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Top 5 new fuels you need to know about

With global concerns over the role of CO2 in climate change and air quality, we look at alternative ways to power vehicles beyond traditional fuels.

Electricity

Electric vehicles – either as pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) – are perhaps the pre-eminent form of alternatively fuelled transport at the moment.

Global sales in the first three quarters of 2017 have risen to 764,000 units, a rise of 46% on the same period in 2016. Overall sales of electric vehicles have tripled since 2013 and if the 2016 growth rate of 42% were to continue, eight out of 10 cars sold in 2030 would be plugged in.

It looks almost inevitable that fleets will have to look at adopting electric cars – and the workplace charging infrastructure necessary to power them – initially only for vehicles that don’t need a long range. However, larger-capacity batteries are on their way and initiatives such as Shell’s joint venture with IONITY’s pan-European high-speed charging network will mean that within a few years, EVs will be more practical for increasing numbers of fleet users and play a larger part in the fleet mix.

Hydrogen

Although in its relative infancy, the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power vehicles is definitely an exciting technology that many major automakers – Toyota, Honda and Hyundai in particular – are betting on heavily with their research and development funding.

With models such as the Honda Clarity, Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Ionic already available to fleets, refuelling infrastructure is the next challenge. At the end of 2017, projections suggested that there would be 384 such facilities worldwide: by 2022, there should be 1,306, and by 2032 there will be 4,808, according to Washington-based Information Trends[1].

Fleets that do have access to refuelling could consider hydrogen fuel cell cars as an option. Fuel costs per mile are slightly higher than conventional petrol or diesel cars, but these can be offset by other aspects of total cost of ownership (taxation, etc) – plus there are no tailpipe emissions.

LPG/CNG

Liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and compressed natural gas (CNG) have both been available commercially for a number of years. But as the need to reduce CO2 emissions grows ever urgent, these options will continue to be attractive, especially in regularly used fleet vehicles.

LPG (also known as Autogas) is a mix of propane and butane, and its use reduces CO2 exhaust emissions by around 15% compared to petrol. Globally, it is the third most popular automotive fuel, used in around 16m passenger cars (just under 3% of the total market).

CNG, on the other hand, is compressed methane and is used in just under 25m vehicles worldwide. Many vehicles have a bi-fuel capability (petrol or diesel and CNG), a combination that has proven to be particularly successful for buses and heavy trucks.

Fleets might have to incur conversion costs, which have fallen in recent years, but tax breaks and other government incentives in many countries mean that fleets should see overall cost savings.

Biofuels

Biofuels are renewable fuels that can be mixed with petrol or diesel to create a lower-cost method of reducing CO2 emissions from vehicles. Some London buses are now fuelled by biofuel made from the city’s used coffee grounds in an initiative with Bio-bean and Shell.

Biodiesel – a blend of diesel and vegetable oil – is in common use and can often be used without having to modify vehicles. However, some manufacturer warranties don’t cover equipment damaged by certain blends (for example, B5 is 95% diesel and 5% biodiesel, while B20 contains 20% biodiesel), so it’s important for fleet owners to check before staff start filling up.

Air

The technology is in its early days, but engines using compressed air, are in development.

There are a number of advantages, including the obvious absence of tailpipe emissions, but some research shows that these types of vehicles are also less efficient than electric vehicles (although compressed air-electric hybrids are another potential option).

A number of major carmakers have looked into the use of compressed air, but Tata (which owns Jaguar Land Rover) is furthest along the road, announcing in 2017 that it is at a point of “starting industrialisation” and hope the first vehicles will be available by 2020.


 

[1] Hydrogen refueling stations for cars to reach 5,000 by 2032

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