The race for sustainable sources of energy has creative engineering minds in high gear.
by Antony Lawes
Rob Windt can trace his latest project to a midlife crisis about a decade ago. The 52-year-old lives in the Gippsland town of Foster and has an LPG conversion business. But after this life reassessment he developed a passion for sustainability - he became interested in permaculture and, because of his background in alternative fuels, started looking for better ways to power a car.
Batteries put him off - especially what they were made from. Biodiesel was "a lot of mucking around with chemicals and taking food for fuel". Hydrogen gas generators needed petrol or gas and air power was better for city driving than country.
His solution? To convert his 1989 Ford ute to run on wood through a metal contraption of pipes and a big cylinder bolted on the back called a gas producer.
"I just wanted something that would be a total replacement for fossil fuels and this one just fits the bill," he says. "It's something low-tech [and] it can be done by someone any time and anywhere. You just need access to a workshop and welding equipment."
The gas producer works by turning a combustible material - most commonly coal or wood but potentially anything as diverse as nutshells or other biomass - into a gaseous fuel mixture and using that to power the car.
Windt has been tinkering on it all year after a few false starts and hopes to have it running in a month or two.
He admits it would not be a solution for everyone as "we'd be running out of forests pretty fast". But it's a niche answer for those who have access to timber, especially those who can grow their own.
He reckons his ute would take a kilogram of wood to travel up to three kilometres and a bag of wood would last about 80 kilometres.
It will also need an LPG booster when going up hill and "it's not good for short trips because you've got to start it, get it up to temperature ... it's more for going to the next town rather than driving within the town".
But the carbon emissions would be lower than a petrol, LPG or diesel engine and because of the CO2 stored in the wood, Windt says the process is carbon neutral.
But he's not alone.
This search for an environmentally sustainable car has been the fire in the belly of many a backyard tinkerer and inventor. Often sick of waiting for the big car companies to make what they consider logical improvements, they use their own ingenuity, call on favours and often beg and borrow to see their dream car realised.
Kearon de Clouet is a self-taught mechanic who has become a poster boy for those converting petrol-powered cars to electric. The filmmaker spent six months of Sundays turning a Ford Capri into an electric car in his northern beaches garage, which he documented in a blog and a series of popular YouTube clips. With mates, he has also rebuilt a motorbike to run on batteries, which at 177km/h broke an electric motorcycle land-speed record on the salt flats of central Australia this year.
Not content with that, he is planning to build another electric bike next year that he hopes will reach 300km/h. His motivation for doing all this, he says, came from watching Chris Paine's 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car?
"I went, geez, am I going to be someone getting angry about it and saying 'someone do something', or actually do something about it myself?" de Clouet says. "It just doesn't make sense that there's a better way of [powering a car] and it's not being done.
"The only way there's going to be a groundswell ... is if people don't have a vested interest in the way car businesses are run these days. People like me."
De Clouet has a ready answer for those who say that electric cars contribute to global warming.
"You can go the easy discussion route and say just buy green power or buy solar panels," he says. "But my car doesn't need petrol stations that burn electricity, a petrol truck that's burning fuel to get petrol to it, doesn't need an oil refinery to create the petrol ..."
He says electric cars are becoming a lot simpler, more accessible and popular but others' ideas are more unusual. A team from the University of Warwick in Britain built a racing car powered by chocolate and made from plants and vegetables. The steering wheel, for example, comes from carrots and other vegies, the racing seat from flax fibre and soybean oil and the bodywork from potatoes.
And despite it sounding like something whipped up in the MasterChef kitchen, the car can do more than 200km/h around corners.
The aim, its makers say, is to show the racing industry what is possible by using products that are environmentally sustainable.
Angelo Di Pietro believes air-powered engines are the way of the future. The Melburnian has been toiling away in his warehouse for the past 15 years designing a rotary engine that runs on compressed air.
