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Fueling your Car

EV Etiquette

I recently came across a news article about another publicity-related EV road trip in the USA, this time involving the US Energy Secretary. I won’t go into the full details of the road trip in this article (you can read it here ) but it seems as though Ms Granholm was guilty of some very, very bad manners.  Specifically, the people in this road trip convoy encountered the same problem as the CEO of Ford USA in his  Route 66 road trip, namely that there was a bit of a shortage of EV charging points. You may be scratching your head at this point, as you’ve probably seen a few of these stations cropping up all over the show – they seem to be in the carparks of every second big box store. However, you have to remember that although there seem like there are plenty of them and they’re easy to find, charging up takes a lot longer than filling up. If you come along to a petrol station and you find that all the bowsers are taken, you won’t have to wait more than a few minutes until one comes free and its your turn. However, in the case of an EV charging station, you’ll have to wait for the other person to finish charging (which could be more than half an hour) and then you’ve still got to charge your own vehicle. This can put a serious dent in your working day if you hadn’t planned for that extra time.

The very rude solution found by Granholm et al. was to send an ICE vehicle ahead of the convoy to park in the EV charging space to reserve it, and they got away with this, as that particular state didn’t have a law against ICE vehicles parking in EV charging spots.  However, it put quite a few backs up, especially for one family that came along with a grumpy baby in their EV really, really needing to juice up so they could run the air conditioning.  Not a good look at all.

Of course, this highlights a problem with the infrastructure that it’s beyond you or me to solve.  If governments are serious about encouraging the uptake of EVs, then they’re going to need to do something about charging stations (and capacity for electricity generation, but that’s another story).  Nevertheless, given that EVs are probably here to stay, what can you do to ensure that you don’t become one of those drivers who gives EVs a bad name? Here’s a list of my top tips:

  • Factor in the possibility of other people using the charger when you plan your trip and calculate the time needed. You may not be able to guarantee a spot at the DC fast charger.
  • If someone gets to the charger before you do, don’t throw a hissy fit.  They’ve got as much right to it as you do.  Definitely don’t do anything pushy, like sending someone ahead to stand (or park) in the spot you want, or start a fight (yes, this has actually happened).
  • Think of public charging points as emergency top-ups. It’s not like the situation with ICE vehicles where you can only fill up at the garage. So charge at home (and at work) as much as you can.  If you don’t have to use the public charger, don’t.
  • If you have to go slowly because you’re running out of charge and the nearest charging station is still a few kilometres down the road (what my ICE-driving brothers refer to as the Nissan Leaf Limp), don’t hold up traffic behind you. Pull over to the side and let them pass.
  • Never unplug someone else’s vehicle from the charger while its charging, even if that car is unattended. Some apps may allow you to unplug a fully charged car, but if you don’t know for certain, then don’t do it.
  • Don’t just park in the charging point, even if you are driving an EV. They are charging points, not EV-only car parks.
  • Some charging points have time limits. Respect these.
  • If you’ve left your car to charge while you do a spot of shopping, keep an eye on progress via the appropriate app on your phone.
  • Above all, remember that although you have an EV and you’re doing it to save the planet, this does not give you the right to be a jerk to people who drive ICEs (and they don’t have the right to be jerks to you, either).  Be proud of your choice, sure, but don’t look down on other people – they might not be able to afford an EV, or an EV might not suit their workplace, or they might be country bumpkins for whom EVs don’t really work. So be a good EV ambassador.

The Stanley Steamer

Now that electric cars are becoming more popular, and there’s talk about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, our attention has been turned to what’s powering our cars.  In this context, it’s interesting to one of the solutions used in the past as an alternative to petrol or diesel power: steam.

One of the inventors of the Stanley Steamer and his wife driving in his invention.

A good friend of mine, during a discussion on fuels, EVs and similar topics, wondered whether steam could be used to drive a car.  I was sceptical, but it turns out that I was wrong. A little over 100 years ago, steam-powered cars were indeed a thing.  They aren’t just a steampunk fantasy, as I had thought.

One of the most popular type of steam-powered cars was invented by the Stanley twins in the USA at the end of the 19th century. Bizarrely, F.E. and F.O. Stanley also invented one of the first photographic airbrushes, as they started their business ventures in the area of photography.  However, automobiles were a lot more interesting, and they started the Stanley Motor Company in 1902 after an earlier attempt with a company known as Locomobile. 

At that time, many internal combustion engines that ran on petrol or diesel needed a crank to start them up.  These cranks were tough to turn and required a fair bit of elbow grease.  They could even be dangerous, as if the car backfired while someone was cranking it, this could leave the person doing the cranking with a broken arm.  However, the Stanley Steamers used gasoline (petrol) to generate a good head of steam, which provided the power to turn the wheels, and they didn’t need cranking.  Stanley Steamers were designed with safety in mind, as they had a system in place to prevent the boiler from exploding if too much heat and pressure was generated.

