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November 4, 2009

Will banana fuel your next car?

Livia Fama

Livia FamaThe advent of electric cars as major players in the early 1900's was short-lived; with the introduction of gasoline vehicles, a convenience was welcomed which is still enjoyed today, although in eco-conscious modern times, things are slowly but surely changing .

The hallmark of a productive society is to find easier and more efficient ways of doing things, but the Achilles heel in the case of gas and diesel fuels is that they are big polluters, and this is where the research and development for alternative car fuels comes into play.

Amongst the range of substitutes for standard fuels are hydrogen, ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, propane and natural gas.

Another alternative is the hybrid vehicle, which uses two power sources that work together to propel it.

Gasoline and diesel still have the market cornered, but hybrids offer a promising future.

Roydon Fraser, a professor in the mechanical and mechatronics department at the University of Waterloo who specializes in hybrid vehicle architecture, distinguishes between two categories of hybrids; heavy and mild.

In a mild hybrid, such as a Chevrolet Malibu, batteries are thrown in the electric motor, but "the engine is running all the time, so the battery is assisting with acceleration where efficiencies account, and it gives you regenerative braking,” he says. “In stop-and-go traffic, that is a big energy conserver.”

He notes the difference with a heavy hybrid like the Toyota Prius, which turns its engine off and runs solely on battery for some time before putting its engine on. When coming to a stop light, a heavy hybrid will actually turn its engine off.

According to a study by a leading auto industry market research firm, R.L. Polk and Company, hybrid car sales in North America will double in three years.

Polk predicts that by 2012, more than one in 20 new cars in Canada and the US will have a hybrid gas-electric powertrain. Polk estimates an upward sales jump for hybrids from 2.8 per cent in 2008 to 5.3 per cent in 2012.

Prior to these alternatives, Fraser notes that methanol (a liquid high-performance fuel) was the big hype in the ‘80s. It then gave way to natural gas in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, where in turn propane edged forth, followed by ethanol, then diesel returning in hybrid form.

When it comes to the best bet for the future, Fraser states, “Biodiesel and hydrogen is what it sort of is now, with ethanol still holding there and reformulated gasoline always being there --  there’s no one solution."

His work with alternative fuels includes work with UWAFT, the University of Waterloo’s Alternative Fuels Team, which he spearheaded and has been advising since 1996.

The student-run team is currently involved in the EcoCAR challenge, a proposal-based competition amongst 16 engineering programs across North America. The last competition they entered saw them pioneering innovation not only in being the sole Canadian team, but in using a dedicated hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

“I think the biggest benefit is that (hydrogen fuel cells) has zero emissions,” says team captain, Alexander Koch. “I really think it’s a clean solution that will come about -- you won’t be able to buy one tomorrow at the dealership, but maybe in the next 10 years is when I see a change coming,” he says.

Last year, GM started ‘Project Driveway’ which is the first mass-testing ground for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to use real drivers across New York City, Washington and California.

In Canada, the hydrogen fuel cell economy received a boost as British Columbia became the first in the world to welcome a fleet of 20 buses running on hydrogen fuel cells, a project that arose from a multimillion-dollar partnership between industry and government and that will make its debut in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics.

Koch argues that a switch to clean fuels must be contingent on education in order to extend their usage. "Besides cost, the biggest thing is awareness," he says. "Our team has a sort of outreach program, where we'll go out to communities and schools and have ride-and-drives (where people can learn about the vehicle)."

Fraser says there won't be a single fuel that wins out long-term, and he shortlists three candidates that are feasible frontrunners for 25-50 years out: biodiesel, ethanol and hydrogen, although he says we'll see biodiesel soon and ethanol is out there already.

"Hydrogen is the clean fuel from a smog perspective," he says. "It only puts out water so if all vehicles ran on hydrogen we'd have no smog contamination from vehicles." He's quick to point out that despite being touted as part of the visionary hydrogen economy to come, it is a gas, and has a disadvantage because it requires a large storage container which takes up a lot of space.

The controversy over ethanol is that it’s a food crop, which consequently impacts food cost. "There's always going to be a fight between how much ethanol you produce and what the costs of foods are and what the effects are on Canada, the US and developing countries," says Fraser.

He points out its advantage in being a liquid, which has a higher energy density than hydrogen. “It’s like gasoline – it’s a liquid, not quite as high in energy density, but more importantly and probably the main driver behind ethanol is energy security."

Biodiesel is a clean alternative to diesel fuel, and typically consists of 80 per cent diesel fuel and 20 per cent biodiesel, and like ethanol, is also a security issue, according to Fraser.

"For a solution that’s going to be smog free that is renewable energy related….in the ideal sense it’s going to be hydrogen," he says.

In the end, says Fraser, it’s all about the price, which suggests we’ll have gas and diesel for many years to come.

Livia Fama is a freelance writer based in Waterloo.

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