Oil Supply Problems Solved: No Need for Sustainable Transportation


News flash! Oil supply problems solved, four new oil reserves each the size of Saudi Arabia have been found under the North Pole.

Sorry it’s not true! But that’s how much oil we’d need to match our current demand with no growth during the next 30 years. In other words, according to Chevron, we’d need to find the same quantity of oil that we’ve already used during the last 125 years, i.e. 1 trillion barrels!

The Peak Oil debate really interests me. I’m not a geologist, and I know that we keep finding new oil reserves, but it’s becoming clear from expert reports that reserves are running out of that black gold we’re so dependent on, and no matter what some people say (usually politicians or oil producers) we will not be able to meet future demand. With 40% of worldwide traded energy and 90% of transport fuel being oil, what’s the solution?

But that’s not all, even before we run out of oil the car manufacturers have got to respond to very stringent emission regulations (EURO 6 for 2014, etc.) and more importantly have to reduce green house gases like CO² (95g/km by 2020 – today we’re at 160g/km).

It really is “make or break” time for the automotive industry…very exciting and all in my generation!!

So what are the options for automotive engineers? Well, there’s: increasing the vehicle’s energy efficiency to reduce fuel consumption, use fuels which emit less CO², drive electric, etc. Let’s examine…

Energy Efficiency
Improving the energy efficiency of today’s piston engines from a lowly 25% is top priority. Fortunately there are many ways to do this: advanced combustion (HCCI & CAI), reduce friction, hybrid drives to recover energy, etc. Many believe that mild hybrid gasoline engines with turbo charged direct injection will be the norm for 2020. Not easy but there’s great engineering talent out there…

Fuels which emit less CO²
Now here’s where is starts getting all messy and political…

Bio-fuels? Some countries are investing heavily in producing bio-fuels, but by covering ALL of Europe’s agricultural land only 20% of our current needs in fuel would be covered by bio-fuels! Maybe super fast growing algae will save the day?

Hydrogen? Seems like the holy grail, but running cars on hydrogen in a large Euro country (i.e. UK or France) would need: 70 extra nuclear power stations per country (today France has “only” 19), or solar panels covering 8,000km² (nearly the whole Parisian region), or a wind farm covering 24,000km² (nearly all of Belgium)! For the fuel cells themselves, I’m sure that we can find a viable solution to replace the rare and expensive platinum catalysts. The real issue is the hydrogen itself. Would you like to sit on a gas cylinder pressurised to 700bar or cooled to -253°C?

But what about the Electric Vehicle?

Now this looks interesting…the electric motor itself is easily a match for pistons engines in terms of acceleration and from “well to wheel” the EV is already 3 times more energy efficient than fuel cell cars and emits 25% less CO² than the best hydrocarbon burning vehicle. If only we could find a breakthrough in storing energy so that we can drive more than 100km and charge up quickly. But we’d still need about 24 extra nuclear power station to charge the batteries!!! Btw, for the batteries there isn’t enough lithium in the world to replace today’s car population.

I really think that the plug-in electric vehicle is the solution, but we’ll also have to radically change our habits and the transport infrastructure. Less travelling and more video conferencing (this will be a huge business in the future I’m sure), only small journeys in personal vehicles, long distance will be by public transport by converting the spider’s web of motorways we have today into platforms for intelligent trains carrying cars with wagons that can break off at intersections…woo I’ve been reading too much Jules Verne!!!

Anyway, lots of critical decisions will have to be made in product development, but maybe the biggest challenge for the automotive industry is to transform their organisations so that they can take these challenges with their suppliers…


References: David Strahan on Peak Oil, Bio-Fuels & Hydrogen, Véhicule 2030 by Jean Syrota (document in French) on Fuel Cell Cars vs. Electric Cars

  • Ross McWilliam

    Good article – I’m all for covering Paris in solar panels…

  • Andrew Early

    Nice summary, Jon. The key point I think is that whatever technology is developed in the automotive sector, industry (as a whole) and governments need to agree and pursue a coordinated energy strategy over the coming years (energy = transportation = oil = solar etc.). Waiting for “market forces” to guide things is not an option. Look what it’s done in the financial sector!

    Regarding specific automotive solutions, the plug-in hybrid is always going to be hampered on long journeys by the energy storage issue. The mass of batteries would be too much of a penalty to carry around and rapid charging still seems to be a problem. Getting a solution to this that doesn’t involve precious metals or unpleasant industrial processes will be very challenging!

    Perhaps the best ‘current technology’ answer to this is to develop a standard range of battery packs that drivers can replace at specially equipped service stations (like an F1 pit-stop). Short-trip commuters could use the same battery each day, charging at night (typical PIH usage) and for longer trips could either fit a higher-capacity battery, or swap the smaller one en-route to their destination.

    I think the best solution today is still a hyper efficient boosted Diesel (Polo BlueMotion etc). The Prius and similar vehicles don’t convince me thus far, especially when you take the environmental footprint of their manufacture into consideration.


  • Thanks, Ross and Andrew for your comments.

    I hope Paris will one day be covered in solar panels, at least the roofs, which are today mostly covered by unattractive metal sheets anyway.

    Specially equipped service stations to change your batteries in minutes (like we used to change our horses at inns) is definitely an interesting solution for the electric car to hope to travel any serious distance without the problem of long charging times. But, there are a number of hurdles to overcome with this too, for instance:
    – Infrastructure: all current service stations will need to have sufficient stock of charged batteries, with robots that can manipulate the heavy loads. All very costly.
    – Standardisation of batteries and their connections to the car: this is essential, requiring the automotive industry to design this in from the very start from common international standards which they and governments all have to agree on in advance. Not easy.

    Apparently Denmark and Isreal are going to test this starting 2010…

    I also agree with you on highly efficient combustion engines being the way forward, at least for the next 10 years. Probably coupled to a mild hybrid setup (stop/start etc.). Regarding the Prius etc., if I had the cash I would love to buy one, but they do not make any sound financial sense. OK, their emission levels are very very competitve but I can already get better fuel consumption today from, for example, a Citreon C4 1.6D which will also pull a car trailer with ease at 130km/h on the motorway!! Once diesel engined cars get in to the USA and Japan I think full petrol/electric hybrids cars will have a hard time surviving.


  • Deepak

    Why not think of one step ahead for “Specially equipped service stations”. There might be advanced technology in batteries coming up which can be charged at these service stations in say 1 minute flat. Or may be a supercharger as spare to be carried which when connected to the working battery will charge it fully immediately.