For its time, the Stanley Steamer had some fairly impressive specs.  It was a rear wheel drive affair, and didn’t require a transmission or clutch system, meaning that they were easier to drive.  The power output varied depending on the engine type.  The basic model (the compact engine) could deliver 7.5 kW.  Two twin-cylinder engines were developed, the smaller one (3¼-inch bore and 4¼-inch stroke) also put out 7.5 kW, but the larger one (4-inch bore and 5-inch stroke) delivered a massive 15 kW.

For its time, the Stanley Steamer was quite fast.  In fact, a customised version of the Stanley Steamer known as the Stanley Rocket Racer became the holder of the world land speed record for automobiles over a mile, clocking up 204 km/h in a trial at Daytona.  This record stood for five years, and remained the best time over a mile for a steam-powered car until 2009.

As time went by, the Stanley twins refined their design, switching to lightweight aluminium bodywork and features such as condensers that harvested the steam so that the range of the water tank could be extended. 

However, the makers of cars with internal combustion engines managed to find an alternative to the crank: the electric starter motor. This meant that the drawbacks of cranks were no longer, and the Stanley Steamer lost its biggest attraction, especially with the rise of cars produced via mass production and sold cheaply, Ford being the best known example of these.  The Model T cost less than a quarter of the price of the Stanley Steamer and the engine of even the base model, which ran on petrol, kerosene or ethanol (now, that’s an idea worth revisiting), had the same power output as the best of the “Flying Teapots”, as the Steamers were known.

Given the stiff competition from the internal combustion engines inside the Model T and similar vehicles, things didn’t look good for the Stanley Steamer. Eventually, after one of the twins died (in a car crash, of all things), the company went under, ultimately closing in 1924.

The Stanley Steamer wasn’t the only steam-powered car in existence.  Others have been made and sold, especially the Doble, and the idea has come back now and again over the past century or so, especially given concerns over pollution and the availability of fuel.  Saab had a go at making a steam car in the 1970s during the fuel crisis of that decade (the project failed, unfortunately).  An Australian inventor and enthusiast named Ted Pritchard tried to develop one in the 1960s and beyond and had some success.  Until he died in the early 2000s, he was pushing for the use of steam-powered cars. 

External combustion engines (which is what a steam engine is) aren’t as efficient as ICEs but they produce a lot less pollution, as they don’t burn as much fuel.  They are heavy, thanks to the need for a strong boiler and a water tank.  They can accelerate quickly once they’ve got a good head of steam up, but they do need a fair bit of time to boil and let the pressure build; this is one of the things that experimenters wanting to bring back the steam car try to work on.

And what about the future?  Given the push towards vehicles that are less dependent on petrol and diesel, will we see attempts to make the steam car come back again?  Electric cars have made a comeback (and how!), so perhaps steam will do the same. 

What Is Synthetic Fuel?

You’ve probably heard that the way that the oil and gas fields that produce the petrol and diesel we put in our internal combustion engine (ICE) cars were once ancient forests that were somehow buried and transformed into the form they are in today.  You may have wondered whether it would be able to make something chemically identical to crude oil or refined oil in the lab, given that we know the chemical formula for petrol and diesel.

Well, you aren’t alone in wondering whether that could be possible. The truth is that it is possible to make petrol and diesel artificially in the lab without taking the aeons of time involved in fossil fuels.  The result is called synthetic fuel or synfuel.

Synthetic fuel differs from biofuels such as ethanol because it is designed to be completely chemically identical to ordinary bog-standard fossil fuel petrol.  This means that it can be used as is in a car with an unmodified internal combustion engine without being blended, which is what happens with biofuels (you know – E10 is 10% ethanol and 90% fossil fuel petrol).

Synthetic fuel is nothing new. In fact, the idea of making petrol for cars (and planes) from something else was tried successfully back in 1930s Germany, except that they used coal as their starting feedstock.  This was one reason why the German army was such a threat during World War 2: they could manufacture their own synfuel out of coal, which they had, rather than relying on oil wells overseas and the associated supply chain.  However, this method is unlikely to be used these days, as coal is still a type of fossil fuel and wouldn’t suit the purposes.  

