Alternative Fuels: “Options for a New Century”

         One of the biggest ironies in the automotive industry today is that at the dawn of the 20th Century century more than one hundred years ago the internal combustion engine was competing with other types of powerplants to propel the horseless carriages.  Electric power was the leading competitor.

         Fast forward to the end of the last century: California legislates mandatory sales of at least 2 percent electric cars by 1998 — and then has to delay this mandate because there is no such thing as a “scheduled breakthrough.”   Is this a very slow race, or is the internal combustion engine simply an enduring competitor? The answer is both.

         I once had a guest on my radio show who offered a very poignant explanation about the race between gasoline and electric power.  Stuart Brown, who was technology editor for Popular Science magazine at the time, explained that the challenge for electric-powered cars continues to be in battery technology. Brown quoted an energy industry source saying, “A rubber band can store sufficient mechanical energy to lift its own weight one-half mile.

         A lead-acid battery stores enough energy to lift itself ten miles. A quantity of gasoline, however, can lift its weight 1,000 miles … even a threefold increase in the energy density of lead-acid batteries – which nobody is promising – would still make them only 1/33rd as good an energy-storage medium, pound for pound, as gasoline.” With that reality, Brown went on to explain that efforts to mandate electric vehicle usage may be well intended, albeit limited, in solving the “zero emissions” dilemma. Or, as Brown has quoted the NASA space program maxim, “There’s no such thing as a scheduled breakthrough.”

         While electric power is one energy source that we must continue to explore, there are other energy sources that compete in today’s technology race. To help you get a view of the other leading automobile energy alternatives, the following are highlights on some of the leading entries.

Alternative Fuel Snapshots

ELECTRIC: Zero emissions, at least from the vehicle. PRO: No “greenhouse” emissions, quiet operation, fewer moving parts than conventional automobile powerplants. CON: Fossil fuel-powered electric powerplants are likely central power sources and unless replaced by natural gas, solar or geothermal power, will still generate emissions.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, it now takes lead acid batteries weighing more than a ton to store as much energy as 12 gallons of gasoline. A continuing challenge for electric vehicles is also the short range of travel before batteries need recharging. Yet, aggressive research by leading international car companies goes on around the clock for advancements in storing electricity. When a breakthrough happens, freeways traffic will be certainly be quieter — but how soon?

COMPRESSED NATURAL GAS: Clean, but complex to deliver. PRO: Compressed natural gas (CNG) is one of the cleanest of the fossil fuels, with an 80 percent reduction in ozone-causing pollutants. CNG also offers good availability and easy adaptability for today’s automobile internal combustion powerplants. CON: CNG has a lower energy content than gasoline, so vehicles using it can generally only travel about 150 miles per tank. Storage also requires fuel tanks that are bulky and major fuel delivery infrastructure changes are needed for adapting to passenger car use. While today’s conventional automobile engines can be modified or “retrofitted” to use CNG, the aluminum CNG fuel tanks and related hardware can add as much as 450 lbs. or more and still only deliver about 25 percent the driving range of gasoline. Good news for CNG is that government incentives and large fleet vehicle operators are pushing the research forward: there are already more than 30,000 CNG vehicles in government and commercial use today.

HYDROGEN: It sent us to the Moon, can it take us to the store? PRO: Liquid hydrogen is the fuel that propels rockets — and the seas are the source of it, so it’s definitely been proven and available. Cars powered by it emit little more than water vapor. CON: As an explosive substance, hydrogen offers challenges in the areas of production, storage and distribution. Among the alternative fuels, technology obstacles point to a likely delay for as much as a decade. Clean as it is, a key element in hydrogen usage is that keeping it in a liquid form requires storing it at minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures above 423 degrees, it turns to gas and boils. Still, German car companies Daimler Benz and BMW are among those at the forefront of the research with a prototype hydrogen engine and techniques for keeping stored fuel cold. But cost and practicality are still obstacles to be tackled.

ETHANOL: Corn oil that’s food for cars. PRO: As one of the “alcohol” fuels with which there is a long history of testing — dating back nearly a century — ethanol is also known as “grain” alcohol. Since it is made from grains, it is also one of the more renewable sources of energy. CON: Ethanol sales in the United States are encouraged by a federal tax exemption, since production costs are nearly double those of gasoline. Until there is a technological breakthrough, ethanol use by the masses will be prevented by this one main factor: price. The National Research Council estimates that the cost of crude oil will have to exceed $60 per barrel before ethanol can compete with gasoline (approximately three times the current level). And while ethanol-gasoline blends can be produced that help reduce tailpipe carbon monoxide pollution, the benefit may be offset by ozone damage from the fuel’s tendency to evaporate faster in its raw form (while fueling vehicles or transport).

METHANOL: Corrosive, yet compatible with today’s engines. PRO: Methanol is less expensive than ethanol, but costs more than gasoline. It can be produced from wood and other renewable resources. This is also the fuel that powers the cars at the Indianapolis 500, so it certainly offers good performance potential. CON: Fuel economy averages about 50 percent that of gasoline. Methanol requires larger storage tanks (due to less efficiency), creates cold-start problems in conventional engines and emits formaldehyde. A strong reason that methanol continues to get focus from the vehicle industry is because of its compatibility with conventional gasoline engines. This, in combination with its potential for distribution in current fuel transport systems makes it a good alternative fuel candidate. Yet its highly corrosive nature and low energy efficiency still make it a compromise.

MOST LIKELY CHOICE: In reviewing these and other so-called alternative fuels and energy sources, it is apparent that at this stage of the world’s technology each choice requires certain compromises. This appears to point toward what we’re most likely going to be driving within the next ten years: beyond hybrids and full-electric propulsion, the flexible fuel vehicle (FFV) concepts are likely to continue as a part of the interim solutions.

         During the past several decades, most car companies have developed variations of vehicles that are capable of running on blends of gasoline and methanol, as well as other fuel sources containing hydrocarbons. Until some of the technological hurdles with these other alternative fuels are solved, the flex-fuel type options will move us one step away from straight “fossil fuel.”

         So, what about those contenders that can include natural gas, CNG, electric power — and the expanding efforts to bring together a “hydrogen-fuel infrastructure” as the main source of vehicle propulsion?

         The old adage on the process of research continues to apply: “The shortest distance between two points is still under construction.”

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