Fueling Our Future

There’s a beautiful place in central southern England that’s retained an unspoilt, almost timeless beauty; an ancient habitat. Some of it tucked under a canopy of tall trees whilst an adjacent corner features open heathland where ponies graze and deer roam.

The hum of a passing car can be heard from time to time, but then silence falls once again, the mechanical man-made sounds giving way to the nasal cry as a pair of crows flap low over the tree tops, two dark shapes against a bright sky. This place often described as England’s loveliest Forest is here – it is the New Forest, home to many of us and a holiday and recreational destination to plenty more.

But how often do we switch to the local and national news, who report in a foreboding language images of starving children, flooded plains and wind torn districts of western and third world countries. They speak of threats to our own environment, of global warming – the ‘greenhouse effect’ that allows the sun’s rays in to warm us but stops much of the heat escaping again. It is so difficult whilst living in this beautiful place to quantify their broadcasts of doom.

What is this culprit creating temperature rises, pushing nature off balance to such a degree it threatens each of us? I feel I hardly need prompt anyone, jog your conscience; we all know it is largely the result of the industrialised society we have all created.

It is thought that by the year 2030, well within our children’s lifetimes, temperatures will rise by between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees. That doesn’t sound much, but when you consider a temperature drop of five degrees would recreate an ice age; you do begin to appreciate the enormity of the changes our future might bring.

Largely, though not solely responsible for much of the airborne pollutants creating global warming is the burning of fossil fuels. So many of us have such busy lives, it’s all too easy to dismiss these as future problems. It is not until we stop for a moment and think what we are doing to our planet; our home, that research towards noiseless, low energy and efficient resolutions, rather than the noisy, high energy, often brutal and clumsy solutions we have today become anymore than a passing thought.

Man cannot live without science and technology, any more than he can live without nature, and it is to the pioneers of science we look to for our sustainable future – but it is the efficient running of our homes and transport systems that affect us most.

Just a short while ago, the car manufacturer Toyota, hit the headlines when it won ‘car of the year award’ for its innovative petrol/electric hybrid car the ‘Prius’. This car has a conventional petrol engine, but when starting off at normal speed and cruising at a reasonable clip is powered by an electric motor fed from a battery. As the charge is depleted the petrol engine powers an electric generator which recharges the battery. If more power is needed, for instance when overtaking, both modes of power can drive the wheels.

Another motoring giant Honda have developed a car that has a device which compresses natural gas from the household supply. The company claims the car is cheaper to run as well as cleaner burning. It believes the ability to fill up at home wrestles the problem of there being few gas filling stations. This problem exists too for those with vehicles converted to run on LPG (liquefied petroleum gas). Volvo have invested heavily in this technology, and many companies will convert your petrol engine to a gas burner. However the green lobby argue this is a small improvement on what currently exists.

There has been much press too about diesel cars running on chip fat. Actually called biodiesel, this fuel is plant based and doesn’t produce CO2 that contributes to global warming. Diesels engines will run without modification, and burn up to 75% cleaner than diesel made from fossil fuels. Biodiesel is non-toxic and can be used in generators, used underground, or inside warehouses and factories.

A much cleaner fuel alternative though, is the ‘Hydrogen Fuel Cell’. Whilst still at the development stage General Motors, BMW and a number of other car makers have already invested hundreds of millions of pounds in research and development of prototypes. Fuel cells create power by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce a current that propels an electric motor, the only by-product is water. One hurdle that still has to be absolved before small scale commercial production can begin is the ten fold estimated cost when compared with conventional fossil fuel derived vehicles.

In the future fuel cell technology could supplement solar, wind and wave generators to power our homes and offices as well as our cars more efficiently. With significantly less impact on the environment than fossil fuels, we would cease to fear energy shortages, and reduce our reliance on imported oil too. Once difficulties with hydrogen storage, cost and infrastructure development have been solved, this technology may transform our lives; and be the holy grail we have been quietly though perhaps not optimistically hopeful of.

Copyright: Simon Lawrence