The future of biking: Pros and cons of petrol alternatives explored

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Environmental concerns are a hot topic in most parts of the world these days and here in the UK, the Government has been pushing to find an alternative to burning fossil fuels in engines.

As part of ‘Net Zero’ targets, a plan for the whole country to be carbon neutral by 2050, a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles (including motorbikes) was proposed and then adopted.

The ban is supposed to come into effect in 2035 with small bikes (50cc and 125cc models) going as early as 2030.

Filling up a petrol motorbike with fuel

So, what does that leave bikers to look forward to? Well, there are several options on the table at the moment but the biggest are efuel (or synthetic petrol), battery electric vehicles (BEV) or hydrogen used either as a combustion fuel or to produce electricity.

Some manufacturers, like Kawasaki, are also looking at hybrid technology, but this is more likely to give bikers a loophole for ultra low emissions or clean air zones than solve the problem entirely.

Is efuel the answer?

Biofuels are currently up to three times more costly to manufacture than fossil fuels

A recent change in the political climate might make synthetic petrol more viable and there is even draft legislation that could make it possible for traditional bike engines that run on the stuff to be made past the ban deadline.

Synthetic fuel is made using various methods but generally takes massive amounts of solar energy to fuse hydrogen with carbon. As these elements are both taken from the atmosphere, burning the resultant fuel is carbon neutral.

There are drawbacks though, with current tech it’s not possible to produce at scale and this means it’s incredibly expensive. Burning efuel also pollutes the air with dangerous toxins like traditional fuel, so it doesn’t help with improving air quality.

The two types of hydrogen propulsion

Bosch hydrogen filler at refuelling station

Hydrogen can be used to power vehicles in two different ways, both of which are clean sources of energy. First, internal combustion engines can be adapted to burn hydrogen gas instead of petrol. Second, and more commonly so far, hydrogen can be used in a fuel cell generate electricity and power an electric motor.

The problem with using hydrogen for motorbikes with the current technology is energy density and storage – but improvements are being made all the time.

Hydrogen is a popular choice because the only by product you get when you burn it is water and hydrogen fuel cells don’t use the incredibly harmful, toxic and questionably sourced materials needed in battery production.

Electric bikes

Zero DSR/X ridden through the trees

Many manufacturers took the plunge on electric motorbikes, probably due to their relatively successful adoption in the car world, with varying levels of success.

New brands like Zero, Energica, Maeving, Cake and Super Soco have entered the electric bike market and even traditional brands like Harley-Davidson, Triumph, BMW and Kawasaki have given it a go.

There are lots of negative aspects to electric motorbikes, though, such as the constant compromise between range and weight, long charge times, infrequent charger stations, cost and a feeling among many bikers that the bikes lack soul.

The batteries used to power the motors are also made using harmful materials that can be mined using unethical labour, too, and over a vehicle’s whole life cycle some electric bikes are less eco-friendly than their petrol equivalents.

What else is out there?

E10 fuel pump

Plenty of countries around the world around the world blend their traditional fuel with bioethanol, including the UK. This ekes out the supply and means that some of the carbon released during combustion was sucked out of the atmosphere more recently when the plants used to produce the ethanol were grown.

The UK Government switched to E10 (up to 10% ethanol) for standard forecourt unleaded in 2021 and although some older bikes can be damaged by it, initial worries seem to have been overblown.

In other countries, much higher percentages of ethanol are used and this may be an interim measure used closer to home, too.