Is there a term referring to efficient and realistic alternatives to fossil-fuelled internal-combustion engines?
Let’s start by dispelling a rumour that is the source of numerous internet debates. No reliable evidence exists to suggest that the carbon footprint of the Toyota Prius exceeds that of a Hummer. However, importing the Prius does not help its cause locally, and a small internal-combustion engine vehicle may very well have a case… or not?
The European Union has mandated that car manufacturers reduce CO2 emissions by 2012 or face considerable financial penalties. Some speculate that this was also a consideration in Porsche’s attempt to acquire a majority stake in Volkswagen. ‘Averaging down’ the CO2 output of a range of vehicles is certainly easier than attempting to reach these targets when the smallest of your engines, efficient as it may be, has a 2.7l capacity. (In a strange twist of fate, VW wrested the initiative from Porsche, and has now taken control of the latter when it was left vulnerable after incurring substantial debt and finding the banks unwilling to give support in the midst of the credit crisis. The proposed merger will see Porsche included in the VW stable together with other premium brands such as Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti.)
So how do car manufacturers aim to reach these targets? Slippery design to reduce aerodynamic drag, lighter-weight materials, low-rolling-resistance tyres, and gearboxes with more gears and deeper overdrives, all contribute to reduced CO2 emissions. Realistically, however, increasing the efficiency of the power-plant is the only option. Some of the major advances being made include the following:
• Conventional internal combustion engines: The most obvious route to efficiency is to combine super- and turbo-charging, as done in the 1.4TSI engine that does duty in some VW and Audi models. This unit produces 118 kW and 240 N.m. of torque, which is more powerful than the majority of naturally aspirated 2l engines. Consumers probably require a mind-set change before small force-fed engines become universally accepted though!
• DiesOtto: A development from Mercedes-Benz that promises to combine the benefits of diesel (fuel economy and torque) with that of a petrol engine (performance, low cost and low emissions). It also incorporates universal technologies such as direct fuel injection, stop-start technology, kinetic energy recovery including regenerative braking, and two-stage turbo-charging. Ignition, as for a diesel engine, is through compression rather than spark, and exactly how variable compression ratios are managed is M-B’s secret for the time being…
• Biofuels: Rather than engaging in the fuel vs food debate, it is worth mentioning that plans are afoot to produce biodiesel from waste vegetable oil, though this is unlikely to be sufficient also to meet the South African road transport demands. Overseas, flex-fuel is used extensively and generally contains 75 to 85 per cent ethanol, mixed with petrol. Koenigsegg has produced the world’s first green supercar, and the higher octane biofuel ensures superior performance to petrol only derivatives. Although biofuels are not yet commercially available in South Africa, over 17 million vehicles (using mainly ethanol) do duty in Brazil, the US, Canada and Europe.
• Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs): Hybrids combine a smaller fossil fuel engine with an electric motor. With standard ‘parallel’ hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, both electric and petrol engines drive the wheels. With ‘Series’ hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Volt, the wheels are only driven by an electric motor, while a petrol motor starts a generator to produce energy when needed. HEVs are filling the gap until EVs (see below) become commercially viable/available. The Prius and models from Lexus have been available in SA for some years, while Honda may still decide to introduce the Insight.
• Pure electric vehicles (EVs): EVs are zero-emission vehicles driven only by an electric motor. One of the final hurdles is energy storage, and a race is on to increase the range, number of charge cycles and the reliability of batteries. The Tesla Roadster S (the brain-child of SA born billionaire, Elon Musk) achieves a 3.7 second 0 – 100 km/h sprint in deathly silence… It’s available in the US, but unfortunately the waiting list is as long as the acceleration time is short! Locally, Optimal Energy revealed their striking 5-seater at Paris last year with the launch of a low-volume marketing fleet taking place during 2010. High-volume production of the Joule is expected to commence from the end of 2012 and South Africans are first in line, so place your order now!
You may be thinking that EVs simply move the green-house gas emissions from the exhaust pipe to the power station, but keep in mind that electricity produced on a grand scale is considerably cleaner than running millions of internal-combustion engines. In addition, clean power sources like hydro, solar and wind can lead to a 100 per cent reduction in pollution. Hydrogen and heliox fuel cells have been tested successfully as an alternative to power the electric motors, but it appears that the infrastructure spend required may be prohibitive in the short-term.
When EVs become available, Eskom’s ability to provide a steady supply should also not be seen as a deterrent, as the charge cycle can be set to between 11pm and 6am when electricity is more freely available. Governments are likely to incentivise consumers further in buying these vehicles, which will reduce the costs even more. EVs are also expected to be less expensive to maintain as they have less moving parts, and the cost of batteries and electricity is expected to be less than petrol. The UK Energy Research Centre’s report on oil depletion (08/10/2009) notes a significant risk of a peak in production before 2020, which cannot be good news for the petrol price…
Still not convinced? Just think about not ever having to fill up with petrol again.
Optimal Energy Fast Facts
Optimal Energy (Pty) Ltd is a South African company based in Cape Town and headed by CEO Kobus Meiring. Meiring, who also managed the Rooivalk helicopter programme and was the project manager of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) Project, in 2005 co-founded the company with Mike Lomberg, Jian Swiegers and Gerhard Swart, who had also worked together previously on the Rooivalk/SALT projects. The shareholding of the company comprises executive management, the Industrial Development Corporation and the Innovation Fund, whose investment made this venture possible.
About the Joule:
Joule is Africa’s first battery electric engineering masterpiece from Optimal Energy. The silent passenger vehicle is manufactured as a standard five-seater, which complies with UN-ECE safety standards offering an optimal no-compromise, and zero emission urban driving experience.
Joule is as beautiful and elegant as it is stylish, with a classically timeless appeal set to transform the face of the urban transportation landscape. Developed from the outset as an electric vehicle, Joule delivers optimal design, maximum interior space and a minimal exterior and environmental footprint.
The following are some interesting facts:
• The Joule will be built in South Africa, and will create 10,000 sustainable direct and indirect jobs in the process.
• The design and development of the Joule has been done in South Africa. Components will be sourced to maximise customer benefits such as cost, whilst also improving environmental efficiencies by ensuring that as many components as possible are sourced locally.
• Electric vehicles (EVs) like the Joule are about five times more energy efficient than petrol or diesel vehicles. This efficiency gain is even bigger when used in urban applications.
• The Joule is about 75% recyclable. Development is an ongoing activity and Optimal Energy will ensure that the Joule’s recyclability will continue to improve in the future in line with international trends.
• EVs offer comparatively low “fuel” costs, i.e. approximately 10 to 20 per cent of petrol or diesel costs, depending on where you are in the world.
• Maintenance of the Joule is expected to cost approximately half that of a petrol or diesel equivalent vehicle and, service intervals will be greater.
• Joule is battery operated and recharges with electricity from any source. When obtained from clean sources such as hydro or solar, this multi source energy carrier can lead to a 100% reduction in pollution. Better still, Joule’s rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are recyclable and contain no heavy metals.
These benefits collectively contribute to making Joule an environmentally sound investment.
Visit www.optimalenergy.co.za for more information
Eckhardt Gerber CA(SA), is Partner: RSM Betty & Dickson (Cape Town).