Tesla Roadster: The fun side of eco-friendly vehicles

If we’re to believe what we read in the news, or see on the telly, the internal combustion engine is slowly killing the planet, using up valuable fossil fuels whilst simultaneously emitting toxic gas. The Internal Combustion Engine, however, has become such a core part of our transport habits that it’s hard to see what else could take its place. There’s a clear need for people to move around the planet, so perhaps a bit of pollution is just the price we pay for that?

Several car companies disagree with that point of view and are developing vehicles that produce no pollution at the point of use (i.e. whilst driving). I’ve already thought a bit about hydrogen fuel-cell cars, and have to admit that I’m pretty taken with them. I like the idea that they emit only water vapour, and they still have the convenience of being able to quickly fill up the tank whenever you need a top-up.

Tesla Roadster
© Tesla Motors

There is another eco-option, though: electric vehicles. Think Toyota Prius without the petrol engine. Or, even better, think Tesla Roadster!

Environmentally friendly vehicles still have a bit of a reputation for being boring and, well, slow. The Tesla Roadster most definitely does away with that idea, though, looking like a Lotus Elise (Tesla point out that the car is definitely not just a converted Elise) it certainly looks sporty. And it’s quick, with a top speed of 125mph (electronically limited) and 250 horsepower of, well, power. Acceleration is by all accounts immense, getting a big thumbs-up from TV’s Vicky Butler-Henderson when she ran a Tesla at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Robert Llewellyn (of Scrapheap Challenge and Red Dwarf fame) also had a day in a Tesla, and recorded the highlights for posterity. Acceleration was one of the things mentioned here too. Have a look at his video and see what you think. Just a quick warning for the delicate, Robert does get a bit excited and a few expletives escape.

I would absolutely love to have a car that runs on such an affordable “fuel” as electricity, but the car itself is not cheap by any means (£94,000 according to Autocar.co.uk). I would also worry about the range (approx 200 miles on a full charge) and the time it takes to charge up again (current best-case is 1 hour). I drive a lot, and the idea of having to stop even for an hour to recharge strikes me as immensely inconvenient. New battery technology is coming that can charge up blisteringly fast, but are electric vehicles going to have to remain a niche market until then? I’m not sure, and if Tesla wanted to give me a test-drive to help me make up my mind I’d be more than happy to take part! But, since that’s fairly unlikely, I’ll ask you… what do you think?

And if you have any thoughts on the hydrogen vs. pure electric debate, why not throw them into the ring too?

The Mayor of London wrote an article about his Tesla day last week, which you can read here.

Cheap energy? Generate your own!


Image by Elsie esq.

Global oil prices are up. Electricity and gas companies are hiking their prices. And all the while, people are wondering what to do about their energy bills.

We’re going to take a look at some methods that are available to generate your own energy and power/heat your house. Remember that there are a load of methods you can use to minimise energy loss at home (loft insulation, double-glazing, switching appliances off at the wall), but that’s not a topic for today. Today we’re looking at generation, not conservation.

Use the sun!

Probably the greatest source of energy available isn’t even on the planet… the sun. We all know it warms the Earth, and no doubt you know its energy can be harnessed. So what tech can you use to enlist the sun’s help in powering or heating your home?

Solar Panels

Dead obvious, this one :) Solar panels! Those shiny sheets that power the International Space Station and a multitude of eco-friendly concept cars. There are two types of solar panels that concern us here, photovoltaic (electricity generating) or water heating panels.

Photovoltaic panels generate electricity from the sun’s energy, which can be used to fulfil some or all of your home’s electricity needs. It’s even possible to put your house ‘on-grid’ and sell any surplus energy you generate back to the National Grid. From what I hear, though, you will get the lowest price possible for your electricity in the UK, while the prices are a bit more favourable in other countries.

Water heating panels pass cold water through the panel, which is then (obviously) heated by the sun. This heated water is then delivered either to a pre-heat water tank or directly to the hot water tank, depending on the type of system. Even if the water that’s returned from the solar panels isn’t hot enough to take a bath in, it still represents an energy saving as it has been part-heated for you.

