. Switching to electric cars is a good idea, even before we green our electricity supply.” Therefore, electric cars in terms of CO2 emissions are purely neck and neck with the most fuel efficient conventional fuel cars – not as green as we think.

Nissan Leaf, Nissan Leaf, electric vehicle, representing a small proportion of the car market share Photograph: Flickr/tomraftery


At present, the aviation industry is very proactive in trialling blends of biofuel with kerosene to power aeroplanes. Customers are the main driving force behind the alternative fuel direction the aviation industry will take as they determine fuel from a sustainable source. So how does this approach apply to the automotive industry? Car manufacturers may have the power to plan their fleet but cannot make people buy a vehicle supplied with alternative fuel.

Biomass is an appealing option because as the feedstock grows it is absorbing CO2. However, in the long-term the fuel supplier and process needs to be suitable and sustainable. In regards to sustainability, feedstock shouldn’t compete in land terms for food. A livestock option that continues the development of biofuels without compromising land use and food production is algae that can be grown in the sea. Three quarters of the world is covered by our oceans, therefore it makes good sense to use that volume to generate livestock as long as the biodiversity of our oceans can be maintained.

Biofuel production raises the concern that land used for production could be threatened Photograph: Flickr/ corn field bkkkpewsey


John Turner, Director, Valeswood Fuel Cells said, “Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe and a highly efficient, clean and non-toxic fuel.” Riversimple, a revolutionary transport company based in Ludlow have certainly proved hydrogen is a worthy investment as an alternative fuel. They have created a two-seater Network Electric model that is powered by hydrogen fuel cells. It achieves energy consumption equivalent to 300 miles per gallon on petrol. At present the most economical way of producing hydrogen is from natural gas. A hydrogen fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen, which react in the presence of an electrolyte to produce electricity, plus a small amount of pure water or steam. A fuel cell does not store energy but processes it and is twice as efficient in using the hydrogen’s energy content as an internal combustion engine.

Kevin Kendall, Professor of Formulation Engineering at Birmingham University said, “The issues surrounding the widespread adoption of hydrogen technologies for transport involve both technical matters and concerns around public and political acceptance.” Riversimple has taken a novel approach to its business model and Intellectual Property (IP) strategy when it comes to problem solving technical matters and encouraging public acceptance. The company has opted for open licensing and the IP is held in trust by a non-profit organisation. This approach allows them to develop their vehicles with a concern for the environment, a focus on innovation, create simplified commercial relationships and share parts.


The photosynthesising fuel process has been inspired by natural photosynthesis in plants Photograph: Flickr/Rubin Holthuijsen

The answer to sustainable fuel for our vehicles could be found in your plant pots at home. Artificial leaf technology could be a future option for fuelling vehicles according to the research being conducted by a team of scientists at Glasgow University, led by Professor Richard Codgell. Professor Codgell said that the process they are developing has been inspired by photosynthesis, the method used by plants to harness the energy of sunlight. The team plan to manufacture a hydrocarbon fuel which could be used instead of oil through photosynthesising bacteria. The essence of photosynthesis has been broken down into four steps explains Professor Codgell, “harvesting light, using harvested light to separate positive and negative charges, using positive charges to extract electrons for oxygen and using negative electrons to produce fuel.”

The team are developing the concept of a solar battery that relies on renewable energy to supply an electric current that drives the fuel production within the battery. The process not only produces the hydrocarbon fuel but also stores it, therefore combating the concern of energy on demand. Richard Codgell agreed that this production is much more efficient than biodiesel as it does not require as much land. In five years time he is aiming to have a small scale working model. The transport industry has a need for a dense portable fuel and there is currently a strong push for cars to retain hydrocarbon for fuels, this could be the solution should it pass the test.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2012 18:16

    I like how you point out that without a green source of energy, electric cars getting charged from a fossil fuel based grid is on the verge of being counter productive.

    There was a professor at my college whose research focused on hydrogen production through photosynthesis, I interviewed him for a paper once. His research is pretty interesting if you’d like to read a little more about it here’s a link to his faculty page:

    Thanks for the post!

    • April 16, 2012 20:00

      Thanks for the comment! Will check out the link, definitely keen to find out more about it. Only time will tell in regards to the research being carried out but it would be great to think photosynthesising fuel could work realistically in the future.

  2. calmyourbeans permalink
    April 17, 2012 10:14

    Reblogged this on calmyourbeans.

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