Green envy


The Advertiser - Motoring - - Front Page -

THE world is run­ning low on oil, many peo­ple are concerned about ve­hi­cle emis­sions – though live­stock, fac­to­ries and power gen­er­a­tors are big cul­prits – and there’s an un­doubted mo­men­tum for high-tech cars that are more friendly to the en­vi­ron­ment.

Cars are now more fuel-ef­fi­cient when us­ing petrol and diesel, but those fu­els are not go­ing to be avail­able at a rea­son­able price for long.

LPG has be­come cleaner but it, too, is non-re­new­able en­ergy and in­ter­est has waned since the wind-back of sub­si­dies for LPG con­ver­sions.

It leaves ‘‘flex-fuel’’ ethanol, hy­dro­gen fuel and elec­tric ve­hi­cles as the po­ten­tial boom­ing types.

Hy­brid cars have an elec­tric mo­tor sup­ple­mented by a con­ven­tional in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine. So far, the Toy­ota Prius, Honda Civic hy­brid, Lexus GS450h, LS600h and RX450h SUV, the new Porsche Cayenne hy­brid SUV and the Aus­tralian-built Toy­ota Camry hy­brid are pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cles of­fered for sale in Aus­tralia and driven as nor­mal cars.

They gather power for their bat­ter­ies by har­ness­ing en­ergy from brak­ing but still have limited range on elec­tric­ity be­fore the en­gine cuts in to help.

These hy­brid mod­els use petrol en­gines. But hy­brid cars also can use diesel, LPG, ethanol or even nat­u­ral gas en­gines to as­sist the elec­tric mo­tor.

‘‘Ev­ery car man­u­fac­turer has a hy­brid car or will have by 2012,’’ says Mo­tor Trade As­so­ci­a­tion state ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor John Chap­man.

Mr Chap­man has just un­veiled the MTA Prius, a hy­brid Toy­ota with stan­dard bat­tery pack re­placed by bat­ter­ies with greater ca­pac­ity. They al­low the car to travel up to 40km be­fore the petrol en­gine cuts in. But most im­por­tantly, the bat­ter­ies can be recharged from a do­mes­tic elec­tric wall socket.

The higher-ca­pac­ity bat­ter­ies, in­stalled for $15,000, take up more space (re­plac­ing the spare wheel) and add about 110kg but per­for­mance is un­trou­bled due to the high torque of the elec­tric mo­tor from rest.

Mit­subishi has the first of its cute lit­tle i-MiEV cars be­ing eval­u­ated in Aus­tralia. It is on sale in Ja­pan, as is the Nis­san Leaf. Both are elec­tric-only and plug in to recharge. More such plug-in elec­tric ve­hi­cles (EVs) are on the way from other mak­ers.

GM is de­vel­op­ing its Volt (we can ex­pect a Holden Volt in a few years). It has a plug-in elec­tric mo­tor, and an en­gine that does not di­rectly pro­pel the car but starts up to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity for the bat­ter­ies – a sort of on­board power sta­tion.

Per­haps 35 years ago I drove a Flin­ders Uni­ver­sity elec­tric ve­hi­cle, the lit­tle Fiat be­ing weighed down by bat­ter­ies that looked sim­i­lar to nor­mal car bat­ter­ies. But now ad­vances in lithium-ion bat­ter­ies, sim­i­lar to those in mo­bile phones, have al­lowed EVs to be more prac­ti­cal, have charge topped up and give real per­for­mance. Last year I drove the first Tesla road­ster in Aus­tralia, owned by Ade­laide’s Simon Hack­ett. It swooshed from 0 to 100km/h in a su­per­car-like four sec­onds with no more sound than an ex­pen­sive vac­uum cleaner. Range? Mr Hack­ett drove it 501km in last year’s Dar­win-Ade­laide Green Global Chal­lenge on one overnight recharge.

An is­sue, es­pe­cially for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, is how the elec­tric­ity is gen­er­ated in the first place. Elec­tric cars have no CO2 emis­sion when driv­ing, but the elec­tric­ity they use has to be gen­er­ated, usu­ally at a power sta­tion. But in­di­vid­u­als can have so­lar ar­rays on their roof to gather elec­tric­ity and feed it back into the power grid so that when they recharge their plugin EV, it is ef­fec­tively at zero emis­sion.

EVs are best used for daily, short city and sub­ur­ban trips, then recharged again overnight. Some say that you’ll be able to do, for ex­am­ple, an Ade­laide-Syd­ney drive by stop­ping at bat­tery-change sta­tions to robot­i­cally have your al­most-spent bat­ter­ies taken out and fully-charged ones put in within min­utes while you have a rest stop. But will we have enough de­mand for such sta­tions?

Mean­while, hy­dro­gen can be used in two ways. It can fuel an in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine. Or, more likely to be seen on our roads within a few years, it can feed an on-board ‘‘fuel cell’’ which cre­ates elec­tric­ity for the elec­tric mo­tor. Hy­dro­gen is plen­ti­ful. But the prob­lem is ex­tract­ing it – again, we’d need a lot of so­lar power or wind power to do so – and there is an is­sue of car­ry­ing high­pres­sure bot­tles in the car. Then we’d need hy­dro­gen fuel sta­tions at which to re­fill.

Ethanol fuel is used by many mo­torists al­ready, at a 10 per cent blend with petrol. But cars, if tuned and built with com­po­nents that cope with its prop­er­ties, can run on up to 100 per cent ethanol. V8 Su­per­cars use 85 per cent blend for their rac­ing.

Ethanol is re­new­able en­ergy: it comes from plant stock such as sugar cane. But the world needs to be care­ful that such crops are not grown at the ex­pense of food – an­other is­sue the world has to face.

Ei­ther way, the mo­tor­ing fu­ture is here as soon as to­mor­row.

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