Ground Source Heat Pumps

The sun isn’t just heating your roof, though: it’s also heating the ground around your house. Ground source heat pumps are a way of extracting ground heat and using that to heat your water up. If you have ever touched the grille at the back of a refrigerator you will realise that it’s warm. That’s because the refrigerator is transferring heat from inside the fridge to the grille, where it radiates away. Ground source heat pumps do pretty much the same, but they transfer heat from the ground into your house. Heat is collected by laying pipes in your garden – either in a trench or, if you don’t have enough room, in a deep bore-hole. You’ll have a unit in the house that transfers heat from the water in the pipes to your heating system, so you don’t need to worry if the garden’s not roasting hot! :)

What about wind?

Another renewable energy source is all around us – wind. You’ve seen those wind farms, right? The groups of massive windmills? Well what about having one all of your very own? Not a whole wind farm, obviously, but you can have a small turbine generating electricity for your house.

The technology here is just the same as on the larger turbines – the wind turns the blades and a generator converts that motion into electricity. Add a power-shaper to iron out any spikes or dips and you’re good to go. You can even to ‘on-grid’ with this as well and sell any excess power back to the National Grid.

Be warned though: wind turbines will usually require planning permission (in the UK), and to be really worth it you should have a survey carried out to ensure that there’s enough wind in your chosen location (apparently the average windspeed can be worked out for where you are).

And the downside?

The big downside with these systems is the installation cost. Domestic solar panels can range from a few thousand pounds up into tens of thousands, whilst the cheapest domestic wind turbine I could find was £1898. I was unable to get a price for ground source heat pumps without having someone come out and do a survey of my garden!

These are all pretty hefty methods of reducing your energy bills, and they certainly aren’t a quick fix. You won’t recoup your money in a single winter, or anything like that, but if you’re going to be staying in the same house for a long time and are serious about reducing your reliance on the utility companies, they are certainly worth thinking about.

Have you tried any of these methods of generating energy? Got a wind turbine in your garden? Solar panels? Have you any experience of Ground Source Heat Pumps? Let us know how well they work and if you’re seeing any savings in the comments.

How do fuel cells work?

Honda FCXA while back I wrote about fuel cell cars that run on hydrogen rather than ye olde fossil fuels. But I wanted to know how these fuel cells actually work? The hydrogen, presumably, isn’t being “burned” in the normal sense, so what’s going on?

Let’s take a look at that most common of electrical sources, the battery.  Batteries usually consist of two metal “poles”, with an acid or salt solution sandwiched between them. The chemical reaction of these components makes electrons collect on the negative (-) terminal of the battery and, when an electrical item is attached to the battery, these electrons are used for power. At the same time, though, the chemical reaction within the battery is continuing, which eventually reduces the difference in charge between the positive (cathode) and negative (anode) poles… and the battery stops producing power.

How about a fuel cell? There are a number of different types of fuel cell, but we’ll look at hydrogen cells here. Fuel cells still work by transferring electrons, but the source of those electrons is different: the electrons are stripped from the hydrogen fuel itself. The fuel cell consists of two catalyst-coated electrodes, separated by a membrane which only allows charged particles to pass through. The two electrodes are also connected to an electrical load, such as a car’s motor. Hydrogen is fed into the cell at one end, where the catalyst prompts the Hydrogen to become positively charged H+. The dropped electron from the Hydrogen is picked up by the electrode (which becomes the negative anode), and used to power the load (i.e. the car). Meanwhile, the positively charged H+ passes through the membrane to the other electrode (the cathode), where it is combined with oxygen from the air, and the returning electrons, to become water.

Fuel Cell DiagramFuel-cell flow diagram – click on the image to enlarge

I did wonder what happens when the catalysts are used up, but then I remembered that catalysts, while playing a part in aiding chemical reactions, are not actually used up in them. So the catalysts just sit there, merrily helping to convert the hydrogen to H+, and then into water.

