A primer on the pros and cons of alternative fuels.
By Andrew Joseph, Editor
When it comes to fossil fuels, along with global communities decrying the finite resource will soon come to an end, there’s the added negativity of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced from the operation of vehicles using diesel or gasoline.
Canada’s GHG emissions in 2020 were 672.4 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Per the Canada Energy Regulator (CER), our emissions have increased 13.1 percent since 1990 but declined 9.3 percent since 2005.
Between 1990-2020, overall emissions grew because of increased output from oil and gas extraction, and the transport segment—more vehicles on the road.
To combat those issues, forward-thinking manufacturers have developed electric, autonomous, and hybrid vehicles to replace gas guzzlers.
CER noted that as of 2020, the ag sector was the fifth-largest source of GHG emissions (10 percent) with 69 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted into the atmosphere.
They reported a three percent increase in GHG emissions between 2019 and 2020, a record high.
Canadian synthetic fertilizer use contributes 1.7 percent of CO2 equivalent of total GHG emissions. Per the Canadian government mandate to lower the country’s emission output by 30 percent, it would require reducing usage to only 1.3 percent.
In this article, we are going to provide an overview of alternative fuel technologies as a means to reduce GHG emissions.
Of all the global industries, the ag industry is among the top leaders working to reduce GHG emissions by exploring new technologies to replace the diesel tractors while maintaining its environmental greenness.
While automonous farm vehicles like precision ag (PAg) tractors have been recommended for years as the go-to, North American farmers have been reluctant to embrace it despite its ability to accurately use more land to produce, seed and spray to maximize crop yield.
One of the main reasons is price. While initial costs for an autonomous vehicle may indeed be high, manufacturers and retailers point out that the sticker shock is easily replaced by a relatively quick return on investment.
Still the domain of the larger ag producer, manufacturers need to develop precision ag technologies for small farmers to increase acceptance of PAg technologies. Often, smaller farm businesses are more willing to try new technologies to increase their yield, but are hampered by the cost of entry.
Another reason is fear that the technology is too complex for the user. If ag retailers and PAg manufacturers worked together to set up demonstrations for farmers, that could alleviate the pressure of trying to learn a new technology without formal instruction.
While manufacturers can teach the theoretical side of a particular tractor or sprayer, for example, it is often trial and error on the operator’s end when they are performing real-field functions in different weather and field conditions.
That only heightens the drawbacks associated with these new technologies. For autonomous vehicles, high-speed internet service is required as its vision system relays data to the Cloud (off-site hub) where servers process the machine’s next move. Such actions have to be in real-time with no lag, not only for the promised accuracy of precision ag, but also for safety purposes.
As such, many ag retailers are still at the mercy of the area’s broadband internet provider. It is tough to sell PAg equipment and technology to a farmer that lacks the broadband required to make it work.
Even with PAg vehicles, GHG emissions are still a concern. Are there fuel alternatives manufacturers could examine?
Biofuels Seeding Success
Biofuels, aka biomass, are a class of renewable energy derived from living materials. This includes wood, biogas, biodiesel, ethanol, methanol, and butanol.
However, the most common biofuels are those derived from crops such as rapeseed, corn or canola.
According to the Canadian Canola Growers Association (CCGA), the use of renewable biofuel reduces our GHG emissions, but also provides economic benefits to farmers.
No one is saying we take perfectly good canola that could be used to feed people and turn it into fuel—rather, use the off-grade canola seed that may not be marketable to the food market to create a demand for the seed that would otherwise have limited sales opportunities.
This diversification of markets reduces the trade risk to farmers. Right now, more than 90 percent of the Canadian canola produced is exported as seed, oil, and meal.
By increasing domestic demand for canola as a feedstock for biofuel, the CCGA said it will lessen the degree of dependency canola farmers have on exports and exposure to trade disruptions. For instance, blending at five percent biodiesel in Canada could use 1.3 million+ tonnes of seed, a domestic market similar in scale to Japan.
