Fuel: from what?
From a bird's-eye view it seems as if in the last few years the car industry has eventually made a progress towards electric vehicles. You are either happy about that or not, you can believe in it, but you don't have to - one thing is for sure: there are a bunch of alternatives. Petrol, diesel and gas can be produced from many things, and some of those seem to be greener than driving on electrons.
Since electric vehicles have started to sell in visible numbers, more and more people are having thoughts about whether the whole hype makes sense or not. Is it good for us, or is it only the professional propaganda that makes us believe that EVs are the bright future? Some calculate how much CO2-emissions are caused by the power plants to produce enough electricity, others compose a lifecycle analysis which reveals that the EV beats its competitors with its efficiency during the usage phase. However, the disposal or recycling of the batteries is still a grey area.
Most of the time we can conclude that the EV is good compared to burning fossil fuels, but by far not a perfect solution. Today, a car will sell in great numbers if it's trendy, and environmental awareness is a hugely fashionable trend in more developed countries, so the car industry put thick green paint on its EVs. We'll find out in a few years or decades if it was a wise move or not, but today there's no solution in sight for the biggest problem: range.
The beginnings of the electric vehicle around the 1900's are often mentioned, especially the Lohner-Porsche, an all-electric four-wheel drive car. The funny thing is, after more than a hundred years, we're still fighting the same problems: the EV is too expensive and doesn't go far enough. The difference is that marketing science has made a huge leap forward and now they can sell it to special clients.
It might well be that we didn't have to give up the freedom of motoring. If we consider CO2-emissions as the dark side of mobility, we should simply produce fuels from materials other than the residuals of the dinosaur age. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, this is not that simple, since it's still much cheaper to distil petrol and diesel from mineral oil, although some voices have been telling us for the last 30 years that we' would run out of it in 40 years. Normally, the net costs of the production of alternative fuels match the price of normal fuel including all taxes, and there's a lot of tax on fuel in European countries. In addition, alternative fuels are subsidised in many regions, and they have grown into a huge business. They have qite a powerful lobby in Europe, and many people depend on them.
At the very beginning, even Rudolf Diesel was experimenting with peanut oil, and – even though historians deny that his first engine was running on it - at the Paris World Fair in 1900 his invention was presented with vegetable oil. Of course, peanut oil was too expensive, so the widespread use of the diesel engine began with petrodiesel, which we still get at the fuel station. On the other hand, it's a matter of common knowledge that diesel engines can be converted to run on many sorts of fuel, depending on their technology, which could be an advantage if there was a turn towards alternative fuels.
Also spark-ignition engines, more commonly known as petrol engines, weren't as picky with fuels at the beginning of the 20th century as they are today. During war times, they were even fed with wood gas generators –a kind of biofuel, as a matter of fact. Alcohol fuel was born quite early, too: already in the 20's and 30's fuel tanks were filled up with ethanol or methanol, although in those days self-sufficiency was more important than ecology.
There have been two obstacles in the way of alternative fuels in the last few decades. First: governments didn't like the idea of filling odd liquids into the fuel tanks of cars without the citizens paying tax, except if they were part of the supply chain. Secondly, with the development of technology, engines put more and more demand on fuels: the petrol or diesel you put into your modern car has to comply with exact standards, otherwise something will break down.
In the last few years, things have changed a bit in Europe. Since the production of so-called biofuels is good business, the standards became surprisingly looser. Biodiesel and ethanol are both more aggressive than mineral oil distillates and so they can cause tricky problems with some vehicles, and the second one even absorbs water. Nevertheless, they have to be blended into the fuel you get at the station in Europe.
Biodiesel and bioethanol sound damn good, since everything that's bio is healthy, eco-friendly and worth paying more for. That's why distributors like these expressions. But try to mention bio-anything to an agronomist and he'll have a nervous breakdown. Likewise, educated protectors of the planet can become quite angry if you use the term biofuel.
It's difficult to judge which group of people holds the ultimate truth, but it's quite safe to say that fuel made from plants is not necessarily bio. There has never been an argument as hot as today's about the pros and cons of alternative fuels. Whether they are good for us or not is an extremely difficult question, I'd prefer not to choose either side.