What amazes me about this setup is how none of the components of the fuel cell are used up in the reaction – as long new fuel is fed in, the cell will never go flat!

This type of fuel cell produces a small amount of Direct Current, so several fuel cells are stacked together to get enough power to run something like a car. It obviously works, with the Honda FCX boasting a generating capacity of 100kw.

So the technology works, and it actually seems very elegant. It is much more efficient than combustion, and much better for the environment. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and even if we did somehow run out, we could always find a way to extract more from water or hydrocarbons. Not bad, really.

Fuel Cell Cars :: ride into the future

Greenpeace… Friends of the Earth… it’s safe to say they aren’t exactly keen on cars because, in part, cars tend to produce some fairly nasty gasses. So what if cars didn’t do that any more? Well, there would still be the problem of roads taking up countryside space, but it would help a bit, wouldn’t it?

Cue the fuel cell car… car of the future (ta-daaah!)

OK, maybe that was a bit dramatic, but some major manufacturers are now getting close to producing fuel cell cars, and since I’m a sucker for new car designs I thought I’d find out more.

How do they work?
Cars have run on internal combustion engines since their invention. Very simply, combustible fuel is fed into a cylinder and then ignited to give a controlled explosion. This explosion drives a piston which is connected via gears to the drive-shaft, and propels the car. On the positive side, internal combustion engines have been around for a very long time. They work, and they have been the focus of much research to make them as fuel-efficient as possible. On the negative side, however, the burning of all that fuel gives of noxious gasses (the most dangerous being carbon monoxide), soot, some unburnt fuel, and other by-products.

Some car manufacturers (notably Toyota, Lexus, and Honda) have worked to increase the efficiency of their internal combustion engines by combining them with an electric drive system which is recharged either by using the engine itself to drive a generator, or by siphoning off energy when the car is slowing down or coasting.

Fuel cell cars, however, step away from internal combustion altogether. Instead of burning petroleum products, they combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce water and electricity. The biggest advantage of this, then, is that they produce no pollutants and can be described as being “zero emission” vehicles. To be honest, I’m a little hazy on the exact details of fuel cell technology (I plan to look into that and write further in the future), but the basic premise is that water can be separated into Hydrogen and Oxygen by passing electricity through it (electrolysis)… but by reversing the process, combining hydrogen and oxygen into water, electricity is generated instead.

Why are fuel cell vehicles cool?
Ever noticed how clean fuel vehicles usually look like the back-end of a bus? The two fuel cell concept cars I’ve found so far look pretty darned cool if you ask me. The Honda FCX concept has nicely angular lines reminiscent of the latest Civic, although the general curve overall also gives is the look of the Toyota Prius. No matter whether it looks like something else, it’s a good looking car.

Honda FCX Concept Car
Honda FCX Concept

The Morgan Life Car, on the other hand, just looks mental! Modelled on their roadster, the Life Car looks like something straight out of a sci-fi movie and, once again, is good looking in a different kind of way.

Morgan Life Car
Morgan Life Car

Looks aside, though, what else makes these cars cool? Environment credentials? Kind of… Honda are currently exploring the concept of solar refuelling stations, which would turn water into hydrogen using solar power. Imagine, you fill a tank with water in the morning, leave the solar panels on all day while you’re at work, and come home to a tank of hydrogen ready to refuel your car for the next day. Much better than spending £1.10 for a litre of diesel! The only downside I can foresee with this is that hydrogen is extremely flammable, so there had better not be any leaks in the system or you might find your garage has blown up while you were out.

And lastly… fuel cell cars are new and futuristic. OK, so it’s a geeky thing to say, but I would think they’re cool for that alone!

So, can I have a fuel cell car please?
Not at the minute, no. Morgan are about to launch their concept car at the Geneva Show, and Honda are hoping to go into production in the US and Japan this year (Europe will follow at a later date). So far, there are no details on pricing from either company.