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AUTOMOTIVE Internal combustion engine—The road ahead

Jan 22, 2019

Internal combustion engines have been an integral part of automobiles, with the first modern engine being created in 1876. While it has developed further to meet changing needs, awareness regarding the protection of the environment has increased in recent times, making the industry re-evaluate its use. This article seeks to explore the alternatives to the internal combustion engine, such as, electric vehicles, amongst others and takes a look at its role in the future.

Instead of finding viable options, humans have often banned many things which they cannot control. Alongside the global debates on crypto-currency, gun-control and many more, the internal combustion engine (ICE) is the latest to join the ban list. Being portrayed as the primary villain behind global warming, several G7 countries like, France, Germany and the UK have strategised to banning the ICEs in the next two decades. With greenhouse gas emissions and constant pressure to improve the air quality, would the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) still remain the power-horse of our future transportation needs?

Electric Mobility versus the ICE

It is estimated at the present day, that there are approximately 2 billion internal combustion engines being used all over the world. Most importantly, these engines are not just used to run cars, but they are also used to run functional trucks, trains, ships and more. The amount of research that has gone in to the ICEs has made it not only more efficient but more importantly, has also developed techniques to reduce harmful emissions. While the catalytic converters are quite effective in controlling emissions in gasoline engines, their success with diesel engines are still quite limited. Considering that the fossil fuel is limited and the fact that the use of these fuels contribute to emissions, it is imperative that an alternate solution be found, and fast. Of all the options that are there, electric is the most popular alternative in the market.

Market scenario

The electric vehicle phenomena is witnessing an upward trend in all major markets. More and more electric cars are coming into the market now. In 2017, more than 1 million vehicles where added globally. This growth is led by China, followed by Europe and the US. Countries like India are also emerging as a major market, with its National E-mobility programme targeting 30% of the vehicles to be sold by 2030 to be electric.


For electric vehicles (EV) to be as functional and common as ICEs, the infrastructure required still needs a lot of development and scientific breakthroughs especially in the field of battery technology. For fossil fuels, refuelling is a fast and efficient process which can be efficiently done at predetermined intervals via the fuel stations serving thousands of vehicles. But when, it is estimated that by 2030, about 10 to 25% of the vehicles on road would be electric, what are the efforts going into building such charging infrastructure? Considering the usage of electric cars for daily commute, owning home chargers becomes mandatory. The logistics of installing and maintaining these charging stations would again pose its own problems.

As people start to drive EVs outside their daily commute and over long distances, the need for a large-scale charging network becomes even more evident. Though investments are being put in place to develop this, there are still several challenges that need to be addressed, including that of grid connections. Despite the ongoing research to reduce the vehicle’s recharging time, the current battery technology is unable to safely recharge an EV battery within even double the time it takes to fill a car’s fuel tank completely. For example, to go from 20% to 80% charge on a Tesla at a super charging station would require about 20 to 30 minutes; while it would take more than 90 minutes to reach 100%. Hence, while the electric motors provide ground breaking performance to electric vehicles, their widespread adoption would be a challenge unless a technique is available to efficiently refuel the vehicles at rates similar to the time it takes to fill gas.

What about hydrogen?

Hydrogen is used to power rockets, boats, airplanes and more. In the automotive scenario, the chemical energy in hydrogen is used to power cars by burning it in internal combustion engines or by using fuel cells to convert it into electricity to run electric motors. In an internal combustion engine, the fossil fuels and hydrogen operates at a thermodynamic efficiency of about 20 to 25%, while using a fuel cell to convert hydrogen to electricity and run an electric motor works at efficiency levels exceeding 60%.

Battery EVs or fuel cell EVs?

Both battery powered EVs and fuel cell EVs work using electricity to operate electric motors for providing traction. Using currently available technologies, the efficiency achieved by charging batteries and using it to power electric motors is more efficient than to generate hydrogen and use fuel cells to generate electricity. However, the disadvantage of the battery is that as the range increases - the power requirement increases, the weight of the battery increases and this finally reduces the battery’s overall efficiency.

What are the challenges?

The biggest challenge in using hydrogen is the cost of production. Presently, the majority of hydrogen is produced from hydrocarbons using steam-reforming techniques, which achieves an efficiency of about 60 to 70%. With the advances in fuel cell technology, it is possible to achieve efficiencies above 80% in producing hydrogen. Either way, the cost of producing hydrogen is still quite high now.

While hydrogen can be transported and distributed using the same infrastructure as diesel or petrol, it would also be possible to produce hydrogen at the location where it is distributed to reduce the cost. The production cost of hydrogen could further be reduced if the manufacturing process would use the offpeak load or excess energy that can be harvested from renewable power sources.

The verdict

The internal combustion engine has been in use for more than a century now. A lot of research has gone in to generating more power, lower emissions and in general to improve efficiency. Recently Mazda has announced an innovation in its gasoline engine technology which will increase its efficiency by about 20 to 30%. Vehicles with this technology are scheduled to hit the market by 2019.

Even the performance achieved by the upcoming Tesla roadster is challenging the established performance benchmarks created by high-performance automanufacturers such as Koenigsegg. However, the fully electric vehicles are still quite expensive. Without subsidies and incentives, the cost benefit that can be achieved by reduced operating costs to match the increased initial investment, does not make commercial sense for an average automobile owner.

Futuristic vehicles

Internal combustion engines have contributed to global warming, due to which more restrictions are being placed on their use. For a sustainable future, other viable options must be studied. Electric vehicles that are commercially available right now prove that it is a viable means of transport. It is certain that electric motors, batteries, fuel cells, etc are going to play a key role in the development of futuristic vehicles. Be it by using batteries or by using fuel cells, the advancement of technology in the area of power storage will definitely drive the trend of electric vehicles. Then again, it will be quite some time before we see the end of internal combustion engines.

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  • As people start to drive EVs outside their daily commute and over long distances, the need for a large-scale charging network becomes even more evident

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