As a bonus, that five percent inclusion of canola blended into petroleum diesel would be the equivalent of removing one-million cars and the corresponding GHG emissions from Canadian roads each year.
But can the canola industry keep up with demand? Canadian crush facilities have enough capacity to process 11 million tonnes of seed into oil for a variety of uses, including biofuels. The CCGA had said in 2021, that there are additional projects in place to further increase capacity in western Canada to crush approximately 16.5 million tonnes annually.
The CCGA isn’t talking about increasing crop production to yield more canola for biofuel purposes alone, so there is no need for additional land, water, or fertilizer, which in turn poses no added danger to our food supply chain.
But, while crushers can easily convert the crop into an oil, it still needs to be added to and blended with another fuel source. That blending process is still costly, largely due to the infancy of the technology.
The other problem is availability. Although the CCGA has stated that only non-food grade crops would be used to provide the biofuel blend, more and more crop seeds are being genetically formulated to produce better quality crops.
That means fewer non-food grade crops would be available for use as a hybrid fuel ingredient. The solution, however, is not to start planting low-grade crops specifically for our vehicles, because that defeats the whole purpose of trying to find a more environmentally friendly power alternative.
If you regularly visit your local gas station, you’ll notice that all major gasoline producers in Canada offer a form of ethanol/gasoline mixture at the pump. That five or 10 percent ethanol is used to oxygenate the rest of the gasoline fossil fuel. Derived from low-grade corn, sugarcane, barley, sugar beets, and grain, ethanol is created by fermentation and distillation — the same chemical process humans have used for centuries to produce alcohol.
Ethanol is considered to be much cleaner than fossil fuels, releasing mostly carbon and water vapour, but some manufacturers are still looking to eliminate the carbon emission. As a bonus, ethanol increases the octane rating in the fuel, keeping a vehicle in better shape.
So what’s the downside? Unfortunately, when distilling fermented materials, it takes a long time and requires a lot of heat. Typically, this heat is produced by fossil fuels which adds to the GHG emissions.
However, it is better if a facility does not use fossil fuels to produce the heat.
It has been noted that our vehicles use a low-level blend of ethanol and gasoline/diesel, which is a cleaner option. So why don’t we see 100 percent ethanol as a fuel? There are a few reasons why.
- The chemical nature of pure ethanol.
Ethanol absorbs any trace of water around it or in the atmosphere, making it difficult to produce 100 percent of it for any use as it is 99.8 percent pure.
- Ethanol mixed with water can damage your vehicle’s engine.
Water is more dense than fuel, so when the two are mixed, it immediately sinks to the bottom of the tank. Because ethanol absorbs water rather than eliminating it, this can cause potentially serious engine problems.
- Ethanol is extremely difficult to vaporize in its purest form.
This makes it more difficult to turn over the engine in cold weather. For that reason, oil companies have created these low percentage blends to make starting your car easier in inclement weather.
It is also important to note that mileage is slightly reduced when using an ethanol blend, meaning the environmental benefits will soothe your conscience but not your wallet.
The Low-down on Hydrogen
Hydrogen fuels are only now beginning to get attention from ag manufacturers as an alternative to battery-electric tractors and other vehicles.
Hydrogen is used as a fuel to produce electricity for the power cells that charge electric batteries in electric vehicles. These vehicles are known as hydrogen-electric hybrids.
According to NASA, our sun is made up of about 92 percent hydrogen—so there’s a source available only eight minutes and 20 seconds away (the time it takes for sunlight to travel to Earth).
For now, until we figure out how to mine the sun for its hydrogen, we’ll have to settle for solutions here on planet Earth. A lithium shortage (more later) could help this fuel segment gain more traction.
Even the Canadian government has plans.
Two years ago in December 2020, the Government of Canada released its Hydrogen Strategy for Canada providing insight into how the country can become more of a major player in the production of low-carbon hydrogen.