In that time the mechanical engineer - who spent several years at Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart working on the Wankel rotary engine before migrating to Australia in the early 1970s - has picked up an award on the ABC TV show The New Inventors and a host of admirers, including universities and big companies.
But he is yet to see any money from his invention although his company, Engineair, is currently in talks with a German company.
"I do the testing, the machining, the talking on the phone, I try to raise the money, I'm cleaning up, everything," he says.
"I need 100 people at least ... this is a sacrifice that no person in the world would do ... I do the best that I can with what I have.
"A company such as ours - you have to be dedicated to achieve what we have because it's not the money that has made it, it's the passion."
Di Pietro says his engine is much smaller, lighter (it weighs 13 kilograms) and more efficient (he claims it is 94.5 per cent efficient) than other engines on the market.
It can also be used in many types of vehicles, from planes to golf carts. His car, for example, can travel between 60 kilometres and 100 kilometres on a standard tank and takes several minutes to refill.
Independent estimates put the cost of the car at less than $8000, he says, and unlike the petrol engine, his produces no pollution.
It even compares favourably with the electric car, which he says uses toxic batteries that are heavy and need replacing every few years.
"The vehicle will be affordable, sustainable and environmentally friendly - 100 per cent environmentally friendly," Di Pietro says. The only part that is not so green is the production of the compressed air, which currently would be done using coal-fired electricity but could be switched easily to solar or wind power, Di Pietro says.
Unlike Di Pietro, Marcus Deuchar and his partner make a modest living from their business, VegieCars, which sells products to people who want to convert their diesel cars to run on vegetable oil.
He began making a version of biodiesel from vegetable oil about 10 years ago with some friends, then discovered it would be easier to convert his four-wheel-drive so it could run on used vegetable oil from his local fish and chip shop.
"The word got around that we were doing this and people were asking questions about it and I would hand out my business card and they would always call at dinner time," he says.
So his partner suggested he write a book about what he had learnt so they could have their mealtimes back. The business, run from their home in the Dandenong Ranges just outside Melbourne, grew from there.
To get cars running on oil, Deuchar replaces the filtration system so it can handle the thicker flow of vegetable oil and puts fuel heaters at various spots in the fuel line. All up, the conversion costs between $500 and $1200 "depending on how far you go".
He now gets free oil from a supplier for his 4WD but until recently used to buy used, filtered oil for about 30¢ a litre. "It's not very expensive to convert your vehicle and you make the savings really quickly," he says.
"With a nice, thin oil like sunflower or canola oil the car won't notice any difference ... it shouldn't lose any power or economy."
Deuchar recommends people use waste oil because even though it doesn't work as well as the new stuff, it is cheaper, more sustainable (because it is grown for cooking) and is using carbon that is already in the atmosphere.
"If you look at the black balloon, I'm sucking air out of the balloon, using it and blowing it back in again," he says.
"Whereas if I go to the petrol station, I'm trying to expand that balloon further."
However, he says a car run on vegetable oil still emits carbon dioxide and several nasties that other fuels do; and that "the ideal solution would be electric cars that run on renewable energy". Until that happens, though, he sees vegetable oil as the ideal transition.
Dr Karl backs hydrogen
Karl Kruszelnicki is not optimistic that petrol engines will be phased out any time soon — there is too much money and infrastructure tied up in keeping things the way they are.
But the popular scientist and broadcaster says that when governments finally pluck up the courage to move to a zero-carbon fuel it should be one that is relatively easy to switch to and one that can be used in all forms of transport. And that is hydrogen.
As he sees it, hydrogen would be made from renewable sources, such as solar or wind, and used in either a modified internal combustion engine or in a fuel cell that produces electricity. This could be used in a car just as easily as in a commercial plane.
"The thing I like about the hydrogen engine is, it's not that different from what we've got and it is easily developable ... it works right across society," he says. "But it's not backyard stuff. It is big technology at the big end of town, massive development, and it requires major changes to the way we're doing things."