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Future fuels

  • 4-19-2012

Future fuels

The decline of the conventional petrol’s era has begun. We are living in an exciting, transition period, when we don’t know for sure which one of the several developments will take over the role of petrol. However, the solution has already started to crystallize...

Hopefully, nowadays, it is not necessary to emphasize that over time the petrol, the diesel fuel and the kerosene used in airplanes have to be replaced with bio fuels. Rising oil prices, growing energy needs of humanity and environmental impacts caused by fossil fuels create such a cause-effect relationship, which makes the usage of conventional fuels unsustainable in the long run.

Why bio fuels are ”bio”?

To find out why bio fuels are so favourable, it’s enough to think over for example the chemical process which happens when the worldwide most commonly used bioethanol is produced. What is happening in fact? When plants photosynthesize, they create sugar (glucose, fructose, starch, cellulose) from carbon dioxide of the air and from water of the soil using solar energy, while they release oxygen. If these sugars ferment, ethanol and carbon dioxide are released. If we burn ethanol, for example in the engine of a car, we get carbon dioxide, water, and oxygen, while thermal energy is produced.

Source: Edward M. Rubin

If we watch this process carefully, we may notice that the starting materials are identical with the final products, which means that during the whole process we could use the solar energy to run our car. Of course, reality is more complicated, but the theory is the same: overall, a bio-fuel-powered vehicle doesn’t put pressure on the environment.

However, it would be too nice, if the solution was so simple. Unfortunately, to produce a suitable amount of the mentioned bioethanol, the vegetable oil- or animal fat-based biodiesel and other similar “bio fuels”, it would be essential to grow loads of necessary plants. According to an assessment, if from all the corns produced in the USA bio fuels were prepared, only 12 percent of the US gasoline consumption could be replaced by them. On the other hand it could also be a problem that fuel supply may become an agricultural question, for example, if the weather is not good, there won’t be enough raw materials. Crop lands may “occupy” the land, where food plants are cultivated, threatening the world's food supply. For some time, the aim of the developments is to produce fuels from such agricultural crops, maybe sewage, or municipal waste, which don’t affect the food supply.

Water instead of exhaust fume

Hydrogen may take a very important role as a fuel. If we burn hydrogen in a fuel cell, we get electricity, heat, as well as water, which means that finally we can say goodbye to exhaust fumes. The challenge facing the developers is to keep the fuel cell system as small and as lightweight as possible for practical applications. BASF is now opening up new horizons, since such a membrane electrode was developed, which doesn't have to be moistened with water, it is enough to cool it down with air. Using the innovative Celtec® system, we don’t need air humidifiers, water pumps, tanks, valves and cleaning systems, which means that several components have become unnecessary, which reduces the size and cost of the fuel cell.

Watch our video about how a fuel cell works:

However, if we choose the hydrogen as the best solution, it should be produced using renewable energy, and its safe storage and transport should be also solved. It is not impossible, but if we want to refuel hydrogen at petrol stations, the entire infrastructure should be built again, which can be the most difficult part of the development.

The tried and tested electricity

In the energy strategy, the European Union approaches the question from the aspect of petrol stations as well, and essentially concludes that it will be the best, if we “fill up” our cars with electricity in the future. According to all of these facts, probably, the fuel of the future is likely to be electricity, although, its production will be based on a variety of renewable energy and bio-power plants. The result can easily be that all the current technology directions will be used, which don’t impact on the environment and are able to efficiently produce electricity.

Interesting facts

There are really extreme innovations about how to replace the petrol. For example, a Canadian company does experiments on how to produce energy from used baby nappies. The idea stands the test, since plastics and fibres can be converted to a mixture of gas, oil and coal. According to the company’s plan, 11 million litres of diesel oil could be produced from 180 million nappies in every year. The only question is that from where they will get so many nappies…

Another research group has built and tested a car that 30% runs with diesel oil converted from chocolate. Other interesting parts of the vehicle are the steering wheel made from carrots and the mudguards made from potatoes.

Engineers of the Swansea University work on a somewhat more futuristic solution. They developed a car paint, which absorbs solar energy and is able to produce electricity, which can also be used to run a car.

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