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Fossil Fuel, EVs or Bio Fuels?

Fossil Fuels

Is petroleum diesel still a fuel that is going to be around to power our cars in the future?  On the surface, it might look like the era of the diesel engine might be drawing to a close, especially when we hear that some manufacturers are pulling the pin on building new diesel engines.  The truth is that non-renewable resources, which include fossil fuels such as oil, coal, petroleum and natural gas, are all finite in their quantity available in nature for the future.  Diesel fuel is a petroleum product, and so is considered to be a finite non-renewable resource.  Certainly it would seem that petroleum-based diesel has a limited window of opportunity for powering motor vehicles around the globe.  But is this actually the case?

Added to the seemingly limited supply of our fossil fuels, we also hear that some car manufacturers are deciding to avoid building new diesel engines all together.  Volvo was one of the first to announce boldly that by 2019 there would be no more diesel powered Volvo cars and SUVs in their line-up.  Volkswagen Group’s diesel emissions cheating scandal has meant that they have decided to stop selling diesel models, as well.  Volkswagen Group is pretty big when you consider that VW, Audi and Porsche are all under the same banner.

Because our global economy relies on so many diesel engines for performing many mechanical tasks we can’t drive the world’s diesel fleet over the cliff and forget about them just yet.  The reality is that even America’s economy would grind to a halt immediately if they decided to go without diesel power overnight.  Diesel engines are used in so many commercial applications – trucking, construction, shipping, farming, buses and much, much more.  Diesel motors are still far more energy frugal (assuming proper and legal emissions treatment is followed) compared with gasoline equivalents.  For any sort of heavy-duty transportation work or for towing purposes, the low-end torque of a diesel engine simply cannot be matched by gasoline motors which have to be worked much harder for the same amount of work – and therefore pump out more emissions.

EVs

EVs are getting plenty of press at the moment, but in reality they have a very long way to go before they can truly be considered as a true logistical alternative to the diesel motor.  There just simply isn’t the network in place to produce so many EVs nor power so many EVs for our global economy to continue growing at the pace it is.

Biofuels

What I haven’t heard so much of lately is the advancements made in biofuels.  Biofuels seem to me to be the much more sensible replacement option for petroleum diesel, as biodiesel fuels are a renewable resource.  Biofuels are derived from biological materials such as food crops, crop residues, forest residues, animal wastes, and landfills.  Major biofuels are biodiesel, ethanol, and methane; and biofuels, by their very nature, are renewable over a period of less than one year for those based on crop rotation, crop residues, and animal wastes or about 35 years for those based on forest residues.

Emissions from burning biodiesel in a conventional diesel engine have significantly lower levels of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, sulphur oxides, odour, and noxious “smoke” compared to emissions from the conventional petroleum diesel motor that we are more familiar with.  Also, carbon dioxide emissions from combustion of biodiesel are reduced by about 10% when compared to petroleum diesel, but there is a more significant carbon dioxide benefit with biodiesel made from plant oils.  During the photosynthesis process, as the plants are growing and developing, carbon dioxide is drawn from the environment into the plant, while the plants release beneficial oxygen into the environment.

How are EV batteries made?  Are they as clean as renewable biofuels?  If EVs are running on electricity produced by burning dirty fossil fuels, the climate benefits are limited.  Because of the complex batteries that EVs use, it currently takes more energy to produce an electric car than a conventional one.  While fewer emissions are produced by the cars themselves while driving on the streets, CO2 is still being emitted by power plants needed to charge the EVs.  And, disposing of those complex EV batteries creates an environmental hazard in itself.  EV batteries also need to be made from non-renewable minerals such as copper and cobalt, and rare earths like neodymium.

Some other negatives for EVs are that the mining activities for the minerals in countries like China or the Democratic Republic of Congo often cause human rights violations and vast ecological devastation which include: deforestation, polluted rivers and contaminated soil.  Not so great!  And, in addition, many automakers use aluminium to build the bodies of EVs, and a tremendous amount of energy is required to process bauxite ore into the lightweight metal.

Trucks, ships and tractors still think diesel power rules!  Even though some car manufacturers have abandoned petroleum diesel fuelled cars, there are other automotive manufacturers that have actually ramped up their diesel vehicle production.  General Motors, Jaguar, Land Rover, BMW, Mazda, Kia, Jeep, Ford, Nissan and Chevrolet are all manufacturing plenty of new diesel motors.

Hmmm?!  Biofuels then?

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