The automotive industry has relied heavily on fossil fuels as the most utilised means of powering engines since inception. This reliance on fuel sources that are mostly not renewable is something that the entire world is accepting as detrimental to the environment. Taking stock of the amount of pollution caused by the entire automotive sector, stakeholders have been strongly working towards the development and adoption of non-conventional, advanced fuels.
While new-age vehicle fuels are from sustainable sources, these fuels are also cleaner, and can help cut down on the overall emission levels. Most of these alternative fuels burn and break down into non-harmful, environmentally-friendly elements. There are several alternative fuels that are at various stages of research and development across the globe, and each has their own challenges for adoption in current times.
Apart from petrol and diesel, the automotive industry has for a few decades banked on fuelling vehicles through compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and biofuels. Apart from these prominent alternative fuels, others bearing high importance in more recent times are electricity, hydrogen and solar power. Each of these fuels has a different working methodology and has their own advantages and challenges.
CNG and LPG are usually considered close competitors, since they are similar in composition, and offer similar results. The main advantages that these two fuels provide are in terms of fuel cost, operation costs and CO2 emissions savings. Both CNG and LPG powertrain systems are cheaper and more eco-friendly in cars than diesel or petrol systems and can work along with the petrol powertrains in cars, and can be switched back and forth seamlessly while driving. While a number of vehicle OEMs have been offering CNG systems in their vehicles, LPG systems mostly come as retrofit solutions. Similarly, biofuels are usually used in diesel engine-powered vehicles, which can also run on certain blends of biofuels without any alteration requirements.
Electricity, hydrogen and solar power move in the same direction, which is towards electromobility. This is the case since apart from various types of electric vehicles (EV) – hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery EV, hydrogen-powered vehicles, as well as solar power-fed vehicles also power an electric motor. EVs have a motor that can be powered either by charging batteries, or in the case of hybrids by the internal combustion engine itself.
This is a fast-growing technology in the automotive sector globally, since there is zero discharge of any form of emissions from EVs. Having said that, it is important to know the source of electricity used to power EVs. If the source of electricity is from wind farms or hydroelectric then the entire cycle is clean. However, electricity produced from coal-powered plants or nuclear reactors have a carbon footprint in terms of their generation. Overall, electricity is considered a much cleaner source of fuel for vehicles than any other form of largely-available fuel source.
Hydrogen too is a cleaner form of fuel for the automotive industry. The electric motor in a vehicle is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, in contrast to a battery, which converts chemical energy into mechanical energy with the introduction of oxygen. Hydrogen can also be burnt in an internal combustion engine to act as a fuel source to drive the vehicle. One of the only products emitted out of a hydrogen-powered vehicle is water, making it a cleaner form of transportation. The major drawback of hydrogen as a fuel source is that its production leads to high levels of carbon emissions.
While there are numerous concepts for alternative fuels to power vehicles, the ones listed above are the most common and viable. The main challenge affecting the adoption of all alternative fuels is in establishing infrastructure to support the expansion of these fuels. CNG and LPG, having been around the longest have a fairly decent network of fuelling stations; however, they are limited to certain regions of the country.
There has been an increased rate in the establishment of infrastructure for electric mobility, with charging stations gaining importance over the last few years. India, with its legislative push towards electrification of the automotive industry is witnessing more traction from all quarters of the industry for the development and setting up of charging infrastructure. Government grants and subsidies towards increased electrification are driving most of this development work in the area of automotive electrification, which is set to become the future of the automotive industry.
There is a growing need for the automotive industry to move from fossil fuels towards alternative options to enable cleaner operations of vehicles on the road. Stringent regulations to cut down on the level of emissions from the automotive industry across the globe are leading OEMs and suppliers to develop alternative forms of propulsion to address these legislations. While a mix of alternative fuels may be adopted to enable a cleaner and efficient automotive future, it seems that electrification of the powertrain is the inevitable future that the industry will come to. However, the level of powertrain electrification (mild to strong hybrid, to fully-electric) will depend on the economic and geographic condition of the region of adoption.
TEXT: Naveen Arul