Three fuel alternatives that will decide the future of Australian transport and travel
The demand for cleaner fuel has been steadily growing across the world, and new alternative fuels, those derived from sources other than petroleum, are emerging that will reduce carbon emissions from natural gas, coal, and other fossil fuels, and help us reach the global goal of net zero emissions that were laid out in the Paris Agreement.
While Australia has been a little slow on the uptake of low-carbon and electric vehicles, these net-zero goals and the ever-increasing costs of petrol means electronic vehicle use is set to boom, but alternative fuels don’t begin and end with a power socket.
Not that electric powered vehicles aren’t a good option. Quiet and smooth to drive, they're one of the greenest choices easily available to consumers and industry. The lithium-ion rechargeable batteries powering electric vehicles are extremely efficient at powering engines and have zero tailpipe emissions. Though the current upfront cost has been a deterrent, electric vehicles are steadily increasing in popularity in Australia due to increased awareness, availability, and the significant savings in running costs, with fuel savings of up to 70 per cent as well as reduced maintenance costs.
Hybrid electric vehicles that combine a conventional internal combustion engine system with an electric propulsion system are another alternative and while they don’t have quite the same green cred as their all-electric cousins, the resulting reduction in petrol consumption has a far better environmental impact than full petrol- or diesel-powered vehicles.
Biofuels, derived from biomass: plant, algae or animal waste, are another alternative solution gaining momentum. Hardly new to motoring, biofuels go way back. In 1896 Henry Ford's first vehicle, the quadricycle, ran on alcohol, and Rudolf Diesel's first engine was run on peanut oil. King Charles III has been famously running his vintage Aston Martin DB6 sports car on surplus white wine and whey from cheese since 2008. Even the aviation industry, one of the world’s biggest emitters of carbon, is in, and several airlines have been testing flights powered with biofuel.
The two most common varieties are ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is an alcohol product, mostly derived from sugarcane and corn, and is generally used as a biofuel additive for gasoline, meaning it still produces significant levels of air pollution. Biodiesel, on the other hand, is derived from natural vegetable oils, used cooking oils, or animal fats and has the potential to replace petroleum-based diesel fuel in compression-ignition engine vehicles. Biodiesel also releases less air pollutants per net energy gain than ethanol. Diesel vehicles, whether classified as biodiesel or conventional diesel, use the same internal combustion engine and components and can run on biodiesel blends of up to B5 without modification but pure biodiesel and blends containing more than 20 per cent biodiesel, generally require modifications to run effectively and to escape voiding warranties.
While reducing reliance on non-renewable oil, both varieties of biofuel still result in some negative impacts on the environment given the large swaths of land required for crops, which compete with food crops for land use and can cause an unsustainable increase in food prices, which has a negative impact on consumers in developing countries.
Hydrogen is the smallest and most abundant element in the universe and is shaping up to be Australia’s answer to clean fuel and a solution many consider to be one of the best for the long-term. Not only does hydrogen provide an inherently clean non-polluting source of energy that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces no harmful emissions, only water vapour, and doesn't require large areas of land to produce. It is a zero-carbon, flexible, safe and fast charging alternative for generating electricity that can power cars, trucks, buses, and trains.
The good news is that the Australian Government is investing $1.4 billion into furthering the hydrogen industry. The bad news? While a couple of hydrogen fuelled cars have appeared on the market, it’s still early days as the fuel cell refuelling infrastructure isn’t in place to support them.
It’s also important to acknowledge that not all hydrogen is created equal. Green hydrogen is produced using renewable energy through channelling an electric current through water. But hydrogen produced using coal or gas exacerbates the effects of climate change through the release of carbon dioxide, one of the major causes of global warming.
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