Regarding the term, some prefer agrofuel which doesn't mislead the less educated, but I'll stick to biodiesel and ethanol, which are well-known expressions – sorry.
Today, in 2014, the production of so-called first-generation biofuels is running full-scale in Europe after a short-lived trial and error experiment with pure biodiesel and E85. Let's have a look at what they are made of. I have to warn you, it's hard to find credible sources of information, since there are different statistics depending on what truth someone wants to prove, so I can't guarantee the correctness of the data.
Biodiesel – which is very similar to normal diesel fuel, but made of plants – can be produced from various base materials. Today in Europe, oil pressed from rapeseed and sunflower seed is the most common, but the industry also starts to use used cooking oil –basically the same material, just used once already. That's the reason for collecting the vegetable oil for example at petrol stations in Hungary - it's already a valuable resource.
It's no black magic to press the oil out of the seeds, and many people know that this golden liquid can be burnt in older diesel engines without any processing, especially if it had been converted in one way or another. Regarding CO2-emissions, this is the most preferable alternative, since it's from local production with a minimum of transport and almost zero energy need for processing. The only trouble is, it doesn't meet any automotive standards, so if it's burnt in diesel engines, the quality of the exhaust gases (and the smell) can't be guaranteed. And the authorities don't like it, either.
Therefore, the thick rapeseed or sunflower oil – used or unused - is delivered to plants, where they clean it and extract 10-20% glycerine with quite complicated methods. This by-product is becoming more and more a problem as large quantities are produced of it nowdays. After some further processing, they eventually get the biodiesel, which is not unlike diesel fuel, just a bit more aggressive: it can harm painted parts of your car, for example. Anyway, it can be put into the fuel tanks of compatible vehicles in pure form, or blended into normal diesel. Then, it only has to be delivered to fuel stations, and you can put it into your car. Today, in the diesel fuel you get at petrol stations across Europe, you'll find about 5% biodiesel - the numbers can vary from country to country and depending on the source of information.
If you take a look at international prices, palm oil from overseas (from the European point of view) is much cheaper than rapeseed or sunflower oil, and probably even less expensive than collecting used cooking oil. Therefore it seems only logical that biodiesel plants produce fuel out of palm oil, too - if you believe Greenpeace, that is. In order to grow oil palms, people of poor countries like Indonesia burn down huge swathes of forest, which is not a very kind thing to the environment. Therefore, palm oil is considered quite harmful, not only because of the long-distance shipping. If only half of the accusations are true, biodiesel is in no way good for our environment.
The other widespread fuel made out of plants is ethanol. Bio or not, decide for yourself. It's made out of sugar or starch contained in certain plants: in Brazil they have been using sugarcane ethanol for decades, in the USA they are already experimenting with wheat based ethanol, while in Europe sugar-beet or corn is the basis for the same thing. Regarding the energy balance, distillation is the most critical production process which consumes about the same amount of energy – usually gas, which is fossil fuel - as the ethanol contains at the end of the day. Add the energy used by the farm equipment, consider the fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation, plus think about the transport, fermentation and drying, and you'll see, the ethanol blended into petrol is not very green. Some say, it's worse than using fossil fuels.
However, these are not the sole accusations against first-generation biofuels – they also have a negative effect on the price of food and livestock farming. The biofuel-lobby might say that there's more than enough farmland available in Europe for food, so fuel corn doesn't take the land from bread wheat, but a rise in the blending percentage could change this. If you wanted to substitute the diesel fuel used in Hungary with biodiesel, you'd have to plant rape over the whole country, probably even on the balconies. And there would be nothing left for the corn needed to produce ethanol...
Plus there's another effect you have to consider. If you were a baker and you could sell rolls to good customers in almost infinite quantities with a higher profit than bread, what would you do? Stop producing bread, or raise its price. You can assume that farmers think in the same way, so they won't be foolish enough to grow potatoes for absurdly low prices dictated by the supermarkets instead of fuel corn and rape.
When the official terminology mentions second-generation biofuels that means more or less everything that's less or not harmful to the environment – at least according to what we know today. There are several kinds of them, and if we could fill up the tank of our V8 with this kind of fuel, we'd be probably greener than an EV. But most of these truly eco-friendly technologies are still in the experimental phase, there are only a few pilot projects.
