Green Update–>There’s No Fuel Like an Old Fuel, or Is There?

March 29th, 2011
Mercedes-Benz F-Cell concept

Mercedes-Benz F-Cell Roadster Concept

We talk a lot about hybrids and EVs when discussing the Great Green Future, but we should really be talking about alternative fuels. The future of the automobile will depend on what powers it.

In a prior post today, our tgriffith remains skeptical about the proposed EU ban on fossil fuels in city cars by 2050. He mentions that batteries “aren’t exactly grown in greenhouses.” True enough, but every green solution involves a tradeoff, and air pollution is the big concern.

I think the EU ban is doomed for political reasons. Hybrid/EV technology faces innumerable problems, not least of which is public acceptance. And nobody can seem to agree on what government’s role should be.

Setting aside fossil fuels, what is there that can go in a car’s tank that’s relatively clean and efficient? If electricity is to be the ultimate power source, what will generate that power?

The best fuel of course is hydrogen. In a fuel cell, it produces no tailpipe emissions, is cheap, abundant, easy to refuel, compatible with most internal combustion engines, and more than twice as efficient. But yes, it’s extracted using fossil fuel.

The big problem is infrastructure and refueling stations, but the technology is mature. Mercedes-Benz is betting on it in a big way, building a fuel-cell plant in B.C., Canada, and sending its F-Cell cars on an around-the-world tour. Company trainees have built the wonderfully retro concept car at the top of this story.

So far, the only real alternatives to gas and diesel are biofuels, CNG (compressed natural gas), and LPG (liquefied petroleum gas). Last fall, GM announced an expensive factory CNG package for its Chevy Express and GMC Savana commercial vans. AT&T just ordered 101 of them, at around $42K MSRP, and we assume its motives aren’t purely altruistic.

In Germany, the introduction of 10-percent (E10) biofuel has caused a big flap, similar to what E15 is causing here. We hear the same arguments: Corn should be used for food production, engine damage is possible, and the energy required to produce it makes ethanol really a non-sustainable product.

So, folks, for all its heavy transformative cost, it does appear that hydrogen is the best long-term prospect for a clean fuel. I’d rather bet with Benz than with the naysayers.

How long do you think it will take for hydrogen cars to be produced in viable numbers?

—jgoods

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