Research and technology

Progress Beneath the Bodywork

Germany is car country. Approximately 45 million private cars cruise German roads, and the trend points upward.

This will change, however, if something doesn't happen soon, because in about 40 years, the earth's oil reserves are predicted to reach rock bottom. For the German automobile industry as well as for the rest of the world, this means cars need to be developed to run on alternative fuels. Scientists have great hopes for hydrogen. But when will cars which don't burn fossil fuels be mass-produced?

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Author: Ralf Gierkes
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The Economic Significance of the Automobile

Without cars, the German economy would collapse. Almost 800,000 people work in the automobile industry. According to a study conducted by Germany's Shell Company, only 68 million people will live in Germany in the year 2030. That is about 14 million fewer people than today. But the number of private cars will continue to grow. Instead of 45 million cars, 53 million will be cruising along German roads. Experts calculate that in 2020, there will be a billion cars world-wide. Automobiles emit carbon dioxide (CO2) and experts fear that global warming will proceed apace. Without the automobile, it would not only be the German economy which would go bankrupt. What's true here is true the world over. Modern societies are based on mobile people, for whom the car is the most significant means of transport. But the era of fossil fuels is coming to a foreseeable end.

Energy Reserves and Consumption

According to the calculations of large oil companies, oil reserves of approximately 1,200 billion barrels are available. Twenty-seven billion barrels of oil are consumed annually, with a slight upward trend. This means that in about 40 years, there won't be any more oil. In Germany alone, gasoline consumption reaches an annual rate of approximately 30 million tons. A normal fuel engine has an efficacy of between 18 and 28 percent. This means it only uses a small percentage of the valuable fossil fuel it consumes to create movement; the rest is lost, for example, through friction and less-than-optimal combustion.

Regenerative Energy

Experts are betting on regenerative energy – for automobiles, as well as other needs. One example is bio-ethanol. Like alcohol, it develops during distillation. Brazil is the world's largest producer and consumer of ethanol. There, the market share of ethanol is about 25 percent and annual production reaches 12 to 14 million cubic meters. After Brazil, the USA is the world's second-largest producer of ethanol fuel. Currently, more than 10 million cubic meters of ethanol are produced there annually, primarily from corn. However, the production of bio-energy hasn't only generated optimism. It has also alarmed environmentalists. They warn against large-scale mono-cultures, which require lots of insecticide and can only be exploited with a great deal of effort and technology.

Hybrid Technology

Other efforts are also being made to use less fossil fuel. In order to save on fuel, the abilities of electrical and gasoline engines are being crossed in hybrid automobiles. A car equipped with two engines uses about 25 percent less gasoline. Hybrid technology is viewed by many scientists as a transitional technology. For others, it is the technology of the future. At any rate, hybrid automobiles permit experimentation with and improvement of electrical engines, batteries and control engineering. These are all components which will also be of great importance to a future environmentally-friendly hydrogen-based automobile.

Investing Hope in Hydrogen

Hydrogen is available in infinite quantities around the globe, and combustion leaves hardly any residue. So it's actually an ideal future source of energy. Hydrogen can be used in combustion in altered gasoline engines. Alongside this technology, car manufacturers are also laying bets on fuel cells connected to the electrical engine. With most fuel cells, hydrogen is the energy source and is transformed into electricity. Right now, various automobile producers in Germany are conducting tests on hydrogen-powered cars, whose engines operate around the clock. There are hydrogen tank stations in Munich and Berlin. Unfortunately, hydrogen only exists in nature in combined form. When hydrogen is dissolved, so much energy is required that hydrogen is anything but an ecological fuel. It is significantly easier to derive hydrogen from natural gas. But natural gas is also a fossil fuel which will at some point run out. Furthermore, hydrogen needs to be cooled down to -253° C to store and transport. This also requires a lot of energy. Hydrogen fuel can only be produced ecologically when we start deriving energy from regenerative sources such as the sun, wind, water power or organic gasses. Hydrogen's broad use as a fuel for automobile engines would significantly decrease the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: an important step in putting the brakes on rapidly increasing global warming.
Goethe-Institut e. V. 2006
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