My favourite research area is algae. There are types of this green stuff, which contain up to 50% oil that only needs to be squeezed out and can be used or processed like vegetable oil. Growing them at an industrial scale is a challenge, but there are remarkable concepts. One, for example, is circulating the green stuff in plastic tubes under sunlight or artificial illumination, another would be open ponds, but the most innovative solution is to put the algae production onto sewage plants, where some species could even use wastewater as nutrition.
The algae story sounds almost too good to be true. It doesn't need farmland, just some industrial space; yields should be higher than with any plant, and it only requires sunlight and a warm climate, which is preferable for every creature. In regions with adequate climate, an algae plant could be run with a minimum of energy consumption.
Another possible plant for biodiesel-production is the Jathropa plant, which is not only interesting for the fact that it has a very high yield per acre, but it's also very frugal - it grows even in half-deserted areas. In many African countries, Jathropa plantations could mean not only self-sufficiency, but also some considerable income. Some initiatives in little villages are known, where generators are running on Jathropa oil, but for some reason Jathropa hasn't become widespread.
If biodiesel is not enough, there are also great concepts for bioethanol. Not only sugar and starch, but also cellulose can be converted into petrol - cellulose means, for example straw or wood chips. Here, the hot question is efficiency again, but if you consider it as recycling of waste material, it could be quite an interesting idea. After many years of R&D the first cellulosic ethanol plants are being built right now, but the energy demand of the process is about the same as for normal ethanol.
For spark-ignition engines, biogas is much more promising. It's quite similar to the possibly cleanest fuel of our age: natural gas. CNG, compressed natural gas shouldn't be mixed up with LPG, liquefied petroleum gas which can be stored in a liquid state and is commonly used in cars under the term autogas. High-pressure CNG tanks can be filled with industrial compressors, since the pressure is very high, 3-4000 psi or 200-300 bar, but the natural gas stays in a gaseous state.
Natural gas will be easily available for much longer than mineral oil, it's easy to produce and can be burnt in petrol engines without energy-consuming processing with less harmful emissions. Among fossil fuels, CNG is king. The only complication is the high-pressure tank in the car which needs some space and attention. The infrastructure can be built at a reasonable expense, since you only need a compressor where natural gas is available. There are several mass-produced CNG cars and buses, but for some reason they are not very popular.
Biogas can be produced in anaerobic reactors even from manure, but almost any organic waste is good for the process. Landfill gas is also a kind of biogas, and if it gets into the atmosphere, it has a very high global-warming potential. Therefore it makes sense to collect and burn it in cars and buses.
Another interesting concept for biogas production is methanation. Here we're talking about a process which takes hydrogen - derived from water via electrolysis - and adds CO2 in a clever way to get methane at the end. Methane can be used in exactly the same way as natural gas. At first glance it doesn't seem logical to conduct extremely energy-consuming hydrolysis plus pour quite expensive CO2 into the hydrogen, but the way we produce and use electricity today can make it sensible, as a by-product, so to say.
Hydrolysis and methanation - two processes demanding a lot of electric power – can be conducted during periods when the energy of wind turbines can't be used. There are several hours like this during a normal day: in certain periods at night one can get electricity almost for free in the distributive network. That's one of the reasons why the emission values calculated for EVs are false - normally they are being charged at night, when there's more electricity available than needed.
Why are they developing so many EVs then?
Good question. Against city smog, EVs are the best weapon, that's clear. Even if we burnt pure regenerative fuel in our internal combustion engines, and the accumulated CO2-emissions were zero, nitrogen oxides, unburned hydrocarbons, CO and particles would still be present at the end of the exhaust pipe. Immaculate EU6 (8 or 10) engines can reduce those emissions quite effectively, but still.
On the other hand, electric mobility won't be able to substitute internal combustion engines in the near future. So it would really make sense to reduce the CO2-emissions with the help of alternative fuels rather than with questionable grams per kilometre limits. I can only hope the idea of true biofuels will spread quickly, and people will put money and effort into technologies which are really CO2-neutral.
I have the impression that – provided that there's the will – today's technology could make it possible for all of us to drive around with acceptable pollution. But until petrol engines run on biogas, diesels on algae oil and city runarounds on electricity, the most efficient way of saving the environment is simply driving less.