Low-carbon hydrogen is exactly what it sounds like. However, during standard hydrogen production, carbon is produced, which, from an environmental standpoint, is not good.
Because we as a planet are looking for ways to minimize gases such as carbon from entering our atmosphere, utilizing a hydrogen production method that greatly reduces the carbon footprint is a good thing. This includes blue, and green hydrogen.
Low-carbon hydrogen is a clean and sustainable solution for energy storage and distribution, like power-to-gas, insertion into natural gas grids, and reconversion to electricity via hydrogen fuel cells.
Low carbon hydrogen includes green hydrogen (hydrogen from renewable electricity), blue hydrogen (hydrogen from natural gas using steam methane reformation that includes carbon capture, utilization, and storage), and the rarely mentioned aqua hydrogen, which is hydrogen gas derived from fossil fuels via new technologies.
Canada already has many a fork stuck into the low-carbon hydrogen pie. The North West Redwater Sturgeon Refinery northeast of Edmonton, Alberta is a producer, while Suncor Energy and partner ATCO are already producing over 300,000 tonnes of low-carbon hydrogen annually in the province.
A project by ATCO is looking to provide a mix of natural gas containing up to five percent hydrogen into part of Fort Saskatchewan’s residential natural gas distribution network.
American company Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. plans to construct a $1.3 billion facility in Edmonton to produce hydrogen derived from natural gas, with operations expected to start in 2024.
In Ontario, Enbridge Gas and Cummins have completed a project to blend hydrogen into the Enbridge Gas natural gas network in the province.
In Bécancour, Quebec, construction has been completed on the world’s largest proton-exchange membrane 20-megawatt electrolyzer to use local hydroelectric resources to produce green hydrogen.
Shining a Light on Solar
The concept of vehicles capturing sunlight using solar panels that it then converts into electricity has been widely understood for decades, but there have been few practical examples.
However, in late 2021, EdisonFuture, an automaker based in Livermore, California owned by the renewable energy Chinese firm SPI Energy, debuted its EF1-T pickup truck, and EF1-V delivery van.
The EF1-T truck is equipped with a sloping retractable solar panel roof over the bed that will add range while the vehicle is on the road as long as there are enough solar rays to be captured. The EF1-V will have a non-retractable solar panel roof to add range. For both vehicles, EdisonFuture said it can be charged either while driving or parked.
Because both are EV vehicles, neither is reliant on the whims of the weather.
However, solar panels will work on cloudy days, as sunlight still shines through but the energy captured will not be as strong. Solar panels will also work in the rain because solar action still occurs despite the obstruction of clouds. Experts suggest a solar paneled vehicle (or home) will perform better after the rain washes away any dirt and grim that has accumulated.
Photovoltaic solar panels are able to use direct or indirect sunlight to generate power for batteries, but are most effective in direct sunlight. They will not soak in solar energy at night, but energy gathered during the day is available for use when stored in their batteries.
Sono Motors GmbH is a Munich, Germany-headquartered company that has built a mini-truck with solar panels on the roof. Using its 458 Box Body truck, the company worked with ARI to add the solar component. While perhaps useful for short deliveries within an airport or last-mile deliveries in town, the little truck can haul nearly 1,200 pounds (531 kg) and approximately 100 cubic feet (2.8 cubic meters) of cargo. Capable of getting up to 49.71 mph (80 km/h), the truck has a range of 75–300 miles on a charge, depending on the weight of the cargo and the amount of energy required to move it.
If these tiny vehicles do little to get your motor running, how about the 18-ton GVWR from Fraunhofer ISE, of Freiburg, Germany, the largest solar research institute in Europe with staff of 1,400 people? The truck’s solar panels placed atop the roof, provide up to 10 percent of its EV power.
