Honda FCX

What is a “Green” car?

ECOstrive – Green is more than just a color, today it has come to represent environmentally friendly technology. With so much talk of reducing emissions and lowering our dependence on foreign oil, it is hard to figure out which new automotive technology is the best. There are alternatives available now that can help us reduce our pollution and dependence on oil. This article will attempt to review the available technologies and help you determine which is best for you.

The Terms

Some of the problem with determining the best technology is that there are a lot of new terms. Terms like EV, Hybrid, Fuel Cell and more, serve to confuse the newcomer. Here is a short list of the most talked about terms and their meanings:

EV or PEV – This means Electric Vehicle, or Personal Electric Vehicle. This term describes vehicles that use electric motors as the drive mechanism for the vehicle. This electricity can be supplied from batteries, a combustion engine, or any other source on board the vehicle, or in, on, or above the roadway. The first crude electric carriage was built by Robert Anderson of Scotland between 1832 and 1839. Electric vehicles became quite popular in Europe, since they were smoother and quieter than other vehicles of the late 1800s. In fact, electric vehicles held the land speed record until around 1902. Henry Ford started mass producing automobiles with an internal combustion engine, and at half the price of electric vehicles, won the market. Today, companies like Zap and Tesla Motors are pushing the envelope for electric vehicles and have plans to introduce all electric sedans in the next couple of years.

Hybrid Vehicle – This is a much more confusing subject. The definition of a Hybrid Vehicle is one that uses two, or more distinct power or fuel sources. To give you an example of the range of the definition, an ancient Greek ship could be considered a hybrid vehicle, because it used sails and oars for propulsion. Bicycles with electric drive motors to assist are also hybrid vehicles. For the most part, when you hear the word “Hybrid” when referring to cars, they are talking about a Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV). These include the Toyota Prius and the Camry, as well as the Ford Escape Hybrid. Most of these use a small internal combustion engine combined with an electric motor to assist when more power is needed. The small batteries are recharged by the combustion engine and often a term called Regenerative Breaking, capturing the energy while slowing the vehicle. A new term is Plug-in Hybrid. This refers to vehicles that are driven strictly by an electric motor, and may have a gasoline or alternative fuel engine on board to assist in charging the batteries.

Alternative Fuel – The U.S. Department of Energy defines alternative fuels as fuels that are substantially nonpetroleum and yield energy security and environmental benefits. These include the following:

  • Mixtures containing 85% or more by volume of alcohol fuel, including methanol and denatured ethanol
  • Natural gas (compressed or liquefied)
  • Liquefied petroleum gas (propane)
  • Hydrogen
  • Coal-derived liquid fuels
  • Fuels derived from biological materials
  • Electricity (including electricity from solar energy)
  • 100% Biodiesel (B100)

The most talked about of these are Ethanol, Hydrogen, Electricity and Biodiesel. There are pros and cons to many of these, and I will try to highlight some of them here:

Ethanol – Ethanol is produced in the U.S. from food crops such as corn. It has a high energy cost to refine, and drives the cost of livestock feed and corn based products for humans out of the affordable range. Ethanol also, has a low yield per acre, currently at around 18 gallons per year. The U.S. gasoline consumption is around 384.7 million gallons/day1, we could not produce enough ethanol to significantly meet the demand. Most auto manufacturers have introduced “Dual Fuel”, or “Flex-Fuel” vehicles that can run on gasoline, or the E85 ethanol blend that consists of 85% ethanol and 15% unleaded gasoline. You cannot use E85 in a vehicle that has not been adapted to use this fuel, as ethanol can destroy hoses and seals that are not designed for it.

Hydrogen – Hydrogen is an abundant power source, but storage and distribution are major problems. Hydrogen can be used for internal combustion, but storing a sufficient amount of Hydrogen onboard the average car is not possible with current technology. Hydrogen can also be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity to drive the vehicle. This process has been in place for quite some time and is how the Space Shuttle gets most of its power. The fuel cell is still in the early stages of development as a mass production power source as is very expensive to produce and it is sensitive to temperature extremes. The fuel cell car could have multiple purposes, for example, if the power went off at your house, you could use your car to power your house. There is much more that will need to be done to bring this technology to the average consumer.

Electricity – Electricity is one of the most promising alternatives. It is available almost everywhere you would stop with your car. The most predominant drawback is storage. Batteries are just now becoming efficient enough to store the required energy to give people acceptable performance and ranges of around 200 – 300 miles per charge. Tesla Motors has the Tesla Roadster available now. ZAP is planning to release the ZAP-X crossover utility vehicle soon.

Biodiesel – Biodiesel is a domestic, renewable fuel for diesel engines derived from natural oils like soybean oil, and which meets the specifications of ASTM D 6751. There are many ways to get biodiesel, one of which is reported on this site, from algae. Algae can yield between 5,000 and 15,000 gallons of fuel per acre, per year. With these volumes, the U.S. could easily grow enough fuel to meet the entire demand. The issues include distribution, and getting the American public to take another look at diesel engines for passenger cars. The Europeans have taken a leadership role in diesel adoption.

So, now we have examined the terms. We are at a turning point with the options that are available to fuel our vehicles. You can play a major role in determining which technology becomes predominant by purchasing a vehicle that uses that technology, or contacting the auto manufacturers to let them know which type of vehicle you would buy if it were developed.

Let us know if you have purchased an alternative energy vehicle. We would love to hear your story.

1 Energy Information Administration – Department of Energy

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