While interest in electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles has grown over the past few years, both concepts actually date back to the early 19th century. Richard Mochor from motor dealership Motorparks looks at the past, present and future of alternative fuels
It wasn’t too long ago that drivers could only choose between petrol or diesel cars. But now motorists are faced with the option of vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen and a whole host of other alternative fuels.
While the popularity of electric and hydrogen‑powered vehicles has risen over the past few years, both concepts actually date back to the early 19th century.
While it is difficult to establish exactly when electric vehicles first entered the motoring scene, the early 19th century is a good place to begin. This is because Hungarian inventor Ányos Jedlik created a model car powered by an electric motor in 1828. In 1835, Dutch inventor Sibrandus Stratingh designed a prototype electromagnetic cart and American inventor Thomas Davenport built a small-scale version of an electric vehicle.
However, it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that electric vehicles would really begin to turn heads in the motoring industry. General Motors (GM) can be credited with putting these types of automobiles back on the map in a time when petrol and diesel vehicles dominated the market. The American company’s GM EV1 was released in 1996 and was able to achieve a range of between 70 and 90 miles while powered by electricity.
This innovative car would only be in production until 1999 but it put new life into electric vehicles. Revolutionary electric vehicle manufacturers smart and Tesla Motors were founded in the years that followed, while the G-Wiz, Tesla Roadster and Mitsubishi i-MiEV were all on sale by the time the noughties came to a close.
Current electric vehicles – like the Renault Zoe and the Nissan Leaf – have a range of around 100 miles and a whole host of advantages over those powered by other forms of fuel. Electric vehicles are cheaper to run than petrol and diesel cars, for one, while also benefitting the environment by giving off zero emissions.
The amount of publicly available chargepoints is growing. In February the government set out £32 million of charging infrastructure support up to 2020.
What’s more, new technology is making electric vehicles even more appealing too. The Goodyear BHO3 tyres revealed at this year’s Geneva International Motor Show, for example, use heat to generate electricity which can then be used to charge an electric car’s battery.
Meanwhile, BMW has developed LED street lights that can quickly charge an electric vehicle’s batteries while it is parked.
The timeline for hydrogen vehicles begins around the same time as electric vehicles. French inventor François Isaac de Rivaz is credited for bringing such an invention to the public eye, when he unveiled a prototype four-wheel vehicle capable of being powered by a combination of oxygen and hydrogen.
GM plays a prominent part in the history of hydrogen vehicles too. The American manufacturer launched its Electrovan in 1966 — a vehicle with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell.
Fast forward to the present day and drivers are currently witnessing the next generation of hydrogen vehicles, with the BMW Hydrogen 7 car being loaned out to well-known figures in business, culture, media and politics. Southern Californian motorists can lease the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle as well.
UK drivers don’t need to worry that they are missing out too much, as the Hyundai ix35 Hydrogen Fuel Cell is now available to order on these shores.
Under the bonnet
Fuel cells are essential for hydrogen vehicles, as they enable the following process. Hydrogen and air pass through a fuel cell stack, which results in a chemical reaction, generating electrical power to drive the vehicle. Water and heat are the only by-products of this chemical reaction.
So how do hydrogen fuel vehicles stand out from the other types of vehicles on the market? From a practical standpoint, hydrogen is an appealing fuel source as it is readily available and renewable. Furthermore, fuel created using hydrogen is very efficient and can be produced without any harmful emissions to the environment.
But the disadvantages are that it’s not cheap. And, if not produced from renewable energy sources, its creation relies on fossil fuels, natural gas, coal and oil.
What’s more, while there is progress in improving the amount of hydrogen refuelling stations available – in October 2014, the government announced an £11 million investment to improve the hydrogen refuelling network – currently there is a limited fuelling infrastructure.
Other alternative fuels
Biodiesel is a renewable fuel and can be produced domestically. It can be created using animal fats or vegetable oils. It has similar physical properties to petroleum diesel but achieves cleaner fuel burning. However, careful consideration needs to be had over whether the biofuel is created sustainably, for example, using waste materials or the by‑products of existing processes, rather than growing crops purely to be used for fuel.
Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is a lower‑carbon transport fuel and can be used wherever there is a natural gas supply and distribution network in place. It can be used instead of both diesel and petrol. Drivers in Germany, Egypt, Pakistan, Argentina and Brazil can already buy CNG from Shell.
Ethanol is a renewable fuel that can be produced domestically from plant materials like corn, grass and sugar canes. It has fewer greenhouse gas emissions that other fuels.