Overconsumption of fossil fuels, excessive carbon emissions and threats to air quality are all urgent problems that would be addressed if all-electric vehicles were fully operational and in widespread use. Research conducted by the European Union funded Fuerex project could give consumers in the near future the option of driving a car with almost zero emissions, without compromising on the range of the battery.
"Revolutionary", said Fuerex project coordinator Cor van der Zweep. "The whole reason for this is to get away from the burning of fossil fuels." Van der Zweep works with Uniresearch, an independent consulting firm based in the Netherlands that specialises in technological innovation, and which oversees the Fuerex project.
Purely electric vehicles produce less carbon emissions than a fossil fuel-burning vehicle, van der Zweep said. According to the project, over a 100.000-mile lifecycle, an electric vehicle could produce almost 30 times fewer pollutants than a standard fuel powered car. Switching to an all-electric engine would result in a possible reduction of 474 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions by the year 2050. In the short term, fossil fuel use would decrease. In the long term, the switch would have a positive impact on the environment, create more "green" jobs, and contribute to greater EU competitiveness in the automotive industry.
The main drawback of electric vehicles is the limited range of the battery. This causes a phenomenon known as "range anxiety", where drivers fear that the battery will run down and strand them on the road. Therefore, "range extenders" are one way of increasing the transfer range of a pure electric vehicle. A range extender is composed of a thermodynamic machine that drives an alternating current (AC) generator, and a power conversion circuit that transfers the power into the direct current (DC) battery circuit, which either recharges the battery or directly powers the electric motor that drives the vehicle.
Engines using the system being developed by the Fuerex team will serve as a transition between current internal combustion engines and hybrid powertrains. This range extender configuration – in which the vehicle is powered either by the battery or by the generator – extends the electric battery's charge, and the engine only burns fuel if the battery runs down. This gives the engine more long-range capacity and also allows the vehicle to run more efficiently.
Most of the research done by van der Zweep's team has been completed, and demo vehicles are almost ready, he said. The team has developed range extenders out of a two-cylinder piston engine for vans, and a rotary engine and a three-cylinder piston engine for passenger vehicles. "At the end of 2012, we plan to have the demo vehicles ready and drivable. In the coming years, there will be some quite exciting changes in the vehicle market."