What will drive us in the future? Electricity, hydrogen or synthetic fuels?

The Corona crisis unexpectedly helped private transport to rebound. For fear of getting infected on public transport, people like to use the unsuspicious retreat in their own car. So the car is future-proof. But what will it use? Electricity, hydrogen, gas, synthetic fuel or gasoline or diesel? The most important alternatives at a glance.


If it is up to the will of politics, we should drive into the future with battery-electric cars (BHEVs) and thus help solve the CO2 problem.


Electric cars do not emit nitrogen oxides (NOx), have only a minor particulate matter problem (tire, brake and road wear), and they also cause lower operating costs than a combustion engine. The range of electric cars and the charging infrastructure are expanding rapidly. It has never been so cheap to get an electric vehicle: Government subsidies are bring offered around the world for EVs. If you don’t dare to use a pure electric vehicle, you can get into electromobility with a plug-in hybrid.


Limited range, limited long-distance suitability due to the charging stops. The carbon footprint of the electric car is also not sparkling white, here battery production is the culprit, and if the electricity does not come from renewable sources, we can only speak of locally emission-free driving. In addition, the raw material extraction for the batteries is socially and ecologically controversial.


The other form of electromobility. In the fuel cell, the refueled hydrogen reacts with the oxygen from the air via reverse electrolysis, producing electricity that in turn drives the electric motor.

Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle – (photo by Toyota)


Long ranges suitable for long distances, fueling times within minutes, a fuel cell vehicle only emits water vapor in terms of emissions. High funding analogous to the battery electric vehicle (BHEV). German manufacturers (Audi, BMW, Daimler) are now increasingly working on the fuel cell. The “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Germany” initiative, in which Toyota, Shell and Linde are active in addition to the manufacturers mentioned, aims to have a network of 400 hydrogen filling stations across Germany by 2023.


Only a few and high-priced fuel cell cars on the market (Hyundai Nexo, Toyota Mirai, almost $60,000 each), thin-meshed infrastructure – there are only 39 in United States. Hydrogen (H2) is currently mainly obtained from water and natural gas (again a fossil product). The process is expensive and energy intensive. The alternative of producing H2 by electrolysis is ecologically more interesting, i.e. by splitting electricity into water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. Here, too, a presentable CO2 balance only results if (surplus) green electricity is used – which, however, as critics complain, could then flow directly into a BHEV. The fuel cell itself is currently still very expensive.

Natural or liquid gas

Natural gas (CNG) as well as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) have long been available as drive alternatives, but they have never really prevailed. In both cases, it is fossil fuels. CNG comes from natural sources, consists mainly of methane and is stored in gaseous form at around 200 bar pressure. Liquefied petroleum gas is a propane-butane mixture that is produced as a by-product in the oil refinery. One kilogram of natural gas has the energy content of two liters of liquid gas, so it is more efficient.

CNG models are mainly offered by the brands of the Volkswagen Group (VW, Seat, Skoda, Audi) and Fiat, new LPG cars from Fiat and Dacia. The vehicles can be operated bivalent, so they still have a small petrol tank on board. The LPG technology is relatively easy to retrofit.


Relatively clean combustion, CNG cars emit around 25 percent less and LPG vehicles around 15 percent less CO2 than a comparable petrol engine. By adding biogas (ideally waste-based), the eco-balance of CNG can be improved even more, and 100 percent biomethane must also be refueled. Both CNG and LPG are subsidized for tax purposes and are therefore cheaper than petrol or diesel.


Only around 1,000 CNG and around 70 LPG filling stations across the United States. Limited new car offer. The production conditions at LPG are ecologically controversial.

Synthetic fuels

Synthetic fuels have been in the works for years. A distinction must be made between bio-fuel, which is based on corn, rapeseed, wheat, palm oil or bio-waste – and the so-called e-fuels, which are obtained from water and CO2 using electricity.


With the clean-burning synthetic fuels, both gasoline and diesel can be operated in the usual manner, and the existing filling station network could be used accordingly. Ideally, this would result in a balanced CO2 balance. Synthetic fuel can already be added to fossil fuels.


The conversion of renewable raw materials into fuel is socially and ecologically questionable – food in the tank, high demand for agricultural land, deforestation are the key words here. The poor efficiency currently speaks against e-fuels. The reason for this are the many individual steps in the production process, each of which is associated with energy losses: First, water is split into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis – and sensibly using green electricity – then carbon dioxide (CO2) is added to the hydrogen, resulting in a synthetic oil which has to be processed into diesel, gasoline, kerosene or heating oil in a refinery.

Gasoline and diesel

That’s how most of us drive today, and it will probably stay that way for quite some time. Almost all experts agree that the combustion engine has by no means had its day.


Gasoline and diesel are comparatively cheap, refueled quickly and easily, and are available worldwide via a closely-knit infrastructure. Contrary to widespread criticism, internal combustion engines are much cleaner today than they used to be: after the introduction of unleaded gasoline and the obligation to use a catalytic converter, particle filters for petrol and diesel have long been mandatory, SCR catalytic converters and urea injection (AdBlue ) have solved the NOx problem themselves with the compression-ignition engine.


Finite resources, no completely clean combustion and, above all, a CO2 problem that – as with all fossil fuels – cannot really be solved, but at best minimized by reducing consumption.

Author: Nabeel K
Email: nabeel@wheelsjoint.com

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments