The Quest for the Perfect Fuel

Recently, the Volkswagen scandal has taken the media by storm. What is it all about? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of America discovered software dubbed “defeat devices” installed onto VW diesel engines, which sensed when the car was being tested for emissions, and would change the car’s performance to improve results. When being driven normally, the devices would switch back to “road” mode. This deception allowed VW to bypass strict emission regulations, selling cars with emissions up to 40 times more than allowed in the US. VW has now admitted to the use of these devices, which affect 11 million cars worldwide.

Former Volkswagen Group of America CEO Martin Winterkorn admitting to the use of defeat devices
Credit: BBC News YouTube

The effects of this mistrust have reached an international scale. VW has discredited itself from its customers, and now faces investigations from multiple countries. The European Union (EU) has come into fire for its lax testing regulations that allowed such devices to go unnoticed for so long, and carmakers felt their market prices plummet in the days after the news broke. But one question rises above all: what is the future of diesel?

Carmakers have long marketed diesel as the more fuel efficient alternative to gasoline, but historically, diesel always lost in favour to gasoline. Diesel engines generally provided less power, the exhausts produced smelled awful, and the characteristic “knocking” sound all added to its list of inconveniences. Recently, stricter emissions regulations worldwide triggered carmakers to pour large investments into the advancement of diesel technology. Better refinery processes eliminated the smell from diesel exhaust, and better engineering improved both the knocking and power. But diesel emissions still contain carbon dioxide and, more worryingly, nitrogen oxides and dioxides, all of which are potent greenhouse gases.

As our world becomes increasingly aware of the roles cars and emissions play in global warming, we find ourselves on the quest for newer and greener technology. When Toyota introduced the Prius to the world market in 2003, it became an instant hit. Celebrities endorsed the new wonder car, waxing lyrical about the new hybrid technology, and the car was touted as the responsible choice for anybody with a green conscious.

A 2010-2011 Toyota Prius Credit: Wikipedia Commons

A 2010-2011 Toyota Prius
Credit: Wikipedia Commons

But one paradox of hybrids always stood out – if the point was to reduce car pollution, surely this would not only include the pollution done by the end consumer, but also by the carmaker during production. Toyota admits that building the Prius produces more carbon dioxide than a typical gasoline model. Its nickel battery is mined in China, where the material is cheapest due to widespread disregard of environmental regulations. Despite this argument, many carmakers continue to support the electric engine: Tesla maintains its stance on electric cars, BMW continues to invest in its electric i division, and even luxury sports carmakers are demonstrating new ways in which hybrid technology can be used.

Left: McLaren P1 Right: Ferrari LaFerrari Credit: qiuyang923 on Flickr

Left: the McLaren P1, which uses a hybrid system of gas engine in tandem with an electric engine
Right: the Ferrari LaFerrari, which also uses a hybrid system
Credit: qiuyang923 on Flickr

Perhaps we should look at an alternate way. Hydrogen fuel cells is hailed as the true solution to our never-ending need for fuel. Fuel cells cars can fuelled in a similar fashion to gasoline, so they do not face the range challenges of electric cars. They are more efficient than gasoline or diesel engines, and they produce absolutely zero emissions – the only product reaction is water.

The Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell concept car revealed for the first time at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell concept car revealed for the first time at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show.
Credit: Wikipedia Commons

However, the technology still needs to be perfected. The Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA) reports that Honda, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz have hydrogen fuel cell concept cars that will be revealed to the public soon. Perhaps soon, we will be able to rely on truly emissions-free energy sources. Until then, we can only continue on strict government regulations and the keen observances of scientists and government agencies like the EPA to monitor our emissions.

– Peggy Hung

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