The process of making synthetic fuel or synfuel starts with the very common gas hydrogen. The hydrogen is then combined with carbon (carbon monoxide) to make syngas (chemically identical to natural gas but made artificially). This is where the exciting part of synfuel comes in, as the process can either take the carbon from some source or it can even capture the carbon out of the atmosphere. This means that when the synfuel is used in an internal combustion engine, the carbon is just going back into the atmosphere where it originally came from rather than adding new carbon. (OK, you could argue, like one of my relatives does, that what’s in fossil fuels was originally in the atmosphere when that ancient forest was green and growing, but that’s another topic and another debate altogether that I won’t get into here.) Anyway, syngas is made up of hydrogen and carbon molecules (it’s a hydrocarbon, as opposed to a carbohydrate) and can be messed about with to make different types of fuel, including petrol.

The three main ways of producing synfuel are biomass to liquid, power (or electricity) to liquid and sun to liquid.

The biomass to liquid process uses organic matter as a feedstock, which provides the hydrogen and the carbon. This organic matter doesn’t have to be an oil-producing crop, which is what happens with some types of biofuel.  Instead, agricultural waste matter can be used as a feedstock, as can domestic waste. In fact, if the idea of synfuel catches on and becomes more widespread, they’ll be able to use what’s in the landfills and what we chuck out. This avoids the problem of deciding whether good crop-producing agricultural land should go to producing an oil crop to power internal combustion engines or to producing food. This type of synfuel can be referred to as biofuel, although “biofuel” is a confusing term that covers ethanol as well as biodiesel, so it’s best avoided.

Power to liquid production produces the type of syngas known as e-fuel. In this process, electricity (which can be generated by renewable means, such as wind or solar) splits a water molecule to get hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen is then combined with carbon from the atmosphere. The main byproduct is oxygen, and if the process can use renewable sources of energy, then it’s as close to carbon neutral as petrol can be.

Sun to liquid production is less common. In this process, a reactor catches the heat energy of the sun (not photovoltaic energy or solar power) and uses that energy to convert water and CO2 into syngas.

I think it’s highly likely that synthetic fuel is going to become more common, as a lot of us know that ICE vehicles suit our lifestyles and needs best (tradies, for example), who can’t afford to take large chunks out of their working days to recharge, travel a lot and need something that will take all the gear needed for their work.  This is because Formula 1 racing is planning to use it to power all its ICE racing cars, hopefully by 2026.  We’ve seen a lot of technology that started off in the racing world making its way over to general use, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.  In addition, Porsche has bankrolled a synthetic fuel plant in Chile that uses wind power and the power-to-liquid method.  This opened at the end of last year (2022) with plans to produce 11,000 barrels of synfuel this year.

Given that Australia has a lot of sunshine and the potential for using it for either the sun-to-liquid or the power-to-liquid process (with the help of solar panels), it’s not surprising that they’re setting up a plant in Tasmania (funded by Porsche again), which is due to kick into action in 2026.  Watch this space!

How Much is Too Much for EV Driving Range?

How long should an EV be able to travel on a full battery?  ‘Neue Klasse’, from BMW, suggests that 1000 kilometres is about right.  BMW’s New Class of vehicles are not far off the runway now, said to be arriving in 2025.  And they are going to be the first BMWs-ever that have been designed from the ground up to be specifically all-electric, EV through-and-through.

That does raise an interesting question: How far should we expect our brand spanking new EVs to go on a full charge (a full tank of electrons instead of a full tank of gas)?  Should we be able to drive from Sydney to Melbourne (877 km), Sydney to Adelaide (1374 km), Sydney to Cairns (2430 km), Sydney to Perth (3932 km), or just Sydney to Wollongong and back (about 175 km) on a full battery?

Most of us are probably sick of driving non-stop after 6–8 hours max in a day.  So, say most of that was done at 100 km/h, then 100 × 8 hours would get you to 800 kilometres before you’d be needing a proper cup of coffee in a proper coffee cup!  It would be then you’d want a rest and a sleep, right?

Perhaps Neue Klasse has got it bang on then.  1000 km would cover an all day blast up the coast from Sydney to Brisbane, which is approximately a total of 911 kilometres via the coastal route.  Get to the end of that journey, and you could pull up at a mate’s place for tea, or a motel, and plug in your EV overnight ready for the long drive back home.

According to Thomas Albrecht (BMW’s head of Efficient Dynamics), in 2025, New Class EV BMWs are set to have “thirty-percent or more” range than what’s currently available now.  That means that the brand-new BMW EV platform with lots of fresh pieces of technology, including 46 mm cylindrical battery cells, should push the Generation 6 batteries out to around 1000 km before they run out of electron juice.  Even though BMW could go further than this 1000 kilometre range, Albrecht suggested that this would be the maximum that BMW will offer because they don’t think that such a long range is necessary.

BMW will debut the new Generation 6 batteries in the 2025 BMW 3 Series EV.  How much do you think we should be able to get out of the battery packs in any new EV bought in 2025–2030?  I’d be interested to know – remembering that battery tech and recharging times will likely have vastly improved by then.