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Creativity key to a cleaner energy future

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Transport must be at the heart of world's transition to lower carbon energy

Will the cars of the future have four wheels? Or three? Or none at all? And what will we use to fuel them?

An event taking place this weekend will provide a preview of what that future might have in store - the Shell Eco-marathon.

At Singapore's Changi Exhibition Centre, students from around the world will compete to drive the furthest on the least amount of energy.

Some will drive ultra-efficient petrol and diesel cars. Others will drive cars powered by hydrogen, liquefied natural gas, ethanol and lithium batteries. It's a lot of fun, but it's more than just fun.

The world is undergoing a transition to lower-carbon forms of energy. If it is to succeed - and it will take decades - transport must be at the heart of that transition.

Climate change poses a challenge and opportunity. The development of lower-carbon fuels for our cars, trucks, ships and planes is critical to global efforts to tackle it. Transport accounts for 28 per cent of world energy consumption.

Today, there are roughly a billion passenger vehicles on the world's roads. By 2040, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects this number to reach two billion. It is crucial to cut emissions by boosting their efficiency.

Yet there is no simple answer when over 90 per cent of transport runs on liquid fuels as it does today.

The world will need mass-produced, affordable battery-electric cars, as well as hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles with their greater range and quicker refuelling.

The infrastructure to support these vehicles must be put in place. And most importantly, consumers must be willing to make the change.

BMW, Tesla and others are making great advances on battery-electric cars and Shell, among others, is exploring ways to make the charging process better.

Electric vehicles have made much progress but there is a long way to go. According to the IEA, there are now over 1.26 million electric cars, a global market share of around 0.1 per cent.

Tesla says it plans to sell 500,000 electric cars a year. Using current technology, they would require roughly two-thirds of the world's annual lithium production for their batteries. Supplies for other minerals such as cobalt could also come under pressure.

And with over a billion cars on the roads, 500,000 is, in any case, less than one two-thousandth of the world's fleet.

Finally, an electric car is only as clean as the source of its electricity. That means lower-carbon natural gas power generation or renewable energy, or a combination of both.

The world's move towards lower-emission transport will be helped by cleaner and more economical fuels, more efficient lubricants and better engines too.

Low-carbon biofuels will be important, too. The next generation of this technology will be able to convert waste directly to fuel.

Such innovations, among many others, will help the world make the transition to a low-carbon and more energy-efficient future.

Ultimately, if the huge transport sector is going to be transformed successfully over time, we will need all the creativity we can muster.

We hope the fun to be had this weekend at the Shell Eco-marathon can help nurture that creativity.

This year, 124 student teams from 20 Asia-Pacific countries, including nine from Singapore, will be taking part. Perhaps, there are people among them who will go on to help revolutionise transport for a low-carbon future.

Five years ago, a man called Konstantinos Laskaris competed in the event. Today, he is chief motor engineer at Tesla.

Now, as then, Shell wishes him the best of luck.

The writer is downstream director for Royal Dutch Shell. The Shell Eco-marathon is a global competition that challenges students to push the boundaries of energy efficiency on the road. Three Shell Eco-marathon competitions are held throughout the year in Asia, America and Europe. This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday.