“N-devouring” on a quest for nitrogen-powered automobiles.

Photo by Nebarnix | flickr.com

In the ever-evolving realm of developing ideal modes of environmental transportation, engineers are striving to sever our reliance on fossil fuels, and are now going a step further by surpassing the drawbacks of electric autos as well.

The automobile industry is just beginning to witness the dawn of hydrogen-fueled vehicles.  Honda and Mercedes-Benz already have models leased for trial periods in Los Angeles, in order for users to get a feel for controlling the renewable technology behind the wheel. 

Although electric cars with hydrogen fuel cells pose the advantage of emitting harmless gases, and resolve the range issues commonly present in battery-powered electric cars that require frequent plug-in, the practicality of the technology falls short in a number of categories.  Aside from the current lack of hydrogen refueling stations, the general logistics of producing, distributing and storing hydrogen becomes extremely costly.  Fuel cells demand very pure forms of hydrogen, ruling out cheaper methods of producing it and again making it a less viable long-term energy source.

Nevertheless, my intention is not to ‘exhaust’ the power of hydrogen as a potential alternative fuel in vehicles, since it only expels water vapour from the tailpipe, ranking it environmentally above almost all former engine technologies.  Turning over to the other side of the periodic table of elements however, lies a far more abundant substance that may provide the alternative energy answers that automotive engineers are seeking: nitrogen.

Nitrogen comprises 78% of our atmosphere’s constituents, and in the form of liquid nitrogen, is far denser than liquid air, allowing it to pack in much more energy in a given volume.  This automatically improves the distance it can provide a vehicle within a tank load, compared to liquid air.  Liquid nitrogen as an energy source would be fairly similar to the performance of electric cars, although boasts a substantially lower cost.Unlike many alternative fuels, liquid nitrogen prides itself on not having to withstand scorching temperatures, and thus the engine could be manufactured with cheaper alloys or plastics. This property, along with the fact that it is produced in copious amounts as a byproduct in making liquid oxygen approximates its selling value to roughly $0.10 per litre!

British engineer, Peter Dearman, has additionally conquered the issue of the inefficient and expensive heat exchanger normally needed to convert liquid nitrogen to a gas, which provides the rapid expansion that drives pistons in the engine.  By modifying the engine design chemically, Dearman fabricated a usable model of a liquid-nitrogen powered engine that may catch the eye of car manufacturers in the near future.

Although nitrogen-powered vehicles are new to the race, requiring much more attention and development to have an effect in the market, these types of concepts will put the pedal to the metal in distancing the gap from our reliance on fossil-fuel-driven vehicles.