By Callum Springall
In recent years there has been a significant change in prevalent schools of thought around environmentally-friendly energy use, with electric power taking centre stage over the course of the last 20 years or so.
However, battery power opens up as many points of contention as it solves, such as its range, cost effectiveness and applicability to the average consumer. Which is where bio-ethanol comes forward as a possible solution.
In principle, ethanol is totally carbon-neutral since it releases no more carbon dioxide than it takes to produce it. At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that ethanol is taken from crops, so is composed of carbon dioxide and water – or in other words: pure alcohol.
Therefore ethanol is combustible – meaning it can be used in everyday internal combustion engines, which it actually is, albeit only to a lesser extent.
However, ethanol usage has come under the same criticism as electrical energy – being that its range is inferior to a conventional petrol or diesel engine, meaning it isn’t necessarily cost-effective and therefore there is little short-term incentive to pursue a wider use of renewable fuel. That ensures battery power possesses a hegemony concerning the long-term future of energy usage in cars.
Be that as it may, there is certainly potential in ethanol and one that ought to be turning heads in the racing industry.
Optimising engines for ethanol use ideally requires a sole type of fuel to run efficiently. A varying ethanol content within fuel affects the engines efficiency – and therefore its widespread appeal and applicability to daily use – which consequently increases the cost in terms of road use, as well as with regard to its potential use in motor racing.
For example, if it were proposed to be introduced in Formula 1 then there ought to be an expected backlash and calls of hypocrisy, in a time when Liberty Media have talked up cost controls.
However, in the medium to long-term of the sport it presents opportunities relating to technological development, the existence of non-electric racing series, and its relevance and acceptance in an evermore environmentally-conscious world.
As a result, such opportunities offer a whole new development branch in engine technology within the parameters of a significantly more reactionary environment than the more sluggish automotive industry. A handful of years’ development by engine manufacturers in F1 – as well as open regulations – could easily lead to the pioneering of currently fledgling, fuel cell technology with the view to a possible handing down and integration of information into road car technology, for theoretically efficient use of purely renewable ethanol within the next few years.
Immediate action would be required that seems far from forthcoming, judging by the FIA’s rhetoric on the future of engine architecture.
Admittedly there lies a slight hypocrisy in the production of bio-ethanol, since in order to transport a carbon-neutral fuel, there exists a necessity for tankers powered by… diesel! That being said, battery power is hardly the saviour of the world either, due to the necessary mining during the production process – while much of the developed world also can either be interpreted as stubbornly clinging on to archaic energy sources, or being lukewarm in its stance on green energy.
This last statement is sadly the defining one of the entire argument – widespread use is cultivated by development, which as yet in the western world is nothing more than a vanity project, and development is either incentivised or necessitated by government intervention – be it unilateral, or the ilk of the Paris climate accord, which is certainly beyond the horizon in the UK, at least to the extent of revolutionary change.
Therefore, real change in the automotive industry will only likely come nearer to the far-off deadline to remove diesel cars from the roads of major cities such as London, Paris or Mexico City, which then shifts attention to alternative solutions to petrol-powered combustion engines and potentially gives rise to the consideration of alternative solutions to battery power.
From that point, more widely used electric motors could power tankers to transport ethanol, allowing for a discontinuation of harmful mining to produce batteries that then provides the platform for renewable fuel cells to take over.
To relate these sentiments to F1: deadlines approach, which stimulates alternative thinking among car makers, provoking a change of thought within the FIA that leads to eventual rule changes, allowing teams to experiment with different solutions with regard to fuel cells or different types of combustion engines.
Given time, consistent tinkering among F1 manufacturers means they will likely move ahead of a ‘real-world’, automotive manufacturer in terms of development, then hand down information to the aforementioned manufacturers.
This, in theory, then buys the planet some time while keeping F1 relevant and opening up the sport to casual racing fans who possess an increasingly prevalent, environmentalist outlook – a feat managed by Formula E in recent years. Thereby, a switch to ethanol placates environmental advocates – if not winning them over – and secures the long-term health of top-flight motorsport.
Of course, from a purely environmental standpoint, there is no silver bullet seeing as either the systems used for batteries or fuel cells, or the equipment used to make them, requires the production of materials such as metals or synthetic plastics, which inevitably contributes to man-made pollution.
With that thought, I know I certainly prefer longevity to a self-destructive Armageddon.
♦ Callum Springall is a member of The NR F1 Podcast crew. You can follow Callum on Twitter @callumspring18