Hybrid Cars and the Environment

Hybrid cars are increasingly being touted as the cars of the future, and are supposed to be environment-friendly vehicles. This Buzzle article examines the relationship between hybrid cars and our environment.
A lot of people around the world are increasingly taking interest in the concept of hybrid cars. These cars are being promoted as a feasible solution to the world's fuel problems. At the same time, they are said to be less-damaging to the environment, as compared to cars which run entirely on gasoline. But before we move on to the relationship that hybrid cars share with the environment, let's first familiarize ourselves with the concept of a hybrid car.

What is a Hybrid Car?
A hybrid car is quite similar to a gasoline-powered car except that in it, there are two or more alternate sources of power in addition to the common power source - gasoline or diesel- which regular cars have. Typically, one source of power is gasoline, whereas the other power sources could be any of the following:
  • Solar energy
  • Pressurized or compressed air
  • Electric batteries
  • Fuel cells
  • Liquid petroleum gas (LPG)
  • Liquified nitrogen
  • Hydrogen
  • Alternative fuels and biofuels
  • Wind energy
  • Manpower
From the above list, it is quite clear that there can be quite a few options when it comes to multiple power sources for a hybrid vehicle. Over the past few years, automobile companies around the world have been testing and trying out various combinations in an effort to come up with the best possible power source from the overall perspective of cost, effective and efficiency. Let us now take a look at the interrelation between hybrid vehicles and the environment.

Positive Impacts
How do hybrid cars help the environment? The answer to this question can be understood only by comparing the effects of both, hybrid cars and gasoline-powered cars on the environment.
  • Cars that run on gasoline or diesel emit chemical fumes, pollutants and other byproducts of combustion, which significantly damage the environment. In comparison, hybrid cars are much gentler on the environment. Since the engines are typically smaller and are assisted by the electric motors, these cars burn less fuel leading to fewer and cleaner emissions. This is a major reason why these cars are popularly known as 'green' cars. Reduced emissions ensure lower pollution levels, something which is highly essential in today's times.
  • Another way in which they benefit the environment is that they help in lowering noise pollution levels. Since electric motors are virtually silent in their operation, hybrid car engines go about churning the required amount of horsepower without any excessive roaring. For example, when switched onto electric power mode, these cars are almost completely silent in their operation. Having thousands of such silent cars on the city roads can definitely go a long way in reducing the noise pollution.
  • Global warming is one of today's most critical environmental issues, and one that desperately needs to be addressed and resolved. In the recent past, the world has slowly but surely started witnessing its adverse effects. Switching over to hybrid cars on a global scale will be a big step and one which will significantly benefit the environment. Reduction in smoke and chemical emissions on a large-scale will go a long way in tackling the issue of global warming.
  • Improved fuel efficiency is one of the other significant advantages of owning a hybrid vehicle. When it comes to mileage, hybrid cars outperform regular gasoline-powered cars by approximately 20 to 30 percent. That is quite a significant number today when the gasoline reserves are fast depleting. Automatically shutting off the engine when not required, re-using the energy expended in braking, advanced aerodynamics, better-designed tires, etc., are some of the other advantages that hybrid cars have to offer.
The Negative Side
Though not many, listed below are a few shortcomings or drawbacks of hybrid vehicles.
  • The most common alternate power source used in hybrid cars are electric batteries which makes it necessary to charge your hybrid car's batteries on a regular basis. Electricity generation may require coal to be burned which causes a lot of air pollution. So when you hook up your car to the local electric grid, the additional power required for charging its batteries results in more coal to be burned, thus resulting in air pollution.
  • A 2004 report by the Connecticut General Assembly noted that emissions of a compact hybrid compared to its traditional counterpart were only 10% lesser. In larger cars such as hybrid SUVs emissions are reduced up to 15%. Thus even though hybrids have lower emissions they aren't completely clean and emission free.
  • Hybrid cars use nickel-hydride and lithium-ion batteries. Though these are definitely better as compared to the traditional lead-acid batteries, they still have harmful elements in them. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that nickel used in these batteries is a probable human carcinogen making them an environmental hazard. This has raised concerns regarding proper disposal of these batteries as well as the mining procedures used for obtaining nickel.
  • For making the large batteries needed in these cars, a lot of heavy metals such as copper(for wiring) are required. Mining for these metals can lead to a lot of environmental degradation. Most commonly, copper mining contributes to an immense amount of particulate air pollution due to emission of various metals and sulfuric acid. Also, the open pit mining process that is usually involved, strips the grass cover and trees off the land surface at the mining site, which further affects the environment in an adverse manner.
  • Certain aspects of hybrid car batteries are also, in a way, harmful to the environment. Hybrid car batteries are typically nickel metal hydride batteries, which are not exactly environment-friendly. Also, they are bigger in size than regular lead-based batteries and the increased size makes them all the more cumbersome to handle.
Hybrid cars were introduced in an effort to address the environmental concerns of today. This technology, like any other, has its set of advantages and disadvantages. At the end of the day however, it is the need of the hour and surely, with a few tweaks here and there, this is the technology of the future.
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