Emission-free cars – back to the future

Who does not know the history of the car? In 1876 Carl Benz built one of the first gasoline-powered vehicles in Germany. However, before the gasoline engine, there had been cars running on steam, wind power and electric batteries, already since 1670. By 1900 these low-emission cars accounted for as much as 80% of all vehicles on the roads. Why hasn’t there been put more effort into the development of zero-emission technologies up and until today?

German Version / French Version

One of the very first studies ever carried out on the subject of locomotion in our highly developed society showed in 2018, that Germans commute an average distance of 39 km every day.

One of the main arguments against all alternative technologies to the internal combustion engine which works with petrol is, that the reach of 300-500 kilometres of a steam car, hydrogen car or electric car wouldn’t be sufficient in real life.

In order to become „easy sustainable“/ „easy nachhaltiger“ in the field of mobility, you need to be well informed about the possibilities to get around. Yes, knowledge is power. It is important to know that gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines are one of the most recent technologies for getting around. There are dozens of alternatives. In this article, I would like to explain these alternative possibilities and their history, as well as how you can drive around with zero emissions yourself.

From Zero-Emission to High-Emission Cars

In 400 BC, muscle-powered mechanical carts became popular. Around 1600, the first wagon that ran with the wind in its sails was build in China. Again back in China, a Jesuit missionary built the first steam-powered vehicle powered by water in 1670.

In 1800, with the invention of high-pressure steam, steam cars became more and more widespread. By 1900, about 40% of all cars had a steam engine. In 1807, the first hydrogen-powered combustion engine was invented in Switzerland. However, the first hydrogen car was not to be built until 1966 by a high school student in the USA.

In 1828, a Benedictine priest in Slovenia invented the electric motor. In the years that followed, electric cars were built, especially in Scotland and in the USA, these cars continued to be improved and further developed. By 1900, about 40% of all cars had an electric motor drive.

In 1876 the gasoline engine was introduced to the market. However, by 1900, oil and gasoline combustion engines accounted for only about 20% of all cars on the roads.

Back in Slovenia, in 1910, Nikola Tesla, the son of a Serbian Orthodox priest, invented the two-phase alternating current system, thus revolutionising electric power technology and bringing more powerful electric cars with a longer range onto the market.

The Beginning of the End

In 1914, however, the lot was to decide in favour of oil and gasoline combustion engines. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were working on an electric car that should have been launched in 1915. Shortly before the planned release date, the inventors said that they would bring an electric car to the market which was affordable by all social classes and which would have a greater range than a gasoline engine. But it never came to that.

Some sources say that the premises on which the inventors produced electric batteries were deliberately burned down, others claim that Ford was bought by the oil industry. Yet again some others say that the batteries that Ford tinkered with were ultimately not compatible with his car model after all.

The exact reasons why Henry Ford and Thomas Edison abandoned their project, in which they had already invested 1.5 million dollars in 1914, today the equivalent of 32 million dollars, is not known. Fact is that they abandoned their 32 million projects from one day to another. Thus the electric car, and with it, all other alternative technologies to the oil and petrol-fueled internal combustion engine stopped being developed. They all got forgotten by the general public until 2002.

The Road Back Begins

Since 2002 with the prototype of the ZEE03, the Zero Emission Engin, which ran on steam, German scientists wanted to continue their research in the field of emission-free technologies. The high-pressure injection technology and the complex electronics for controlling the ZEE were available from the year 2000 on. It resembled a conventional engine in its design but operated with steam.

In 2008, however, Tesla made a breakthrough with an electric car, which was capable again of keeping up with petrol-fueled cars.

Today, research is increasingly being conducted in many areas. Investors are beginning to take an interest in the construction of infrastructures for hydrogen and electrically powered cars.

In February 2020, the „Lightyear One“ from Holland was launched into the market. A solar-powered electric car, which does not necessarily need an outer source of electricity because it recharges itself.

Why Have Petrol Engines and All Other Polluting Cars Dominated Our Roads for so Long?

The oil lobby was already very influential at the beginning of the 19th century. With the construction of pipelines and petrol stations, many jobs were created and many people became rich. For an electric motor drive, you only have to assemble and install approximately 25 parts. For an eight-cylinder combustion engine, hundreds of workers have to produce and install about 1200 parts. In addition, a combustion engine needs a lot of maintenance and care, which creates again jobs and employment. Much of the effort mentioned above would simply be omitted with an electric motor.

In addition, there is hardly any investment in the development of environmentally friendly accumulators, i.e. car batteries. This means that lithium instead of natrium or magnesium still occurs today in car batteries, the batteries with which an electric car is driven. Cobalt-containing batteries and accumulators are no longer being installed in Switzerland but are still used in all other countries.

Steam-powered cars are re-explored from time to time. However, the water here also has to be heated, either with a battery or by another energy source. The most promising technologies in the field of low-emission automobiles are those which use hydrogen and electricity as fuel. Yes, we are now picking up where we left off in 1914.

Especially with electric cars and the production of accumulators, problems are emerging. Corrupt politicians do not protect the population in mining areas of lithium, cobalt and other rare earths. Blinding lamas and people, as well as a lack of drinking water for the locals, are the result. In the field of waste management, an almost one hundred percent recycling of accumulators and batteries would be already possible today, but there is a lack of investors to bring recycling plants up to date. There are hardly any alternative training or further education courses in the field of car mechanics. In addition, with the very rapid development towards the production of electric cars, the pay gap is widening very widely. Companies such as electric car manufacturers, logistics companies and dealers are growing that fast that workers have no time to organize themselves and form unions. As a result, a German worker receives an average wage of 9 euros per hour.

Solutions for the Return to Emission-Free Cars

The recycling facilities for batteries and car accumulators would have to be brought up to date so that rare earths would no longer be incinerated but recovered. Here one could invest in shares or securities of companies that are researching new recycling methods.

Car sharing concepts and better networking between apps and the Internet of Things vehicles would have to be promoted. There are already countless car-sharing groups in your neighbourhood, or companies offering similar concepts.

In addition, teaching, courses of study, and further training could be adapted so that the „ordinary employees“, without a doctorate, could also actively contribute their knowledge to improve the production of low-emission vehicles.

Today there are many research projects working on batteries with organic cell chemistry without the presence of rare earths. You could support Crowdfundings in this area, inform yourself about the manufacturing conditions and recycling options before buying cars, this helps to slow down global warming.

If Thomas Edison and Henry Ford had made the breakthrough in 1914 with their invention of an affordable electric car for long distances, we would have other climate problems today. Theoretically, research would be 120 years ahead. Would the world look better? It might be. In order to accelerate the return to low-emission cars, it is already possible to invest in companies that are researching in this direction, be it in battery production, recycling, or in infrastructure for low-emission cars.

from Geruscha Lau


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One thought on “Emission-free cars – back to the future

  1. Thank you for your insightful article which focuses on the future of the automobile industry in terms of innovations regarding car emissions over time. It is interesting to note how this industry has come full circle, once more revitalising past technology previously forgotten.

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