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Beyond Electric

The unintentionally hilarious advert for the Quant e-Sportlimousine makes an unintentionally hilarious demand of its viewers: ‘Imagine a car unlike you have ever imagined.’ Yet, putting this awkward imperative aside, the e-Sportlimousine might actually be a car unlike you have ever imagined. It’s a gull-winged, four-seated, touch-screened, Ferrari-looking piece of automobile. It has 912 horsepower, its top speed is 236 mph, it goes from 0 to 60 in just under three seconds. But here’s the specification that may really astound you: it runs on salt water!

Okay, this isn’t salt water as we normally understand it. Its two electrolyte solutions made from various metal salts and other secret ingredients. These solutions are stored in tanks at the back of the car, from where they’re pumped through a special battery, past a membrane separating them both, to eventually produce electricity. That electricity is then used to power four separate motors at each of the wheels. The company behind the technology, NanoFlowcell, says that it stores more energy than the lithium-ion batteries used in most electric cars. Just fill up on the electrolyte solutions, and you’re good to go for between 249 and 373 miles.

Sound great? It’s worth remembering that the e-Sportlimousine is still very much a prototype. It has been shown off at various motor shows this year, but that’s about it. We still don’t know whether NanoFlowcell’s claims are scientific fact or just plain bravado. A spell of testing on public roads, which was recently granted by European authorities, could help yield some answers.

But, whatever comes of it, the Quant e-Sportlimousine is indicative of the times in motoring. The electric car has, for some time, been an answer to an ever more pressing question: how can we diminish our reliance on fossil fuels before they either run out or fug up our atmosphere? But now there’s an increasing number of answers to that question. Some of those answers will be right, some of them will be wrong. Some of them will catch on, some of them will flop. This is the nature of a competitive marketplace.

Another of these potential answers is hydrogen. This one has been around for a while, but it’s gaining new and rather unexpected traction, thanks to Honda, Hyundai and Toyota developing new hydrogen fuel cell vehicles this year. Their work is, in some ways, similar to that being done by Quant. The hydrogen is stored on the car, just like the saline solutions, from where it’s stripped of its electrons by fuel cells, which then act as a ready stream of electricity to power the vehicle itself. The denuded hydrogen goes on to be combined with oxygen to produce nothing more than water, in the form of steam from the exhaust pipe. No wonder polities such as California are going out of their way to incentivise hydrogen vehicles.

And then there’s the option of biofuels. These are much closer to the fuels that we traditionally pump into our cars. Biodiesel, for instance, can be used in any car with a diesel engine; except, instead of coming out of the prehistoric ground, it’s made by chemically converting the sorts of vegetable oils that we use in our cooking. Ethanol requires slightly retooled engines to work properly, but it too is made out of plant materials. Neither of these fuels are as clean as hydrogen or salt water, but it’s thought that they’re cleaner than fossil fuels. And they’re also available in abundance. If farmers can grow it, we can burn it.

So, which one of these will catch on? It depends what you mean by ‘catching on’. Vehicles that can run on ethanol may be an unusual concept in Britain, but there are already over 20 million of them on Brazil’s roads. In that case, in that locality, they’ve already caught on to the point that they’re everyday practice.

But that doesn’t mean that biofuels are on their way to global domination – far from it. For all of their advantages over fossil fuels and even over some of the other modern alternatives, they have plenty of disadvantages too. Among them is the simmering debate about their true environmental impact. Is it really good for our planet to mass-produce crops on the scale required for fuel conversion, taking over fields that were previously used for food agriculture? Some scientists think not.

In the end, this is what the debate about alternative fuels becomes: a complicated latticework of pros and cons. Just consider the hydrogen method again. Because it produces its own electricity, rather than drawing it from a National Grid that is pockmarked with coal-burning power stations, these are probably greener overall than plug-in vehicles such as the Tesla Model S. But this also gives the Model S its major advantage: it already has a ready-made infrastructure in place. If Elon Musk wants us to drive his cars, he basically just needs to attach a few charging points to the grid. If other manufacturers want us in their hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, well… where is the hydrogen infrastructure? It’s only in its infancy, and it’s a very costly infancy at that.

Which brings us back to the Quant e-Sportslimousine and its special brand of salt water. Surely that wouldn’t require as much new infrastructure; just petrol stations prepared to pump out the requisite electrolyte solutions into cars built for purpose? Hm, perhaps. But perhaps this technology is being tested in a top-end sports car for a reason. Perhaps it’s too expensive for ordinary consumption. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. The only thing we know is that motoring is in a whirl. ‘The future,’ as a wise man once put it, ‘is unwritten.’      

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