Experts estimate that the world's easily-extractable petroleum resources may last only another 40 years, so automakers already are looking down the road for alternatives, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).
Engineers are developing alternative powertrains for better fuel economy without increasing cost and emissions, or exhausting natural resources.
Pete Beardmore, director, Chemical & Physical Sciences at Ford Motor Company's Scientific Research Laboratory, believes electrification of the automobile is inevitable. Still elusive is an inexpensive battery that can power a vehicle for 200 miles or more.
But there's another solution, Beardmore says, which was invented in 1839, well before the birth of the modern automobile. It's the fuel cell, offering higher energy efficiency, lower emissions and the potential to operate on hydrogen, the fundamental building block of the universe.
Fuel cells, which already generate electricity aboard NASA space vehicles, produce electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen from the air. This reaction produces water and electricity - with no pollutants at all.
Hydrogen easily can be produced from ethanol, methanol and natural gas, energy sources that are abundant and relatively easy to store and deliver. According to the SAE, a methanol-based fuel cell can extract about 80 percent of the energy in a gallon of methanol. This compares to about 25 percent for a conventional gasoline engine.
A vehicle powered by a fuel cell is not far off. Susan Fancy, Ecostar program manager, says that work done by a team from Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Ballard Power Systems and Ecostar, should produce a fuel cell vehicle as soon as 2004. "Today we are designing the vehicles which will be the mainstream for our children and grandchildren," she said. "Fuel-cell based vehicles are going to have a profound positive impact on the planet."
Today a fuel-cell powertrain costs about $30,000, compared to a conventional powertrain costing about $3,000.
But researchers believe costs can be cut using rare-earth materials combined with small amounts of precious metals, or by using a hybrid powertrain that combines a fuel cell with an electric motor. According to the SAE, such a hybrid may be ready by 2003.
However, automotive engineers also are continually improving the efficiency and reducing the emissions of conventional gas and diesel engines. So, success of alternative technologies in this new century will be determined by value, functionality and reliability...the same issues that challenged engineers before 2000.
- North American Precis Syndicate