Driving into a low-carbon future
Climate change may be the biggest threat to our way of life and demands urgent action to cut emissions. At the same time, the world’s population is expected to rise to around 9 billion by mid-century while the number of vehicles could double as millions come out of poverty.
We speak to Shell Chief Scientist for Mobility Dr Wolfgang Warnecke about the challenges of helping a fast-growing global population move more efficiently with less carbon dioxide.
More people than ever will want to own cars and motorbikes or use public transport, as the world’s population grows and prospers and urbanisation accelerates. What major challenges must be overcome?
The big challenge for our future mobility is to reduce emissions from all types of transport. We have to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which cause global warming, but we also to need to reduce emissions of other air pollutants to improve the quality of the air we breathe, especially in cities.
Unfortunately, there’s no single golden solution.
Is it the end of the road for the combustion engine?
There’s still huge potential for improving combustion engine efficiency, with the help of better fuels and lubricants. Proven technologies that are already available could improve fuel efficiency by about another 30%, even compared to today’s best engines. The problem is that they are relatively costly.
It’s good to see competition from different engine types like electric hybrids, purely electric cars or even hydrogen fuel cells. It stimulates combustion engine engineers to make improvements.
What technological advances could improve the sustainability of transport?
The problem is that reducing emissions in one part of the fuel chain can mean creating more emissions elsewhere. For example, the mandatory use of low-sulphur diesel fuel as a requirement for low-emission engines has reduced air pollution. But refineries have to use more energy, and therefore emit more CO2, to remove the sulphur.
The development of combustion engines that do not create any harmful emissions would change everything.
What about electric cars?
Electric cars have one major advantage, which is no air quality harming emission during the use of the vehicle. This could be especially important to clean up the air in inner city areas.
But electric vehicles face many challenges: for instance, batteries are still heavy, have limited range and lifetimes and are expensive to make. Lighter, cheaper and more efficient batteries for storing any excess renewable electricity, for example wind and solar, would be a fantastic breakthrough for low-carbon transport.
LNG fuel is cost-competitive and can provide economic and environmental benefits for heavy-duty truck and ship owners.
What roles can biofuels and natural gas play?
Plants used to make biofuels absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. So, overall, biofuels emit significantly less CO2 than fossil fuels. But the CO2 benefits of biofuels depend on several factors, such as which plant is used and how it is grown.
We are also looking at how to make more use of cleaner-burning natural gas – either cooled as liquefied natural gas (LNG) or compressed (CNG). Shell has also developed advanced gas-to-liquid (GTL) fuels which help to reduce local emissions.
What can consumers do now to improve fuel efficiency and save money at the pump?
High fuel costs that we have seen in many countries – often partly due to high taxes – can encourage consumers to invest in more efficient engines to reduce their fuel consumption. Better lubricants also reduce friction and therefore help cut fuel consumption.
Energy companies like Shell must continue to work closely with vehicle manufacturers to develop fuels and lubricants that make engines work more efficiently. Our Shell FuelSave diesel and gasoline, for example, helps engines run more efficiently.
We also continuously try to reduce friction losses in engines through less viscous engine oils which include novel base oils and better friction-modifying additives. We’ve just introduced a new engine oil generation to the market that includes Shell PurePlus technology. It contains very pure GTL base oil which helps to reduce friction and fuel consumption.
We also have an education campaign to help motorists all over the world save fuel.
How do you see transport systems evolving?
Mobility will change a lot in the not too distant future. I think one of the next exciting steps is the auto-piloted vehicle, with some examples already emerging.
It’s also very exciting because there are so many fuel, lubricant, engine and car ownership options.
We have to understand what combination of transport types will work best in different situations. Maybe we need to move away from using one average family car for everything. Perhaps we will use one type of car for family outings and use small hybrids or electric cars for commuting. We might just rent the type we use less often: we’re already seeing systems in some cities that allow users to rent cars nearby by tapping on a smartphone.
I mentioned earlier that there’s still enormous potential to improve the efficiency of combustion engines. With that in mind, I certainly expect engines that run on liquid fuels will continue to make up the backbone of automotive mobility for several decades to come.
Wolfgang Warnecke spoke to Dan Fineren
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