But is there a practical solar-powered tractor? Although no commercial solar-powered tractor is currently on the market, solar panels can certainly be used on a farm as a means to convert to electric power stored in photovoltaic batteries that a modified electric tractor could use to plug into for recharging purposes.
The application of solar panels on top of the vehicles could prove impractical when considering the tractor type and/or nature of the combined usage. Rough terrain and accompanying bumps would likely interrupt the internal technology, rendering it useless.
Still, in regions with a lot of sunny days, utilizing solar panels to charge an electric vehicle sounds like a clean alternative. At least you know where the electricity is coming from.
EVs & the Ingredient Shortage
We’ve already noted that Canadian ag industries such as the canola sector can produce enough biodiesel to make a huge difference in GHG emissions. But is the lithium battery electric technology a better option?
For those touting the electric vehicle as greener-than-the-grass-over-your-neighbour’s-wall, we have to consider how the electricity needed to recharge a battery is produced. If a local electricity company produces the majority of its energy from wind power, sunlight, or surf, only then is true clean electric battery power being produced.
If, however, the provider uses any percentage of nuclear energy, then your customer’s efforts to go green may not be possible after all.
According to data from the Canadian Energy Regulator, 60 percent of all electricity produced is done so via hydroelectric means, Canada being the fourth-largest hydroelectric producer in the world.
But the remaining 40 percent of Canadian electricity is generated from sources such as natural gas, nuclear, wind, coal, biomass, solar, and petroleum.
Again, not all bad. Although some sources are environmentally better than others with regards to GHG emissions, it should also curb the self-appointed virtues of electric vehicles as being the best solution.
Canada’s Energy Future, the 2021 report issued by the CER, predicts our nation’s non-hydro renewable electricity capacity will grow by 83 percent to 33.3 GW by 2040 based on its Current Policies Scenario, and by 239 percent to 61.8 GW in its Evolving Policies Scenario.
Thanks to a huge push by manufacturers and all levels of government, it is expected that the global demand for lithium batteries used in EVs will rise sixfold in the next 10 years.
Yes… demand. But will the supply of lithium be able to keep up despite its current global shortages?
Lithium is a necessary ingredient in EV batteries. Its shortage will drive up the price of battery production and purchase cost of the already-expensive electric vehicle.
While we are currently seeing a surplus of lithium, the report indicated that by 2030, existing mines and projects under construction around the world will only produce about half of what is needed.
It added that for all those lithium mines that began operations between 2010-2019, it will take about 16.5 years to develop. What that means is that all new mines will have to ramp up their speed in order to meet demand.
If they cannot speed up production, we will have a shortage of lithium. Or cobalt. Or graphite; and those are just a few of the ingredients needed for batteries. Many other battery components could face shortages, stalling the electrification of vehicles.
Some manufacturers are indeed looking at different battery technologies to increase the range of EV vehicles for more general use, including on farms. But in the meantime, lithium batteries are generally considered the wave of the future—and the future is now.
If the sixfold demand for electric batteries over the next 10 years holds, a report from EV supply chain market intelligence publisher Benchmark shows that global markets will need approximately:
- 59 new lithium mines, producing an average of 45,000 tonnes annually;
- 38 new cobalt mines, producing 5,000 tonnes annually;
- 72 new nickel mines, producing around 42,500 tonnes annually;
- 97 new natural flake graphite mines, producing around 56,000 tonnes annually; and
- 54 new synthetic graphite plants, producing around 57,000 tonnes annually
Even though we are seeing more and more electric vehicles on the road today, the range of driveability is a concern, as is the source of how the electricity is being derived for charging stations. We must also consider infrastructure, current capacities, and the electric power companies’ ability to supply enough electricity on demand without causing community-wide brown or blackouts. Do we have the capacity to manufacture electric batteries while maintaining acceptable price points?
Though electric battery vehicles are being hyped as the next generation of power for our vehicles, it doesn’t mean we should stop looking at alternative options.
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