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Could ICE Have a Greener Future?

Keynote speaker at Automotive Techweek, Frank Abkenar, global engineering director at Ford, spoke about clean and efficient propulsion technology developments.

His presentation comes at a time when the conversation is increasingly against ICE because they are mainly powered by fossil fuels. However, despite the march towards Net Zero carbon emissions after COP 26, the question arises about whether ICE can have a greener future by being converted to work with greener fuels.

When asked whether there is greener future for the internal combustion engine in an interview for TU-Automotive, Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham, said the short answer is “No.” However, Richard Osborne, global technical expert of sustainable engines at Ricardo says there is a need to distinguish between pollutant emissions and greenhouse gas emissions when considering the key technical developments of the internal combustion engine and whether they have become cleaner and greener over the last decade.

Regulatory differences

Osborne explains: “In Europe we regulate CO2 but in other markets they regulate fuel economy. However, they are essentially the same. Basically, fuel is combusted into CO2 and water and they are products of complete combustion of hydrocarbon fuels. So, in simple terms measures of fuel economy are the same as measures of CO2. Both of those areas have developed a lot.

“If we tackle pollutant, or air quality emissions first, we have a long history of emissions regulations that go back to the 1960s. In the last decade we have had the introduction of Euro 6, the European Regulatory Framework for Passenger Cars and Heavy-Duty Trucks, and Euro 7 will come in the middle of this decade. It is currently being formulated and agreed. The plan is to follow Europe in those areas, there is no intention for the UK to deviate.”

Interestingly, A number of research studies find that the final state of Euro 6, known as Euro 6d, would have no impact on air quality. In fact, he says they found that there would be the same air quality impact as if there were only battery-electric vehicles. To address this issue, regulators desire to go a step further to address it with Euro 7, which will focus on the different types of unregulated emissions such as higher or lower temperatures and faster driving speeds. This will consider real driving emissions by moving from lab-based testing environments to the road-based, real-world measurements of pollutant emissions. “That’s already included in Euro 6 but it’s going to be developed further in the Euro 7 regulations,” he says.

“The greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency have also seen a lot of development over the last decade and the most crucial point is the electrification or hybridization of powertrains. Electrification allows engines to be optimised further for fuel efficiency. They can operate over a narrower range of engine speed and load, and so they can be developed specifically for that narrow range of engine speeds and loads. If you put it into a hybrid, you can narrow the range right down and, therefore, need to compromise less in the engine design.”

Automakers’ response

So, how should automakers be preparing to develop the engine in line with consumer needs and evolving regulations?  Osborne stresses that regulation is key to this. At the moment the regulations address tailpipe emissions only and for ICEs this has worked well. However, now there are hybrids, battery-electric vehicles and fuel-cell electric vehicles with which the existing regulations don’t work because fuel-cell and battery-electric vehicles don’t have tailpipes. He says there is also a need to consider the lifecycle analysis of these vehicles to catch greenhouse emissions throughout their lifecycle – from the extraction of the materials to make them, to manufacturing and recycling.

The trouble is that lifecycle analysis is complex. He comments: “There is an opportunity within the current European program, which is called Fit For 55. It’s a reduction of greenhouse gases by 55% by 2035. We need to hit Net Zero at 2050. There is a chance there to implement lifecycle analysis but the decision at the moment is to not do this for road transport. There are different approaches in different parts of the world too. The policy is that ICE will cease to be on sale in new European passenger vehicles in 2035 but, if you look at the Chinese government’s roadmap for their domestic market, they expect half of new vehicles to be hybrids in 2035.” The trouble is, in the UK at least, there is a policy to also ban new sales of hybrids as well as ICE vehicles by 2030.

Sustainable fuels

Osborne believes that a ban of new ICE vehicle sales won’t be the end of the internal combustion engine fleet though. These vehicles will need to be fueled by sustainable fuels. At the moment, he explains, there are 1.4Bn ICE vehicles on the road in the world. While there will be a growth in electric vehicles sales, the number of ICE vehicles on the road is still going to increase. He argues: “We need to stop those ICE vehicles from using fossil fuels, and replace them with biofuels or synthetic fuels, and we are likely to need a combination of both.

“There will be more electrification, and every new vehicle will soon be a hybrid of some sort. The most important thing is the development of sustainable fuels. If we move away from passenger cars, and we look at heavy-duty transport including off-highway vehicles – those applications are very difficult to electrify. That’s partly because the battery requirements are very difficult. If you think about a 40-ton excavator that’s working continually on a construction site, the battery required is very large and very expensive.”

A greener ICE future?

So, could ICE have a future still, even better a greener future than it currently has today? In the Chinese government’s view, and in China as a market as well as in other key development markets, ICEs are going to remain vital. One aspect of this is the affordability of the vehicles in comparison with electric alternatives.

Osborne explains why: “We can’t have a society where only the wealthy have access to battery-electric vehicles and others drive vehicle types that have been or will be banned from sale. The future of ICE will involve no fossil fuels but biomass and synthetic fuels. They can be blended easily and those engines will be hybridized and they will produce emissions with zero impact on air quality.”

Yet, while internal combustion engines could have a cleaner and greener future by being converted to use different fuels, Osborne is keen to stress that this doesn’t mean they will emit zero emissions. There are, nevertheless, solutions becoming more available that have no impact on air quality. He believes it’s a matter of “being honest about the whole lifecycle impacts”. To this end there is ongoing research and development to develop more efficient engine technologies, or for research projects like the Ricardo calls Magma xEV for hybridized applications, hydrogen ICE and sustainable liquid fuels.

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